The Busy Trap: Making room for, y’know, livingJuly 5th, 2012 at 10:13 pm ET
I’m not currently getting the Times (it’s stolen out of my building’s vestibule so often that I recently cancelled it), but fortunately Tim Kreider’s essay “The Busy Trap” appeared online as a blog post, and everyone and his brother tweeted it to me last week.
Since I read it I’ve been chewing on it, and I just read it again, and … hmm. And that’s a “hmm” of recognition. The following three things are true of me, of every member of my family, and of virtually everyone I know (there’s a short list of exceptions I can count on my fingers):
- They’re too busy — they have too much “stuff” going on to take care of or even keep track of.
- They see this as a problem.
- They think there’s nothing they can do about it.
Being too busy to let life happen is, of course, a problem, and during the 25 years of my adult life, it’s certainly gotten worse. I’m certainly not immune to this — and I’ve been fortunate enough (for many reasons) to have been able to fashion a career and a life that’s structured largely according to my specifications. I don’t have kids, am senior enough at work that I am generally cut slack whenever I ask for it, and still I feel like I’ll never, ever “catch up.”
Consider (and this is journalistic evidence, not me bitching, so hush): on an average day I get about hundred and twenty emails, or approaching a thousand a week. Each of them requires some action; about a third of them require ten minutes or more of attention; 20 or so would require half an hour or more of attention to deal with properly (so I put them off and put them off and, if I’m lucky, their moment passes). You do the math; I’m not going to do it, it’s too depressing.
If I may point out the obvious: although much of the team collaboration and “networking” that I’m involved in happen in email, answering email is not the most important part of my job. But email is quantifiable, and it keeps coming, so I keep answering.
The rise of social media, which everyone loves and everyone complains about, is more of a symptom of our busyness than a cause of it. (To be fair to the Internet, I was feeling overwhelmed even 15 years ago, and a lot of the tasks that the Internet makes it possible to take care of easily in a few minutes now used to take hours or days of worrying and working.)
Everyone (including Kreider, who describes his in the essay) has a couple of friends who have “opted out.” I don’t mean the hopeless schlimazels who can’t get their lives together; I mean grownups who are living fully realized lives, lives they’re proud of in the long view and are enjoying in the short view; but who have time to relax and take stock and to breathe; who don’t constantly feel like they’ve forgotten to do something and forgotten what it is.
I’ve spent a lot of my private time (yes, I do have it) over the past two years or so trying to figure out how to get out of the “busy trap.” In the short term, that will require two things: (a) better control over what’s on my “list,” and (b) better boundaries (e.g., between work time and non-work time; between work activities and non-work activities; between things I have agreed to do, even implicitly, and things I have not agreed to do). I’m working on all those.
In the long term, though, getting out and staying out of the “busy trap” may require some more radical change. I’m not foolish enough to think that a change of scenery is what’s required (on the contrary, New York City is emphatically one of the most lovely places on earth to enjoy being unbusy), but I may reach a point at which a change in the structure of my work life is needed. Who knows. Life is long.
In the meantime, intermittently as I find the energy and focus to do so, I’m trying to do things like these:
- Be alone every day. Carve out time to be by myself in a quiet place, doing nothing in particular. Note that being alone doing nothing in particular is not the same as being in the same room with someone else doing nothing in particular; so when you don’t live alone, even if you have no children, this is harder than it sounds. But it’s important — it’s in silence and in solitude that epiphanies come knocking.
- Find writing time every day (like right now), and try to do it in conditions that induce reflection and self-analysis. (I find that cafes with a low hum of activity work well, as does sitting on my couch with Kathy Griffin nattering on in the background. On the other hand, sitting at a desk in a dead-quiet room is THE WORST, JERRY.)
- Make physical activity a mandatory part of every day. I can’t stress enough what a lift a little bit of strenuous exercise — even when done alone — brings to my sense of connectedness with others. It reminds me that I live inside a body, which is as much “me” as my mind, and which is part of a physical world in which other people (and animals, and rocks, etc.) exist. For me, the activity I tend toward is bicycling in the city (because it has the secondary effect of circulating me through parts of the city I wouldn’t otherwise see), but even when all I do is get on a treadmill in an empty YMCA at 4 in the afternoon, I feel better.
- Cook and eat real food. New York’s a great city to eat delicious, creatively prepared junk food in, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy basically whatever I want to eat whenever I feel like it. But artisanal donuts and Shake Shack burgers, as delicious as they are, in the long run are more delicious in moderation. What contributes to a sense of wholeness and peace is baking bread, making soup, roasting a chicken, putting together a fresh salad. Laugh if you like, but these things are true.
- Cut myself some slack. There’s no prize for Inbox Zero! Do your best, and then set it aside and live your life.