Overworked & Overscheduled? What Are You Trying To Prove By Being “Busy” 24/7?

July 10, 2012  |  

I’m a woman who used to wear her busyness like a badge. It was as if I earned a couple of “she’s-a-productive-member-of-society” points every time I tapped into my smartphone as I walked down the street (See, I even work when I walk!), informed friends that I’d pencil them in for happy hour dates (Because I’m so busy, I need a calendar to have cocktails and calamari), or showed a co-worker my written to-do list at the first sign that they wanted my help with a new project (See all of this? It needs to be finished today. I’ll remind you of such when I’m eating a cheese sandwich at my desk this afternoon and then tomorrow when I inform you that I didn’t see sunlight since, you know, I came in early and left after the cleaning crew did.)

It’s in the latter situation that I hated being asked this question: “Are you busy?” For co-workers, it’s an icebreaker. A means to ask for help with a project, and I’m often glad to offer my assistance. So glad in fact, that I’ll overschedule and overwork myself to do it. But for you to ask me if I’m busy? How dare you? Who am I if I’m not busy? Of course I’m needed every second of the day and to remind you of such, I’ll tweet at 4:00 a.m. how hard I’m grinding while the rest of you sleep.

I’m busy and that means something, right?

Not so, says writer Tim Kreider, whose recent piece for the New York Times’ Opinionator blog questioned the concept of “the busy trap.” “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,”  Kreider writes, smacking at what I think this busy trap and the “they sleep, we grind” method of ladder climbing is really about: Our busyness is a manifestation of our fears that we human beings are not enough if we are not bustling, productive doers. Being busy, it seems, is not a function of productivity and dream chasing, but of stroking our egos.

This “busy” dialogue comes on the heels of Anne Marie Slaughter’s essay  for The Atlantic on whether working women can have it all, reigniting an age-old conversation about work/life balance for professionals with families and the guilt that comes with choosing one side over the other. That article and the firestorm it created tapped into a bigger discussion for working people at large: the nature of the American work culture. Because men can’t have it all, either, nor can young, single professionals or individuals whose jobs and meager paychecks make the concept of having it all a class consideration. Having what all? As Hanna Rosin notes in her essay for Slate, “None of us can have it all.”

I’ll save my feminist musings, and I (single and childless) won’t begin to suggest how parents who double as professionals can make it all work. But as a young nine-to-fiver who has a side hustle and dreams and 10,000 hours to log and 20 pounds to lose, working hard is a necessity.

But so is time to breathe. Kreider writes:

The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from  life and seeing it as whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration. It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

We often ascribe the concept of “discipline” solely to the idea of work. But we need to be disciplined about living full, mentally and physically healthy lives— working when it’s time to work (I’m now a purveyor of the “work smarter, not harder” concept of dream chasing and corporate life), resting when it is time to rest, and playing when it is time to play.

When my social life began to unravel, when I had aches in my muscles and was sicker than ever, I knew that my sun-up to sun-down days of getting cheese sandwich crumbs caught in my keyboard had to stop. Sometimes, it’s as simple as stepping away from the computer and walking outside for 15 minutes. Sometimes, it’s hopping on an airplane and disconnecting from social media for a weekend, unplugging as a means to recharge and live in the moment. Sometimes, it’s lying in bed and watching the blades on my ceiling fan rotate.

The discipline of living a full life is also about absolving the guilt we feel for doing so. (This is where I insert the oft-told adage of no one on her deathbed has ever wished she’d worked harder.)

Who am I if I’m not doing? I’m loving, I’m breathing, I’m living, I’m watching the blades on my ceiling fan spin and not feeling bad about it. I’m realizing that I am more than what I do. Sometimes being is enough.

And, seriously, get off Twitter. It’s 4:00 a.m. Go to sleep.

Readers, do you find yourselves caught in a busy trap? In which ways do you lead full, well-rounded lives?

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