It's become an almost automatic response for us when asked how we're doing to say we're "busy." According to author Tim Kreider in "The 'Busy' Trap", this response is obviously "a boast disguised as a complaint." When we tell people we're busy, we expect other people to marvel at how much we have going on, and probably to think it's a "good problem," much better than the opposite.
But Kreider continues with this: "notice it isn't generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are." This is something I personally know to be true (when my mom often had to juggle multiple jobs) - what these people are, is " tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet." The difference between being "busy" and tired is that when we lament our busyness, it's almost entirely self-imposed. We are "busy because of [our] own ambition or drive or anxiety, because [we're] addicted to busyness and dread what [we] might have to face in its absence."
Krieder then goes into an anecdotal account of a friend he asked to hang out with and spend time with during the week, and the friend responded that he didn't have a lot of time, but could ditch work for a couple hours to let him know if something was going on. "I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation." Krieder recalls the days of his own childhood, when he had three hours completely unstructured and unsupervised every day. This time "provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life."
Busyness is not a condition and not just a product of our times, it is "something we've chosen." For me, choosing to be a college athlete, President and contributor to a publication, and pre-medical student with a double major was also something I chose, not a necessary condition. I chose to be busy, but I certainly felt pressure to by my peers, by society, and it's a feeling that I know so many of my friends feel, too. According to Krieder, "it's not as if any of us wants to live like this...it's something we collectively force one another to do."
Again, I don't believe being busy is a bad thing, and even after reading this article, it's unlikely that I'll suddenly change all my life decisions and stop being busy. Sometimes, it is and can be a good thing. But this article was a punch in the gut, for calling and relating busyness as it actually is, sometimes: "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."
We want to believe everything we do, we do because we have no other choice, we do because what we do is inherently indispensable to society. But that last part isn't true - at least for me - there is no way me getting an A instead of an A- in a class serves any huge benefit to society, nor is there any reason someone else is going to lose sleep over my times in track races. This anxiety we have is "a form of institutional self-delusion." In Krieder's words, "I can't help but wonder whether this histrionic exhaustion isn't a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn't matter."
Krieder then talks about himself as someone who isn't busy, who is the "laziest ambitious person I know." His best days are those where he writes in the mornings, runs errands and goes on bike ride s in the afternoon, and sees friends in the evening. If a friend called him up and asked him to skip work and check out a new wing of a museum or have a beer in a park, "I will say, what time?"
In the months prior to the article, however, Krieder started actually being busy. "I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon." But we can't deny how much actually being busy, like the people pulling back-to-back shifts in the ICU or the ones commuting from three jobs on buses, takes away from us. Krieder had many requests asking him 'to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve." Being busy is so undesirable and unhealthy in excess - to counterbalance it, we need idleness sometimes.
"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets." We need our time of idleness and quiet to take a step back and reflect on life. We need our time of idleness to make and strengthen our connections, whether intended or unintended. Sitting around and being idle is "necessary to getting any work done." Any writer can tell you that most of writing is just putting thoughts you've had for a long time on paper - and when do you have the most time and room to think? Idleness.
"The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment." Krieder concedes that the world would likely go to ruin if everyone took his perspective on idleness and busyness - the ideal life "lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world's frenetic hustle." He stops to express gratitude at his own luck - as we all should when we can be idle - that "my own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue."
But the second half of the closing paragraph, is his zinger, what I believe to be the crown jewel of the article. A long time ago, Krieder made a "conscious decision...to choose time over money, since I've always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love." When he goes to the grave, he thinks what will go through his mind, instead of regretting everything he didn't do, is "[wishing] that I could have had one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy."
Life is too short to be busy. If I were to die tomorrow, I would wish the same thing: that I spent more time with the people I love, instead of being so "busy" all the time. Wouldn't you?