Thought Catalog

How Busy Are You?

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How busy are you?

In this recent op/ed from The New York Times called “The Busy Trap,” writer Tim Kreider argues that you aren’t busy at all, really. People are making themselves “busy” with self-created and self-important nonsense obligations.

Sure, Kreider’s thesis applies to a select group. As I read it I thought, “What about the nurse who works 13 hour days and then comes home to three kids?” or “What about the disabled man who needs to see a zillion doctors every week?” And yes, those people are legitimately busy — even as Kreider points out — not busy, but tired. There is a difference. The people who complain about being “crazy busy” are rarely those working long hours or suffering, but rather what Kreider is talking about is self-imposed “busyness,” obligations taken on voluntarily out of some mix of motivation and anxiety. It’s an addiction to being busy. If you’re not busy, what are you? Thinking about the futility of it all and the inevitability of death? Are you…actually dead?

As my friend Chris puts it when I start bugging out, “What’s the crisis?” Often, I can’t answer that question. There is no crisis. And yet, I always act like my butt is literally on fire. I am a workaholic. My brain is never not going, “On to the next one, on to the next one.”

But the thing is, when I tell someone I’m busy, I really am busy. I make my own money as a freelancer and choose to live in New York City (although my tiny apartment is mad cheap by Manhattan standards). Because of this, I often have three or four gigs at once. This past week, I had multiple pieces to file and other odd jobs. I was busy.

“Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work,” Kreider writes.

This is the most true sentence in the piece. It’s essentially why I’m in therapy — to unpack the reasons I associate myself so heavily with work. My work is me. I am my work. If my work is good then I am good. If my work is bad then I am bad. It’s a tough nut to crack, even for a worthy therapist. It’s hard for me to realize that I am not my work. When people ask me how I’m doing, they don’t want to hear me ramble about an article I’m writing or a book I’m editing. They are asking how I am doing. And often, I don’t know. When I’m not working, I don’t feel entirely whole.

Perhaps we are all just making a mad struggle against our own mortality. Maybe we realize we don’t have all that much time on Earth and we want to spend it contributing or announcing ourselves or doing things or hell, maybe for that same reason, we’re so busy because we’re terrified of stopping and thinking about how we’re all headed for the grave. (So bleak, but that’s my brainwave.)

Kreider argues that all of this is self-imposed, or by the design of the situations in life we put ourselves in: “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” He cites a friend who moved to the south of France and feels much more relaxed. And sure, I live in a fast-paced metropolis. But wherever you go, there you are. I have a feeling I’d be the same in Peoria or Nova Scotia. Moving won’t remove the urge to be “busy,” to feel like we matter, to feel like what we do is important. Some of us need that, even while we know without a doubt that some blog post we make on the Internet is just a candle in the wind.

“And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?,” Kreider writes.

I don’t do this. Am I missing out? Kreider and I seem to live similar lives in the sense that we’re both writers and we both have written for The New York Times, a prestigious publication you don’t get to write for without ambition and hard work. Maybe I’m stressing myself out all the time for no reason — a counterpoint to his relaxation. I operate a lot in “musts” — as though there are benchmarks I need to reach (all self-imposed). “I must get a piece in McSweeney’s.” “I must meet this editor at this party.” “I must write every single day.” Why? Or else what? I’m a bad person?

But a big part of me likes working and likes being busy. I like to think of it as filling my time with worthwhile projects and worthwhile people. I know, especially as a writer, it’s sometimes better to do some thinking without actually sitting down to think — by having experiences, by meeting new people, by spending time alone.

Inspiration, they say, comes when you loaf. And that’s true. But what about the next part? I don’t want to let go of that bigger step: the work involved in making that inspiration come to fruition. That comes from the drive to be busy.

Kreider ends his essay by saying, “Life is too short to be busy.” I’d say while that’s true, life is also too short to be idle. TC Mark

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Poetry that will change you

This is for the women who are first to get naked, howl at the moon and jump into the sea. This is for the women who seek relentless joy; the ones who know how to laugh with their whole souls. The women who speak to strangers because they have no fear in their hearts. This is for the women who drink coffee at midnight and wine in the morning, and dare you to question it. This is for the women who throw down what they love, and don’t waste time following society’s pressures to exist behind a white picket fence. The women who create wildly, unbalanced, ferociously and in a blur at times. This — is for you.

“When Janne has a new poem written, I shut my life down to do nothing but read it, and then when I turn my life back on, everything is better.” — James Altucher

You’ve never read poetry like this before

More From Thought Catalog

  • jaynetx

    Great piece! One of my theories is that to some extent, even people with the natural “busy” personality aside, we are all a product of American culture – where so many people live to work, not work to live. It’s so different in other parts of the world, including Europe, which is the most comparable to the US in terms of type of economy, modernity, etc. Any time I talk to my European friends or expats that live there, one of the main topics of discussion is why Americans are so crazy about work and so reticent to put quality of life/recreational time near the top of their list of priorities. Obviously this comment doesn’t apply to those in dire straits or those who have to work intensely to provide for themselves or others or to make ends meet.

  • Paul

    As well as it being self imposed, the most annoying thing about “busy” people is that they try their absolute best to make it seem like they’re desperately more important than anyone else and like no-one is worth their precious time. And…they’re so boring.

  • http://gravatar.com/ellapalooza Ella Ceron

    As a writer, I entirely agree. My bills won’t understand that I blew the day off to go to the Met, nor can I take the jobs that don’t involve writing to the Picasso exhibit, so sitting all day to write wouldn’t be feasible. And whenever anyone points out that I’m too busy or I work too much, I wonder if they’re offering to become my sugar daddy because if not, they’re only being Captain Obvious. I’m aware I’m busy, I’m aware that 70-90 hour work weeks are crazy and tiring and insane. But I’m also aware that to do what I want to do, I’ve got do a whole lot of other work to fill in the gaps, because debt waits for no dream. (But then again, busying yourself by worrying about debt or anything else so much is kind of Kreider’s underlying point, so touche, sir.)

  • http://twitter.com/HelloPresto Preston Porter (@HelloPresto)

    There is a certain sense of calm and piece of mind knowing your time is being well spent, even at the expense of being constantly “busy”. Balancing actually being busy with a little well earned time to decompress and do things for fun is a tough act, but for some (myself included) keeping fuel on the fire is the only way to stay warm and content.

    • http://twitter.com/HelloPresto Preston Porter (@HelloPresto)

      *peace of mind. DX

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  • Melissa

    I read that article earlier and just typed up a decent amount of thoughts about it (none of which are particularly enlightening). I really enjoyed how you took it and where you went with it, writing-wise. You summed up a lot of what I think much more eloquently than I could ever phrase it.

  • Kimmie

    All of this is true!! , the part about “I must get a piece in McSweeney’s.” “I must meet this editor at this party.” “I must write every single day” is so true. As a writer, I feel horrible when I don’t do any of these things within a self-imposed time. As for being ‘busy’, it comes up as an excuse all too often. We’re probably all too paranoid that people won’t take us all that seriously!

  • http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com bluegrasspb

    Just found your blog–it’s great!
    Somehow, I think we all feel more busy and anxious in the digital age. We are too connected, I think, always feeling the need to text a friend, post a tweet, or respond to e-mail. This doesn’t help.
    As far as a life-work balance, I chose to live in Louisville, KY, after graduating from an elite liberal arts school on the East Coast. Even though as a teacher I could work 24-7, I shut it off. There are too many other things I like to spend my time doing. Where we live also relates to the pressure to be busy. In cities like New York, it seems like many people are living to work, rather than working to live.

  • Nahid

    At one point, Kreider implies that many of us think our lives will be meaningless if we’re not working all the time. I guess it’s a matter of how you define “meaningful.” I am a student working towards two MA degrees and that does keep me pretty busy and keeps my schedule pretty full. However, as fulfilling as my research and future work will be, I think there are many other things in life that are meaningful and many of them relaxing and not stressful, as well. Maybe it’s just a matter of balance.

    Love your blog, btw!

  • Joe

    Everything in moderation.
    Too much of most things (be it busyness or idleness) is unhealthy.

  • Edward

    “The human race is but a monotonous affair. Most of them labour the greater part of their time for mere subsistence; and the scanty portion of freedom which remains to them so troubles them that they use every exertion to get rid of it. Oh, the destiny of man!”
    ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774)

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  • http://laurenoliviaco.wordpress.com laurenoliviaco

    Ever notice how long it takes on vacation to just sit and relax…and not work?

  • meg

    I DO think you are missing out! and I also do think you’re making excuses for maintaining the fast pace that you have chosen for yourself — especially here: “I make my own money as a freelancer and choose to live in New York City (although my tiny apartment is mad cheap by Manhattan standards). Because of this, I often have three or four gigs at once. This past week, I had multiple pieces to file and other odd jobs. I was busy.” This is exactly the type of justification that Kreider is talking about. You acknowledge your choice here, and the decisions you must make based on that choice. But the choice is still yours.

    “Moving won’t remove the urge to be ‘busy,’ to feel like we matter, to feel like what we do is important.” — I also think you are rationalizing your choices here. It sounds to me like you are so far in the NYC-business syndrome that you can’t see out; you can’t see what your other choices would offer you. I firmly believe that the environments and spaces that we choose to surround ourselves with (because you and I both have the luxury of choice here) deeply root themselves into our psyches and do affect us on a deep level. If you were to remove yourself from NYC, your head would spin for the first while. But then the dust would settle and I think your anxiety and perceived need to keep busy would fade. Think of it like sprinting on a treadmill for an hour: when you first get off the treadmill, your legs still want to move quickly and you get that weird feeling in your knees as you stand on solid ground. You want to get back on the treadmill. But after a while you readjust.

    • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

      All superb points. I have taken some “time off” wherein I went to the suburbs (where my brother lives) and it was helpful so perhaps you’re right.

  • http://www.collegiatefeminist.com Danielle

    I think that there is a difference between being busy with things that you truly love and that fill you with joy and just doing things for the sake of ‘feeling’ and ‘being’ busy. But turning off cellphones, email, social media, etc for a couple of days really helps me reach that calm, peace of mind that sometimes ‘being busy’ robs me of.

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