Against Busyness

I have been reading Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work and Play When You Have No Time recently, and enjoying it thoroughly. It is one of those books that looks like one thing but is almost another: it looks like a productivity/business/personal development book on the surface, but it is also a rich cultural history of time, leisure and what constitutes a good life.

There’s so much to recommend about it: it’s sharply written, well-researched, and does a phenomenal job of tracing how these “natural” ideas about time and productivity are deeply tied to gender, economics and other factors in social context. I’m really enjoying it thoroughly, to the point where I kind of don’t want to return it to my local library! It’s a real smartypants read, but very accessible and non-academic.

But this isn’t a smartypants review of it. Because, as I was reading it, I noticed my underlying emotional reaction and realized it was: Boy, am I so happy I don’t relate to this book! Which was weird, and worthy of deconstruction.

It was kind of embarrassing thing to realize. Schulte writes a lot about herself in the book, in a good way — her harried juggling of her work as a reporter for the Washington Post, her marriage, her childrearing, her householding. But it wasn’t that I didn’t relate to her role overload — I have plenty to do and lots of projects, relationships, and priorities to manage. It was that I realized: I’m not that frenzied anymore. I don’t periodically announce, “I’m so busy!” like I used to when I was living in New York.

If you read the book, you know how insanely profane such a statement is. No matter who you are or what you do, you must be busy. Or, you just aren’t important, a successful human being. If you aren’t busy, you are lame, a slacker, not fulfilling your potential. And reading Overwhelmed, I felt maybe there was something a little wrong with me. And then I opened my hippie productivity planner and tried to find a list to make. (List-making makes me feel very important to myself.) It was a bit of a crisis, oddly: am I not fulfilling my human potential? Am I wasting precious time? Am I a loser?

But then I backtracked, slowed down, stopped the shame spiral. Not-busyness for me, I realized, is the end result of many major shifts and decisions, some of which I’ve covered here. My notions of success have changed; my desire to have different kind of relationships as well. Changing my approach to finances and prosperity played a role in keeping me less busy. It wasn’t a deliberate move, but slowly I reconfigured my life towards a less frenetic, jam-packed existence.

I’ve always been deeply interested in our experiences of time, and have written about kairos time (the way we “lose” time when we’re immersed in something we love doing) vs. chronos time (the sense of time represented by stopwatches, deadlines). I guess you can say I’ve made more of an effort to shift my life to privilege kairos time: time that hasn’t been sliced up by distraction or obligation or competing priorities. I’ve refused well-paying jobs that demanded 60-70 hours workweeks, for example. I moved from New York, which reduced my expenses considerably and gives me more flexibility in the type of work I take. I don’t work in film anymore, or any job that requires significant “face time” on someone else’s schedule. I’m very privileged to be able to be in a position to make these decisions, but it wasn’t like I had it right away — I chipped away at it slowly, incrementally. And this affects my finances, my social network and my opportunities. But it also gives me swathes of beautifully open kairos time. Reading Schulte’s book makes me realize what a rare approach this is. Or perhaps not rare, but not framed in these notions of kairos vs. chronos.

(You may think “Big deal!” but kairos time is vitally important to our happiness and perhaps to our progress overall. Kairos is where we invent stories, innovations, works of art. Our brains need kairos time to fully rest and revitalize — just grabbing a quarter-hour of rest here and there won’t truly relax you. Schulte makes the sharp observation that socially, historically, and culturally, institutions and individuals have privileged men’s kairos time over women’s — she has loads of historical and statistical information in Overwhelmed, and makes a strong case for time as a feminist issue.)

Ironically, as I was reading Overwhelmed, I actually did consult my planner and agenda a lot less than usual. Partly because it’s kind of senioritis season and a lot of major projects and work stuff wrapped up, but maybe, after reading so much about the toxic effects of our cultural elevation of busyness, I was just more well-aware of the larger imperative to fill our lives to the brim with perfectionism, over-achievement and fueling acquisition. I wanted the mental space to think about what’s important — after all, no one’s eulogy or obituary will ever read, “And you know what else was so awesome about this person? They were so busy!” And so I closed the book when I was done and felt relieved. If I don’t directly relate to Overwhelmed, I must be doing something right!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *