(This post is part of the 30 for 30 Challenge).
Ask someone how they’re doing nowadays, and in varying ways they’ll say, “I’m so busy!” Are people actually busy, or do mindless activities consume their day which people call “being busy”? Never mind the fact the question of “how are you doing?” isn’t really asking about activity, but a state of mind. It is interesting that people choose to describe busyness as their state of mind. Rather than saying, “I’m doing well.” or “I’m really feeling good/bad today.” – they say “I’m busy.” Given the fractured and frantic nature of the average person’s attention these days, it’s no surprise that a feeling of constant busyness defines how we think about our state of mind.
Could busyness be perceived as job security? Your colleague’s claim that she is “crazy-swamped busy” – could that actually be her way of making the argument that what she does in the office is worthwhile and valuable? Some of have suggested that this constant state of busyness, and the corresponding claims as such, are leading to a professional world that only mimics the reality that everyone claims in the first place. In other words, our whining about being too busy is just making it worse. As people claim to be ever busier, they make choices that perpetuate this idea even further. They are, in a sense, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of busyness.
To be clear, I am not saying we should just sit still and never do anything. Having a project, and things to keep us occupied in a productive way, is beneficial for a healthy state of mind. Being “productive” and being “busy” are two different things. The former garners measurable feelings of accomplishment, while the latter lacks any real substance and leaves us feeling drained and unsure of how we even spent our time. Work emails are a great example of this.
How many times have you finished a day at work, only to realize that you literally just sent emails all day? After a day like this, it’s hard not to wonder, “What did I just do with my day?” If upon leaving the office and asked by the cashier at the grocery, “what do you do for a living?” most people who work in modern office jobs could easily respond, “I send emails.”, and be totally spot on.
One reason why work emails feel so devoid of meaning is because of the sheer volume of them that one must weed through on a daily basis. They no longer carry any weight of importance. Someone can get twenty emails throughout the day about one subject, from multiple people, towards a solution that could have been achieved with everyone talking in the room for five minutes. This is why busyness pervades the office. We are not busy with thinking, or creating, but with emails.
An article on Psychology Today talks about experiments whereby people’s desire to be busy or to be idle was tested. The results were generally consistent, concluding that people will choose the option that keeps them active when faced with a choice between activity and idleness. Activity that people see as meaningful brings them happiness. There are, however, potential downsides to activity and busyness when it is mindlessly done. The author concludes:
A final implication that emerges from the findings is the following: it seems plausible that the happiness people get from being busy can potentially blind them from examining the intricate web of consequences-both good and bad-that emerge out of their actions. To me, this implication is somewhat disturbing, since it suggests that people can be made to engage in tasks that are not just menial or meaningless, but even in those that are harmful to themselves or to others.
Could the need for busyness be part of the reason why people engage in war and other types of harmful actions? Could the root of evil lie not just in money and greed, but also in boredom?
We all need meaningful activity in our lives that gives us a sense of purpose. Writing, for example, gives me sense of purpose by helping to shape my jumbled thoughts into something that is (hopefully) a cohesive argument. By writing, I better understand what it is that I actually think about things.
There are also those activities that give the sense of accomplishing something, when in reality one is just idly spinning their wheels. Gadget busyness is the worst of all. Most of these activities take place while in front of some type of screen (phone, tv, computer). Scrolling through (pick your social network), mindlessly looking for the bottom that we know will never come. We are fixated on knowing everything going on all of the time for fear of missing something, when in reality, we already are. Not only do these activities take us away from that which we should be occupying our time (i.e., meaningful projects), but also take us away mentally from experiencing the present moment.
If you’re reading this while at work, I’m sorry. You must be so busy.