How to Stop Being Busy

It may not feel like it, but busyness is a choice. Here’s what to do about it.

You ask a friend how she’s doing. Her response: “Busy.”

What percentage of the time is this the answer you get to that question? For me, it’s at least 80%.

We have a culture of busy. Everywhere. And young people (and their employers) can do something about it.

That’s why I was pleased to see that Brigid Schulte had written a book, called Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.

Schulte explains:

“I was just feeling so busy and holding on by my fingernails through every day, trying to work crazy hours, not only being good at what I did, but great and amazing at what I did, and then [at home] I was trying to be supermom.”

I think today’s 20-somethings have a chance to do something about this dynamic—but they’ll have to rebel against their upbringing a bit.

Why we’re busy

We were raised to think that life is something to be scheduled. Sit soullessly in an ugly classroom till three or four (or five!), then soccer practice, then violin practice, then homework; punctuated by disgusting, on-the-go meals and short nights of sleep. Our parents, of course, modeled this for us as well—they went everywhere we did (that was their job, right? Taxi driver?), and/or worked full time till seven or eight, and if they wanted to get together with somebody, it had to be scheduled four weeks in advance in that one slot on Sunday afternoon when nobody had plans.

To be fair: Kay Hymowitz argued last week that Mom was just trying to prepare us adequately for the competitive realities of our material success-focused society. But Hymowitz fails to recognize the tension–especially in the day-to-day–between working toward financial success someday, and enjoying life the way we are supposed to right now. A widely shared New York Times article by Adam Grant a few weeks ago pointed out that raising a materially successful child and raising a caring, emotionally mature child actually require radically different parenting styles; the rat race and happiness often conflict with each other. And when life is all about preparing for the future, and we’re not being taught how to appreciate and use leisure time (which any three year-old can be taught simply by being allowed to play for an hour), sooner or later we get to the point where we’re supposed to have “made it” and find that we don’t know how to do anything except try to “make it” some more. As Joseph Cunningham noted here yesterday:

“The way we live now will influence the lives we encounter tomorrow, and tonight, and during lunch. If we allow exhaustion to dictate our habits and inform our leisure, we will always be tired, the cycle will only rinse the same load over and over again, and our minds will always remember those evenings of Kafka and wine like the freedoms we once cherished when we shouldered no burdens. We will stagnate, and so will those who come after us.”

We all swear we’re going to do differently than our own parents. The generational pendulum swings from absentee parents to helicopter parents and back again. Even the rat race style of parenting we know isn’t new. In Augustine’s Confessions, he laments how his own father invested enormous amounts of money to give his son the “best” education (i.e. information and skills), while not caring how young Augustine’s heart was being shaped–“I was left a desert, uncultivated for you, O God,” the bishop noted. (Confessions 2:3). Sound familiar?

But for all our resolutions, most of my young acquaintances are hurtling toward the familiar hectic lifestyle as adults—the busyness, and the stress that comes with it. They don’t know how to stop it. They don’t know how to be spontaneously available for the unscheduled, real-life interactions people used to call “life.” And they certainly don’t have a vision of what they’re trying to “make it” for; what life would actually look like in the minute-to-minute if all that soccer practice and homework paid off.

What to do about it

Schulte has some suggestions for things workplaces could be doing to help the situation. Turns out people actually work better when they have time to breathe; leisure=better results (Plato could have told you that!).

But Millennials will need to make some choices too. Cunningham’s 15 minutes are a good start. Here are some additional questions to ask yourself:

What matters more to you—work or other things? If the answer is work, The Other Things will always suffer. Sooner or later “the other things” will include you.

What are the other things? What really makes your life worth living? Whatever the options, two of them ought to be “relationships” (or “community,” if you like) and “leisure.” By leisure, I don’t mean video game time; I mean activities (or lack thereof) where you have time to wonder and imagine—as Schulte notes, this is a huge part of what ends up making your non-leisure activities worthwhile. Examples: yesterday evening, I dedicated a little bit of time and read a Dorothy Sayers novel with a glass of wine. This morning during a slightly extended lunch break, I took a walk. On Sunday, my wife and I had a couple people over and we all talked for several hours. (If you think the presence of kids makes these activities impossible, you need to read Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen.)

Invest organically in those things. Our instinct is to schedule our free time—softball league, workout, after-work schooling, get-togethers. But scheduled things are rarely leisure things, and they rarely represent investment in real relationships (admit it: the people you’re closest to are hardly ever the people you have to schedule things with). That’s not to say you should never schedule anything, but people who have made life choices to prioritize The Other Things seem to get them more easily than those who don’t, especially if they convince friends to do it with them.

I’m quite aware that this is a lot harder than it sounds. Liz Horst was right that modern life is structured to make it almost impossible, as if The System wants to make sure we don’t live in a way that’s actually meaningful.

But I’ve done this, and I know others who have too. But we are building our lives around things we shouldn’t be. It’s time we did something about it.

2 Comments

  • Avatar
    June 25, 2014

    Jody

    Brian,

    Thank you for bringing all these pieces together and for giving practical ways to begin to change.

    I fight for a couple of evenings a week and my whole Saturday to have rest and solitude. It may mean cleaning the house, catching up on blogs, hiking, writing, or just sitting on the porch… But I don’t schedule those things into the day – I choose to rest, and they usually happen, because I want or need to do those things for my soul to thrive. When I have those free times, it is easier to be spontaneous and have tea with a friend, or run off for an afternoon hike when someone asks.

    Thanks again for coalescing these conversations – now I have a few more things to read in my quiet space today.

  • Brian Brown
    June 25, 2014

    Brian Brown

    You’re welcome!