Reflections on the "Busy" Trap

The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts.

BERTRAND RUSSELL, Conquest of Happiness

Tim Kreiders’ New York Times article, The Busy Trap,  generated a lot of buzz back in 2012.  It got a lot of attention and clearly struck a deep chord with readers.  Much has changed since the piece was published but mostly what has changed is that we seem to be even busier now.

To catch you up the essence of the article was no surprise to anyone – there is an epidemic of busyness out there! Most people, either by choice or not – have less time for the “pleasures ” of life – and certainly no down time. We’ve lost the art of dolce far niente.  Our social and family lives have suffered.  Our kids are over-scheduled and who knows what this will do to their expectations of life and work in the future?  You get it? Busyness is like a plague that’s sweeping the land and we’re lost in a time famine. Not a pretty picture.

What are we doing with our precious 168 hours per week? And more important, who or what is compelling us to spend our time as we do?

The I’m Busy Mindset

 Regardless of how and why you may suffer from the “busyness” trap – everything starts with your mindset. How you think about what you do – and how you think about time is going to define how you do it.  “Hey, tell that to my boss,” you say. “He/she sets my schedule, not me.” Well that may be true and your choices about working that schedule may be limited, but how you think about it is still your choice. Ultimately we do have choices, even if they are hard ones – and no one can take that away from us  (although it sometimes feels that way).

The language you use (which reflects your mindset) is going to drive how you feel.  In his article, Tim Kreider, gives an example, “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 are: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It’s become commonplace to schedule phone calls with friends. The era of the spontaneous, “Let’s Chat,” phone call is apparently over (most people don’t even want to talk on the phone these days). Emails can take days to answer, even among close friends.  Email subject lines are becoming marketing tools to get people to respond.  Courteous email responses from business contacts (especially those VERY BUSY PEOPLE who have demanding jobs) are becoming a rare treat (unless they want something).

We’re crazy busy and our actions are shaping how we work – and how we connect with other human beings.  So is it the size of my email inbox  that determines how I choose to communicate? These days, bragging about the size of one’s inbox is even worthy of a tweet. “Did it. Just cleaned out 1000 emails from my inbox”

Is There a Choice?

Many of the criticisms of Kreiders’ article focused on the question of choice?  Do people – all people – really have freedom of choice in terms of how they spend their time?

In his retort to Kreiders’ article, J. Bryan Lowder writes, “I resent the implicit assumption of Kreiders’ piece that anyone – from a soybean farmer to a New York blogger – could disappear for a retreat or a fizzy drink in the middle of the day if only we wanted to escape our silly – self imposed bonds badly enough.” Lowder goes on to imply that few of us can afford Kreiders’ luxury of “dedicating only a morning hours” to “the work.”  Without making assumptions about either of the authors’ incomes or intentions, it’s a fair question. How much of the preoccupation with how we use time is a so-called  “first world” luxury?  Considering that 64% of American women raise their families on minimum wage salaries we can’t imagine that the question of free time even enters the thinking of the majority of people who struggle to put food on their tables.

Then there’s the question of productivity.  Whose measure of productivity rates shall we use to determine how much is enough?

Economic realities do largely determine how much time people will work. So do cultural norms.  Often they are difficult to separate. Who is driving the cart?  Also writing about the Busy Trap, Blogger Phil Fox Rose, reminds us that, “The seeds were planted years ago with the Puritan ethic – epitomized by Isaac Watt’s 1700s hymn for children praising the worker bee, which includes the lines:
In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too,
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
 Rose writes, “It’s quite likely in some future century, folks will look back at this moment in Western civilization and wonder why we burnt ourselves out the way we do.”

 How Do Distractions Serve Us?

There is another angle in the busyness trap to cover – how busyness serves us.  I know, most of you are thinking, are you kidding – I’d love more free time. Let me restate the point…. being busy distracts us. Yes, it can distract us from many more pleasurable and meaningful things that we’d like to be doing with our precious time. But it can also serve the part of us that would like to not think about well, how shall I put it – the present moment.

 Kreider, like others writing about the nature of busyness, points out that people who are busy (especially those who are VERY BUSY) tend to boast about their lack of availability. Being seen as really busy is often worn as a badge of honor. You’re a player if you are busy – especially if you are really busy.  The culture is riddled with references to this legendary state of busyness. How do they do it?  But Kreider also points out that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life can’t be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

 Are we substituting busyness for the true feeling of being alive? And how can we know that if we are rarely in the present moment?  By it’s very nature busyness takes us from the present moment, usually to what is happening next.  We’re often so caught up in the next thing that even when we are doing something that we like, we lose the moment by parlaying it into a future experience.  Reflecting on her own “busytrap” author Holly Leber shares, “I enjoy baking and I’m pretty good at it. Therefore, maybe I ought to start a little side business. At the very least, I should start a blog, or, at minimum, take photos of my creations to put on Facebook and Twitter, just to make sure everyone I know can marvel in this glory that is my caramel apple biscotti, vegan chocolate muffins or mixed berry pie.”

The sheer pleasure of baking or making something, or listening to music or just sitting with oneself in the moment of this life is not enough. Being busy is very much the result of our chronic not “enoughness.” Although we act as if our busyness were an entirely rational matter, governed by external demands and relentless technology, it is often our own sense of restlessness for more and our unconscious drives towards distractions that truly trap us. Often our busyness is a way out of the discomfort of facing what is in the present moment. Distractions can keep us away from ourselves. Our brilliant but malleable minds chase the endless streams of thoughts in endless to-do lists.

Power of Now author, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The present moment, at best, is a means to an end, a stepping stone to the future, because the future promises fulfillment, the future promises salvation in one form or another. The only problem is the future never comes. Life is always now. Whatever happens, whatever you experience, feel, think, do – it’s always now. It’s all there is. And if you continuously missing the moment– resist it, dislike it, try to get away from it, reduce it to a means to an end, then you miss the essence of your life and you’re stuck in a dream world of images, concepts, labels, interpretations, judgments – the conditioned content of your mind that you take to be “yourself.” You are struggling to reach a point in the future where there is greater security, aliveness, abundance, love, joy…unaware that those things make up the essence of who you are already.  The now seems so small at first, a little segment between the past and future, and yet all of life’s power is concealed within it.”

I agree with Tim Kreider.  Life is too short to be busy.

Thanks for reading! 
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication

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  1. John Wenger says:

    Nice post Louise. One of the things I enjoy about your posts is that you write at length. While I occasionally browse some of those 300 word blog articles, I find them of little import and a little light on anything actually worth reading. To read one of yours (and mine) requires a bit of time. I enjoy your stuff because you give it some substance and, clearly, some decent thought. ….not ideal for “busy” people….
    Since the death of my father at Christmas 2009, I have utterly revamped my life and am careful not to get too “busy”. I noticed today, when I arrived at a meeting, that the greeting was not “How are you doing?” or some such; it was “You keeping busy?” Eurgh!!! I found myself telling someone today that a recent article on the final regrets of the dying outlined that they were all related to being true to oneself, expressing oneself and spending more time with loved ones and nothing to do with achieving tasks, answering emails or attending meetings. My father’s death has given me a concrete event on which to reflect when I feel I might be getting a little too busy or have too little time for the things that REALLY matter in my life. Making a decision NOT to do something has not, in my recent experience, caused the world to stop turning, nor caused people to like or respect me less. It has, however, given me space to breathe, think, reflect, observe and live.
    ….enjoy your holiday break and here’s hoping you don’t come back to 1000 emails.

    • Hi John,
      Yes, we’re in the 1500+ school of writing. Despite all the short blog post tips – I still have too much to say. Will consider brevity a discipline in progress –
      maybe I will shave 100 words off the next one.
      The NYT article (and the huge response) inspired me to say something about what appears to be a busy madness that we’re in the grip of (apparently world wide). Maybe it’s an act of subversion to relax and rest now. Maybe the new revolution is leisure. In our efforts to chart a new course for the way we work, I strongly believe
      shining a light on this relentless drive to work is a critical piece.
      My mother also passed away in May 2011. These are powerful experiences that should serve to remind us what is truly precious and important in life. I saw that article
      you referred to on the regrets of the dying. Profound lessons there (learned over and over).
      Thanks for the comment, always enjoy them.

  2. Sangeeta says:

    Living in the moment was something I learned the hard way Louise. By watching close ones die. So for a long while I thought I could save others the ‘learning curve’ by sharing insights from my own experience. Now I have come to realize that people really listen only when they are ready. And that in no way is discouraging reason for people like you and me – In fact, it is motivation for us to keep doing what we do. So the material may not shorten their journey, but it will be available as support and validation when they are ready to listen deeply.
    Thank you. Sharing …

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