The Vice of Busyness
What does "I'm too busy" really mean?
Something I wrote in another post a few months ago reflects a long-standing gripe I have.
"Everyone's so damn busy all the time, or so they'll have you believe. 'I'm too busy' to do something is just another way of saying someone (or something) is not a priority. What people say they don't have time for says a lot about them and their priorities. Remember that."
When I hear someone say they don't have time for something, it's just another way of expressing indifference without coming right out and saying it.
You don't have time to exercise? Then it's not a priority.
You don't have time for a hobby? Then it's not a priority.
You don't have time for a friendship? Then it's not a priority.
You don't have time to read a book? Then it's not a priority.
You don't have time for your significant others? Then...you guessed it...they are not priorities.
Do you get my point?
Time is a finite quantity for finite beings like us. While time is for all intents and purposes infinite, we have set beginnings and endings. Where we spend that time, and how, and with whom, reveals our priorities as much as they define us. Rather than just baldly admit our relative indifference on some matter, we hide behind a facade of ostentatious busyness.
So here's another point: you're not really that busy.
How Are We Actually Spending Our Time?
Imagine if we had some no BS accurate way to track exactly how we spend all of our time each day. What would the average day look like for most of us? A lot of work, of course. Sleep also takes a big chunk. And after that? Fiddling around on phones, watching television, playing video games, randomly browsing online, all of these and more gobble up uncomfortable amounts of our remaining time. Even sacred "family time" is peppered with these other distractions.
And how many hours a day do these activities consume?
According to one report, by 2019, the average American was spending 6.5 hours online, with 2.5 hours of that spent on social media. Internationally Americans are roughly in the middle. At the extreme, those in the Philippines spend over 10 hours a day online, while the Japanese at the other end of the spectrum spend under 4 hours. So, we sleep for 6-8 hours; we work for around 8 hours. And then? What about those other 8-10 hours a day? Well, we mostly stare at screens.
Okay, fair enough. Even without the stats above, most of us are at least dimly aware that our spare time is increasingly consumed by the Little Magic Rectangle. Remember, our priorities are defined by how we spend our time. If that's the case, this amount of online time should be sobering. Of course, we don't like to admit that we spend so much time flitting aimlessly about cyberspace, but here we are nonetheless.
Yeah, I know, that's all pretty obvious stuff. So what?
Busy Is a Lie To Hide the Ugly Truth
For me, this question of priorities - professed versus practiced - is personal. It's something I struggle with. I don't want to make it seem that I'm somehow immune to the siren song of technology. I'm not, and yet I'm bothered that everyone feels so stressed out and with no time to get anything done because they supposedly have no time; as if, somehow, they are too busy. Really?
Those 6.5 hours screwing off online come to mind as quite a bit of time that could be freed up for other activities. I have hours every day that could be better spent doing those things I claim to not have any time for. I bet you do too if you stop and think about it.
There's been a lot of talk about "burnout culture" over the last few years, particularly how it pertains to millennials. Part of that comes from the idea that millennials have to work much harder just to get by. The other part is that they've trained themselves since their helicopter-parented childhoods to optimize every minute of the day. Those childhoods were spent shuttling between a never-ending series of extra-curricular activities: band, sports, clubs, etc. Should it come as any surprise that these over-extended kids become over-extended adults?
But are they really?
I'd argue that the perception of stress and over-extension is at least in part self-induced. More than previous generations, millennials are glued to their screens. According to a Pew study, 48% of those aged 18-29 say they are almost always online. I believe that. Could this have something to do with the sense of burnout?
Millennials are the first generation that grew up with social media and high-speed Internet as givens from early childhood. They don't know anything else. With hours spent every day online, they find less time for other activities (running errands, off-line hobbies, in-person socializing, outdoor activities, etc.).
I can only speak to this anecdotally, but I've seen millennials (and not only millennials, to be honest) struggle mightily when not online. They quickly get bored and restless. Technology has impoverished imagination, eroded focus, and crippled independent thinking to an uncomfortable degree only noticeable when the power goes out. In many ways, today's younger generation has been conditioned since childhood to get most of their entertainment and leisure from the Net. When that goes away, anxiety and boredom are sure to follow.
I'd argue all that online time merely creates an illusion of busyness. That, in turn, is stress-inducing. People thus feel busier than they actually are and react by proclaiming their frantic busyness to the world.
That Ugly Truth About Tech Addiction
Some mitigating factors should be taken into account. Given the psychological compulsion to stay online - something created on purpose by Big Tech - can we say that those 6.5 hours are really "free time?" Technically, yes, but in reality, no, because we're addicted. Tech companies refer to us as "users," an apt label for tech addicts. And remember, junkies (ahem...users) often feel the need to downplay the extent of their addiction.
Proclaiming our busyness thus becomes a face-saving way to mask technological addiction. People feel compelled to hide the fact they are somehow trapped in a slowly degrading orbit around the black hole of the Net, unable to escape of their own free will. To avoid confronting the truth, they complain about how busy they are. It's a face-saving measure.
We all go along. We know the code. A junkie can spot another junkie from a mile away.
Notice how no one ever brags about all the time they spend online? On the contrary, it gets downplayed. When I talk about social media with friends who spend a lot of time online, there's always something slightly defensive and guilty in how they respond. They'll proclaim how much they hate social media but feel compelled nonetheless to use it for practical reasons like staying in touch with family and friends.
That's true enough, but as I know from personal experience, staying in touch with friends and family quickly devolves into mindless scrolling, sometimes for hours on end. Internet ennui transformed into Candy Crush, endlessly scrolling, swiping, browsing, and consuming content. All are very active sounding verbs that mask a very passive way to live. We're so very "busy."
Performing Busyness is a Virtue
We perform busyness because being busy is now a core virtue. In reality, as I discussed above, we're really not all that busy. However, there is social capital in pretending we are. Performing busyness is another way of virtue signaling that we're out there doing very important things all of the time. "Sorry, no time! I'm too busy!" Or, "I'd love to get together, but I'm so busy!"
Our society values activity over rest and praises doers over slackers. Elon Musk does things. Jeff Bezos does things. Bill Gates does things. These are our gods of busy now. Winners rarely shrug and tell us that they just slacked their way to the top. No, they let you know they worked harder than everyone else. More often than not, they are right.
These folks are role models of busyness. We average folk try and emulate such inspiring examples. Doers make; slackers take. Doers also tend to succeed, and success is what it's all about! Success means wealth and status, which is what most of us strive for.
If you don't believe me, head to the eternally replenishing self-help aisle of any bookstore. You'll see the successful busy doers of the world teaching us less motivated mortals how to be better at it. Behind it all is a gospel of hard work, discipline, and long hours. People pay money for the latest life hacks to make them more productive and make them better at being busy. In a year, they'll be back to the same self-help aisle to try the latest fad. It's a tax we pay for our skewed priorities.
When the Cult of Busy Comes for Your Leisure
This cult of busyness eventually seeps into every aspect of our lives. Even our relaxation feels like work. By all appearances, mindfulness is a way to slow down our stressed minds from the frantic pace of modern life.
But, damn, it's also a lot of work. Mindfulness takes practice, discipline, commitment, and lots of money, making it look like just another manifestation of our culture's impulse to constant activity. Busyness again, but now it's even colonizing our relaxation.
Mindfulness is relaxation branded and packaged in a clever way that appeals to all the doers out there who need to do something even when they're not doing anything. A most brilliant scam! It's no wonder that mindfulness is the pet psychology of the board room. If you do it right, you can better manage all that busyness in your life to become even busier.
Why not just turn your devices off and go for a walk? Read a book! Get a hobby! Call an old friend! Or just sit in a room by yourself and think. Let your imagination go even without another ten-step system in place to guide you on your way to maximum efficient chill. Why do we need to spend all this money on self-help books and seminars to teach us how to relax? Even our leisure time needs a regimen, it seems.
Baby Steps to a Better Being
The challenge is even more significant for those of us who want off the online treadmill of busyness. It requires breaking long-standing habits, creating new ones, and dealing with the initial alienation from disconnecting while everyone else is still jacked into the Matrix. That's real.
But we have to start somewhere, don't we? Taking back control of our lives should be a long-term goal. Turn the Internet and all the various enabling devices that connect us back into tools again, useful on occasion, but not a default for blurring away the finite hours of our lives. Those garbage hours lost to the Internet are there for us to reclaim and transform into something more spiritually rewarding, if only we have the will.
I'm not there yet, but I've made progress and will make even more. After working all day, I enjoy the competitive outlet that online gaming offers. But I've also filled my free time with books (real books), taking long walks around Paris on the weekends, and writing on this blog. Don't get me wrong: technology is a wonderful tool, but it should only be a tool.
Technology has given us an age of wonders. But everything, no matter how apparently wonderful, always comes with a dark side that must be overcome. That applies to the technology as well. I admire today's technologies - they are the closest thing to magic we'll ever have - but I'm more aware than ever that some of that magic is jet black and malevolent to well-being.