Ask any citizen of this century the question “how are you?” and the breathless response you’ll likely receive is “busy”, perhaps paired with a precursory flourish (crazy busy, ridiculously busy, I’m just so so busy) between hasty sips of a smartphone-adjacent latté. Indeed, it’s a miracle you’ve found time to pose the question, in a culture where coffee catch-ups are rain-checked, meetings moved more often than not and one can legitimately be excused from answering a text message because we’re all far too – you guessed it – busy.
“How did we end up living like this?” cries Omid Safi from his On Being column, calling our chronic state of frenzy nothing short of a sickness. “This disease of being ‘busy’ (and let’s call it what it is, the disease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing,” he writes, pointing an accusatory finger at the digital revolution.
“We have no more ‘free’ or leisurely time today than we did decades ago. For some of us, the ‘privileged’ ones, the lines between work and home have become blurred. We are on our devices. All. The. Freaking. Time.”
It’s possible Omid was forming these very words outside the antiquated ‘nine-to-five’ working slot, in hours formerly spent with beloveds, in slow conversation, seeing pregnant pauses to full-term. But while screens might sap our time, it takes a willing hand to make the swipe. In a piece for The New York Times, essayist Tim Kreider posed ‘The Busy Trap’ as one we’ve set (and sprung) all by ourselves.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” he writes on our chaotic conundrum, prescribing idleness as the antidote. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
Administering a purposefully idle status into our lives is problematic as busyness is not an individual ailment, but rather a cultural epidemic, perpetuated by social pressures and certain expectations that come with being an adult (not all of which are entirely unreasonable). Your boss will take about as kindly to your disappearing for a week as your mum will you bailing on her birthday. And much like the plucking of a single grey hair, getting on top of emails will see dozens more emerge. Gaps in the calendar beg to be plugged with exercise, long-promised Skype dates and lunch with that person you only half like.
But here might be the method with which to buck the busy, care of Oliver Burkeman. In an article for The Guardian entitled ‘This column will change your life: stop being busy’, his instructions are as follows:
“Step one: identify what seem to be, right now, the most meaningful ways to spend your life. Step two: schedule time for those things. There is no step three. Everything else just has to fit around them – or not.”
It’s a strategy that requires staying strong, and those in need of support can take solace in the pages of Sarah Knight’s The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, a tome that touts wisdom on “how to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do.” Practice the art of saying “no” with Elizabeth Gilbert (“Sometimes you must gently refuse even some things which appeal to you, so that you can focus your limited human attention not only on what is important, but on what is possible”) or Dominique Loreau, who writes in her L’art de la Simplicité: “If you find it difficult to say ‘no’, remember that you say ‘no’ to someone else in order to say ‘yes’ to yourself.”
And “yes”, one would hope, to a lazy hour or two, in which to spend some time as a human being. Not doing.