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Busy bodies – Why is it so important to be busy?

Busy Bodies

Every time colleagues bump into each other in the street or in an elevator, the first question they ask is “So, how’s it going?” And the answer is always “Busy”.

Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” This has become the default response when we ask anyone how they’re doing. It comes across as a boast disguised as a complaint, and the stock response is a kind of congratulatory “That’s a good problem to have” or “Better than not being busy”.

Why is that? Why is it so important to be busy? Why is “busy” our default response? It’s not as if any of us exactly want to spend our entire lives frantically and manically rushing from here to there, from this to that. I mean, have you ever heard someone say “I’m not at all busy”.

It seems to me that being busy is something we collectively force one another to do. Our diaries and calendars are colour blocked from dawn to dusk, as we even schedule in time with family and friends. Free hours are a rarity as we cram more and more into our already crammed days, coming home at the end of each day feeling tired, exhausted, and dead on our feet.

The “busyness” hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen. Almost everyone I know is busy because they feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to earn their salary, promote their work, and justify their existence. We’re busy because of our own ambition or drive or anxiety. We’re addicted to busyness, and dread what we might have to face in its absence.

And so perhaps our frantically busy days are really just a hedge against emptiness. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance: “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.”

But at what cost? What about idleness, quiet time, space to think, time to connect with the things that really matter? Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as salt is to our muscles, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as constricting as cramp.

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.

The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.” This may sound like the pronouncement of a bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke [futurist and author of 2001 A Space Odyssey]. I remember when I was a teenager and technology was becoming a desktop, day-to-day reality. Remember the BIG promise = “Technology will enable us to do 40 hours work in 20 hours, thereby giving us more time for leisure and idleness.” Seems more like the opposite has happened, as technology has instead become the machine that both enables and drives our addiction to being busy.

I suppose it is possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more drink with Nick, one more long talk with Claire, one more laugh with Sophie, and one more afternoon on the beach with Roxy. Life is too short to be busy.

This post was originally inspired by Tim Kreider’s post on NYTimes.com

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