How did we get to a place where we publicly glorify being busy as a measure of our success? How come we don’t cringe at our binging on being busy in view of the evidence that it’s detrimental to our wellbeing and undermines our performance? Being busy is the contemporary form of the tyranny of productivity.
I let those questions run through my mind as the sound of cowbells echoed through the stillness of an Alpine morning. A post from a friend the previous evening had reminded me of the busyness that had ruined my last Alpine holiday seven years ago. In her post she proudly described her busy day. She delivered a presentation that morning which she’d prepared on the train after only three hours sleep, returned later on the train to attend an important meeting that afternoon, then made it to a networking event that evening and updated her social media posts before midnight. She finished her post: ”I was crazy busy today!”
This is not a ‘once off’ busy day, a busy week, or a busy month that is part of the rhythms of living and working. It’s about the socially acceptable status symbol attached to binging on being busy.
I, too, am guilty of binging on being busy and belonged to the ‘Super Busy 7/24 Brigade’. Here’s how I became a club member.
The Lure of Busyness
Once upon a time I had a job I genuinely loved, one that ticked all the boxes of my ideal career: lecturing and researching at university. However, a new era arrived that would radically change my dream job. The development of technology and social media (e-mails in particular) promised us all increased efficiencies, but what actually happened was they extended the working day. With the rise of quality reviews, the value of my job was increasingly defined by accountants, who measured units of performance. As that bar was raised on an annual basis, telling people I was busy, secured my worth and relevance within the organisation.
The increase in external pressures is, however, not the full story. I was living an economic model that coupled self-esteem with productivity, so being hyper busy defined who I was. Busyness demonstrated that I had an important, responsible job and the work I did mattered a great deal – not least because there was always so much of it.
Explaining the Busyness Cult
Tim Kreider explored the glorification of being busy in his seminal article, The ‘Busy’ Trap. He points out that we choose busyness because of our “ambition or drive or anxiety” and our “addicted to busyness.” The root of our addiction (our binging) is, he claims, the “dread [we] might have to face in its absence”, an explanation long supported by Buddhism, which sees our busyness as a form of laziness, a socially acceptable way of avoiding our own issues.
Courtney Martin points out the egoism and “arrogance” underpinning being busy, that comes with the “privilege” of self-imposed busyness. It’s that privilege that teaches us to “overvalue ourselves and undervalue others.” Martin describes the ugly truth behind our ‘need’ to be busy: “[T]his is the thing about privilege and the arrogance that stems from it: it keeps us weighted down with self-importance. It traps us in a fog of specialness and busyness.”
I would add another ego-feeding mechanisms to the busyness trip. Our publically performed and publically acknowledged martyrdom is, after all, the highest and most admirable price to pay for our success.
Is there a Fix for our ‘Busyness-Fix’?
Yes, there is. But it’s not something you can just tick off on your do-do list and continue as normal.
Let’s go back to unapologetically (to myself) lying in my bed in the Alps, listening to the mellow chorus of ringing cowbells. Then rewind to my previous Alpine holiday when I had cursed those cowbells for disturbing my concentration as I battled to get an article written for an approaching deadline. At the end of that holiday I had failed on two counts: I could neither relax nor work and I left feeling more exhausted than when I arrived. What changed in those intervening seven years?
Re-learning how to be Idle.
Being idle is not about just doing nothing. Back in 1877, Robert Louis Stevenson explained in his essay, An Apology for Idlers, that idleness is about, “doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, [and] has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”
Andrew Smart develops this idea using contemporary scientific research in his book, Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing and states right at the beginning that being idle is extremely important for our creativity. Doing nothing allows the brain to process the information it has gathered and opens up a space for creative ideas and original insights.
Maybe that’s why Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree daydreaming and not worrying about cutting the grass when the theory of gravity occurred to him. Or the mathematician Archimedes was relaxing in his bathtub and not taking a ‘quick’ shower when he had his eureka moment. Being idle is also the time when we can self-reflect and develop a sense of ourselves beyond work.
Cracking the Idleness Code
So, if idleness is so important, if it’s not just a matter of doing nothing, then how does one just be idle? (Yes, there is a humorous and thought-provoking book on this very topic by Tom Hodgkinson, How to be Idle)
Being idle, a.k.a. chilling out, unplugging, tuning out, etc., is about being idle for idleness sake. It’s about giving undivided attention to doing nothing. Being idle for its own sake is not to be confused with organizing down time to ‘sharpen the saw” of efficiency.
I have two strategies on How to be Idle:
- Press the STOP button.
STOP binging on being busy,! Stop doing! Stop thinking! Stop planning! Stop saving time! Instead, create a space, or spaces, in your day when all devices, all diversions, all external stimuli are ‘unplugged’.
- After your press the STOP button, BE idle.
Give you attention to what slows you down, brings you joy, activates your imagination, keeps you in the present moment, etc. Just remember: be idle for it’s own sake on a regular basis.
In case you already feel skeptical about whether altering behavioural patterns is that simple, the science of neuroplasticity proves we can change the structure and the function of our brains by practicing new responses.
Two rules apply:
- you have to want to change
- you have to commit to practicing new responses
It takes up to around 4-5 weeks to establish new neural pathways and these pathways will go dormant if not activated regularly.
That means one thing: you should start being idle during your day. And don’t stop!Learn More