By

Timothy Kreider

| 09/29/2015

The Busy Trap

The Busy Trap

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “Sobusy,” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “Well, that’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

This frantic, self-congratulatory busyness is a distinctively upscale syndrome. Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the ICU, taking care of their senescent parents, or holding down three minimum-wage jobs they have to commute to by bus who need to tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. 

It’s most often said by people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way 4.0 students make sure to sign up for some extracurricular activities because it looks good on their college applications. 

I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. I was hereby asking him to do something with me. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with enrichment classes, tutorials, and extracurricular activities. At the end of the day they come home as tired as grownups, which seems not just sad but hateful. I was a member of the latchkey generation, and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated movies to congregating with friends in the woods in order to chuck dirt clods directly into each other’s eyes, all of which afforded me knowledge, skills and insights that remain valuable to this day.

This is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. I recently Skyped with a friend who was driven out of New York City by the rents and now has a temporary artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college—she has a circle of friends there who all go out to the café or watch TV together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) 

What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality—driven, cranky, anxious and sad–turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment, of the crushing atmospheric pressure of ambition. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school; it’s something we collectively force each other to do. 

“The rushed existence into which industrialized, commercialized man has precipitated himself is actually a good example of an inexpedient development caused entirely by competition between members of the same species,” writes Konrad Lorenz in On Aggression. “…and all this is unnecessary, for they could easily agree to take things more easily; theoretically they could, but in practice it is just as impossible for them as it is for the Argus pheasant to grow shorter wing feathers.”

I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter. Based on the volume of my email correspondence and the amount of internet ephemera I am forwarded on a daily basis, I suspect that most people with office jobs are doing almost as little as I am. 

I once dated a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’etre was obviated when MENU buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. 

More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tnagible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor or a worm in a Tyrolean hat in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I’m convinced it’s necessary. Yes I know we’re all very busy but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings yelling on their cell phones stopping the spread of malaria or developing alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?

This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. David Foster Wallace once said in an interview that “it seems significant that we don’t ever want it to be quiet anymore.” He’s right, if you think about it; public spaces are never without some background noise—muzak, radio, TV–to keep us all bopping along absently buying crap. 

All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives. I know that after I’ve spent a whole day working or running errands or answering emails or watching movies, keeping my brain busy and distracted, as soon as I lie down to sleep all the niggling quotidian worries and Big Picture questions I’ve successfully kept at bay come crowding into my brain like monsters the instant you turn off the nightlight. One of my correspondents suggested that what we’re so afraid of is knowing ourselves.

I’ll go ahead and say it: I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel like four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. 

On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read, or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say: What time?

But just in the last few months I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy. For the first time in my life I’ve been able to tell people, with a straight face, that I was “too busy” to do this or that thing they wanted me to do. I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. 

It’s an unassailable excuse for declining boring invitations, shirking unwelcome projects, and generally avoiding all forms of human interaction. Except that I hated actually being busy. Every morning my inbox was full of emails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I’m writing this.

Here I am largely unmolested by obligations. There is no TV. To check email I have to drive ten minutes to the library. I go a week at a time without seeing anyone I know. I’ve remembered about buttercups, stinkbugs, and the stars. I read. And I’m finally getting some real writing done for the first time in months. 

It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what that might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again. I know not everyone has a cabin to flee to. But not having cable or the internet turns out to be cheaper than having them. And nature is still technically free, even if human beings have made access to it expensive. Time and quiet should not be luxury items.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensible to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration–it is, paradoxically, necessary to get any work done. 

“Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” writes Thomas Pynchon in his essay on Sloth. Archimedes’ “Erueka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the Benzine ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, layabouts and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions, and masterpieces than the hardworking.

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist but it was in fact Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba-diving and pinball games to write Childhood’s End and think up communications satellites. 

Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work, giving each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage, and 8-hour workdays. I know how heretical it sounds in America, but there’s really no reason we shouldn’t regard drudgery as an evil to rid the world of, like polio. It was the Puritans who perverted work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment. Now that the old taskmaster is out of the office, maybe we could all take a nice long smoke break.

I suppose the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved like me. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My own life has, admittedly, been absurdly cushy. But perhaps my privileged position outside the hive has given me a useful perspective on it. It’s not unlike being the designated driver at a bar; being sober allows you to see drunkenness in a way that those experiencing it cannot. 

And about the only advice I have to give about busyness is as obvious and unwelcome as the advice you might give to the drunk. I’m not suggesting everyone quit their jobs, just that they take the rest of today off. Go play some skee-ball. Take your daughter to a matinee. Watch it get dark outside. My role in life is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. 

Even though my own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since you can always make more money. And I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder, write more, and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more round with Nick, another long late-night talk with Lauren, one last good hard laugh with Harold. Life is too short to be busy.

About the author:

Tim Kreider, an essayist and cartoonist, is the author of “We Learn Nothing” and the forthcoming “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.” He lives in New York City and in an undisclosed location on the Chesapeake Bay.

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