The old adage states that if you want something done, ask a busy person. These days you'd have a hard time choosing: Let's face it, aren't we all so busy? (With that in mind, I'll keep this short.)
The cult of busy is newsworthy of late with the release of Brigid Schulte's book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Schulte outlines what any parent or family knows: In our work, home and personal lives, we are overscheduled and frazzled, what she calls "The Overwhelm." She suggests that much of this busyness is a product of policies (or lack of them) and societal pressures.
Yet, while some of our busyness is unavoidable, much of it is self-imposed, a product of living in a culture with no "off" button. If you've ever found yourself waiting in line at the grocery store and unable to resist the urge to check an iPhone, flip through the closest copy of People magazine or pretend to be absorbed in a search for some lost object at the bottom of your handbag, you know what I'm talking about. Even in those brief moments when idleness should be acceptable, we are driven to engage in some productive endeavor -- or at least act as though we are. We resist the opportunity to just be. The question is, why?
Last summer I took a mindfulness course to focus specifically on this idea of being present in the moment. A friend -- one of the course instructors -- suggested I might enjoy it. I believe this was mindful-speak for, "you really look like you could use some help." Naturally, my initial reaction was that I was too busy to commit. And despite initially wondering why I had agreed, (after an early exercise of staring at a raisin), I settled in. This is in fact the point: Based on the work of mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, the program leads you to settle both the self and the mind to be more present, no matter what you are doing.
At the same time I read Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly. Brown suggests what drives our actions is fear: of irrelevancy, of seeming unimportant, of not being enough. Our culture has become one which equates being busy with being important. Let's be honest: Aren't there times when a mom's laments about negotiating the evening's transfers between hockey games, music lessons and Kumon feel more like a boast? Indeed, sometimes I find myself at Starbucks over coffee with girlfriends bemoaning just how busy we are. We wear our busyness like a badge of honor. Brown suggests "busy" is one of the shields we use to numb ourselves against vulnerability: "One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy... We are a culture of people who've bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won't catch up with us." In short, we stay busy to deal with our "fear-based shame of being ordinary."
Yes, sometimes being busy is a product of circumstance, or self-inflicted because of the joy and fulfillment it brings. But the impulse to constantly run, and to remind people of it, speaks to a subconscious need different than merely staying active and engaged. Even Schulte, who literally wrote the book on being overwhelmed, seems compelled to continually remind us of her harried life. When asked in an interview with the Globe and Mail, "What is the last true leisure time you had?" she responds, "I have been under a lot of pressure." Of course I don't doubt it: I barely had time to write this article.
Our life remains "crazy-busy" with commitments and plans exceeding the time to do them. Still, my view of the cult of busy began shifting last summer. The mindfulness course and Brene Brown's Daring Greatly acted like a set of virtual x-ray glasses -- helping me see through the shield of "I'm so busy." I highly suggest them. With a fresh set of eyes, we can put assertions of busyness in their proper context, or maybe even begin to ignore them. The truth is we just don't have the time.