The Tyranny of Being Busy

One Sunday night, my husband and I were talking about how sad we were that our weekend was almost over. Both of us expressed dismay that the next day was Monday but then my husband asked, “Why do you hate Mondays? You love your job!” He’s right. I do love my job. I love almost every aspect of being a psychologist (well, except paperwork; no one likes paperwork). Given that I really enjoy my work, it did seem odd that, like so many other people, I dread Mondays. So, I had to think long and hard about that one and what I came up with is that I really dislike being busy. It isn’t that I don’t want to do the work; it’s more that I want to do it on my own time. I want my schedule to be a leisurely one.

I seem to be one of the few people who don’t find being busy appealing. I’ve heard many people state that the opposite of busy is lazy but that isn’t accurate. The true opposite of busy is relaxed yet many people don’t see it that way. Being busy has somehow become this badge of honor, a way to evaluate our worth. Unless they’re retired, we tend to view people who aren’t busy as doing something wrong. If you don’t believe me, try doing an experiment. Tell someone you know that they don’t seem very busy and then count the seconds before the outrage registers on their face.

Where did this emphasis on doing so much come from? I don’t recall being incredibly busy when I was a child and that sure wasn’t the case in college. I’ve asked a lot of people when being busy became a must but no one seems to have a good answer. Apparently, one day we went from enjoying our down time to having hectic schedules. And no one seems to be questioning the results of it.

I find this an odd state of affairs because, despite the fact that people insist upon being busy, they usually bemoan the actual feeling of busy-ness. I hear a lot about the pitfalls of never having enough time from parents shuttling their children to activities, people working umpteen hours, and even from kids who don’t seem to have a moment to relax and just be a kid. So everyone complains about it but no one seems to question that it’s what must be done. And very few people appear to understand the toll it’s taking on us personally and as a society.

The problems I see with being busy are numerous. Anxiety has replaced depression as the disorder I see the most, the number one problem for many struggling couples is that they don’t have enough time to spend together, and even parents interact with their kids less and less. Family dinners have fallen by the wayside (opening the door for many potential problems) and a lot of family time is being spent in the car on the way to events or practices. Friendships also tend to be increasingly impacted by people’s overcommitted schedules as people say they want to get together but then never manage to find the time.

People are exhausted and the impact of the personal problems is starting to ripple out into society. Many people don’t have the time to exercise or eat right, so we’re now a nation with an obesity problem. A lot of people ignore their physical well-being by not getting as much sleep as they should, not taking the time for regular check-ups and other preventative care, and generally neglecting their health. Thus, we are a nation of people who are dying at high rates from stress-related illnesses. Instead of taking the time to learn new behavioral skills to decrease stress, anxiety and depression, we simply take prescription drugs in ever increasing amounts. Consequently, we are a nation with an overmedicated populace. Rather than find energy the old-fashioned way – you know, from extra sleep, exercise, and just general rest – we overcaffeinate, mainline sugar, and down energy drinks and pills. So we’re not just tired, obese and drugged, we’re agitated as well.

I think the biggest problem with being too busy though is that we don’t have enough time to think and reflect. We haven’t had the time to notice that, in our rush to Get Things Done, we’re missing some of the important and fun aspects of our lives. For example, creativity takes down time. I sincerely doubt that great symphonies were composed quickly or advances in medicine occurred without the time needed to try new ideas. I know that for me, my best writing and counseling comes when I have time to think and to make connections. I don’t do my best work when I’m writing under a deadline or if a counseling session goes at too fast a pace.

Connection with others, with ourselves and even with nature (should you be lucky enough to be able to do that) takes time. Relationships take time not only to build but also to nurture. We all need to breathe, so if we’re rushing around out of breath, we miss out on the little joys and small comforts. And we sure aren’t taking heed of the fact that while our attention is focused on our present, we’re losing sight of the future. Participation in our political process is low because people don’t understand what is at stake and what it is that they can do. Thus, our emphasis on being busy is not only bad for us personally but it’s downright dangerous for us culturally.

I don’t know what the answer to being busy is but I think we need to at least take some time to seriously ponder some questions. What would life be like without the ability to communicate at light speed or travel to far away places in a day? How would life be different if we had to grow our own food and stuff was much more difficult to acquire? How would Mother Earth start to heal herself if humans could no longer damage her so severely? What would our relationships look like if fewer of us left to go to work but instead worked around our homes?

It’s an interesting concept, being forced to slow down and stop being so busy. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely like my creature comforts and I’d probably hate having a hard scrabble life. But the idea of living a slower life – of being able to walk to work, having meals once again be a big deal, and being able to spend an abundance of quality time with loved ones – sure is appealing. Maybe we can try to slow down without losing everything. That would be better.

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