An abandoned (print!) copy of The New York Times sat atop the only available cafe table this afternoon. Either the previous owner had thumbed through the paper and haphazardly left it in a hurry, or God Himself placed it such that an article on “3 Ways To Win The Week” was the front-facing story. I was instantly hooked.
I thought it was an article about how to live more productively, and I’m shamelessly the typical 20-something who spends 99% of her time worrying that I’m not doing enough with my life. Turns out the article was about making time to cook dinner in the middle of the workweek rather than turning to takeout. “Midweek cooking is a drag,” Sam Sifton wrote. “For one thing, who has the time?”
If we are becoming so busy that we can barely cook for ourselves during the week, when are we going to stop and reconsider just how busy we are? Moreover, when are we going to confront whether or not our busyness is healthy?
My parents spoiled me and my siblings growing up; every holiday we received gifts galore, but I distinctly remember the first time they gave me my own weekly planner. Some gift for an eight-year-old, right? I was obsessed. I idealized my mother’s busy life, running to and from various meetings and volunteering at the school, and I desperately wanted to be busy like her. I stared into the empty pages of my pink planner and penciled in anything I could: my weekly gymnastics class, playdates with my younger sister, and the times of my favorite nightly cartoons. As I filled my planner with meaningless things I felt happier, more fulfilled. Even at eight-years-old I was convinced a busy schedule created a gratifying life.
Somehow I continued throughout life without realizing this wasn’t exactly true. Now, at 22, I find that I willingly overbook my schedule. I went to a rigorous private university where it was normal to feel guilty if you weren’t actively doing work, or applying for internships, or running a student organization. There were ample things you could have been doing to move closer to whatever goal or lifestyle you decided would give you purpose in life. The thing is, though, that my goals and desired, “purposeful” lifestyles have always been ones in which I am constantly setting higher expectations for myself. Because of this mindset, I’m usually thinking about the next five goals before getting to the first one, which means I am constantly filling my schedule with ways to work toward those milestones. I cover the pages of my Jonathan Adler planner with meetings, class assignments, friends’ birthdays, you name it. I am afraid of allowing myself idle time.
Christopher Hsee, a psychologist and professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, found that many professed goals that people pursue may simply be justifications to keep themselves busy. “If people remain idle, they are miserable,” Hsee wrote in Psychological Science in 2010. “If idle people become busy, they will be happier.”
Have I unknowingly allowed myself to pursue these endless goals as a justification to remain busy? What am I avoiding by rejecting idle time?
There is something really gratifying about maintaining an overbooked lifestyle. I feel powerful when I’ve made it through an entire day of back-to-back meetings, three-hour classes, story interviews, job applications, dinner with friends, and walks in the park with my dog. But now I fear I have become addicted to that gratification awarded by leading a life so busy I don’t even have time, or the desire, to process thoughts unrelated to work.
In a way, it’s similar to Weber’s theories in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argues that the Protestant ethic was instilled in early 20th century workers such that they equated time spent at work to closeness to God. It makes sense if you think about it: Protestants believed employment was a calling from God and a sign of His blessing, thus they believed any idle time away from work was sinful. This attitude was essentially a religious valuation of restless, continuous work, which has undeniably carried over into the 21st century.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I went to church. But also, I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually enjoyed my idle time.