Are you caught inside the “‘Busy’ Trap”?

“Watches, Watches, Watches,” by Jiri Hodan

This weekend — on the same day we returned from our vacation in Maine — author Tim Kreider published an article called “The ‘Busy’ Trap” in the New York Times. I read it as I mourned the loss of the sea and tides, the peaceful ebb and flow of our vacation. It didn’t take me long to be caught back up in schedules. In Kreider’s description of our culture of busyness, I saw my own reflection — an often-frenetic mom, wondering where the day has gone and if there’s something I can do about it.

In a style both lighthearted and incisive, Kreider argues that we are busy — crazy, frantic, mournfully busy — because we choose to be. Everybody’s doing it — rushing, multi-tasking, piling hours into stacks — and so we march along.

He’s not talking about ER doctors here, or single working moms juggling two days inside of one. No, he’s talking to those of us whose busyness is “purely self-imposed.” I sometimes take on trivial tasks like Atlas holding up the world. Sigh, I am so very, very busy. But do I have to be? Is there another option?

I’ve made a different path for my children, so I know that it is possible.  Like Kreider and others of our approximate generation, I grew up with long blocks of unstructured time to fill in any way I chose. Today, I work hard to preserve that same space for my daughters. I don’t overschedule them with activities. They have their afternoons free — to create, or dream, or play. I believe that protecting those hours is one of my most sacred trusts.

So why do I withhold that same sweet grace from the mire of my own days? Kreider argues that our busyness is culturally reinforced, a sort of mob mentality where everyone just tags along. He writes that, “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.”

Hmmmm. Granted, I am homeschooling two young girls and trying to make a career of writing as well. Of course, there’s always laundry. Dishes. The dog sheds all over the floors. But really? Do I have to be so frantic about it all?

Ultimately, I found my answer in Kreider’s description of himself as a writer who needs time to write: “It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.”

That same balance between immersion and separation is imperative in parenting as well. It’s hard to offer either love or discipline without getting on your knees, looking eye to eye. I have to sit down at the table and help them through their math, their spelling, their history lessons. But it’s also important to step away. To breathe. To be idle. Not only does that idleness restore me as a person, a parent, and a writer, but it also offers up a model to my girls. Do as I do. Be like this. Take time.

At the end of Kreider’s lovely essay, he says that on his deathbed, he will not regret the hours he spent in idleness. He’ll wish instead for more of them — to spend with friends and family, with the people that he loves.

When I next find myself feeling oh-so-very-busy, I hope I will remember where my true allegiance lies, the pieces of my life that deserve those hours of idleness — my children, my husband, my friends, my writing. With enough reminders, I might just climb out of the Busy Trap.

Are you caught inside the Busy Trap? How do you find the pathways out? I’d love to hear suggestions.

15 thoughts on “Are you caught inside the “‘Busy’ Trap”?

  1. The American penchant for busy-ness and overcrowding one’s days has always bemused me. I grew up in a culture where life moved more slowly–school was over by 1:15 (noon on Fridays), afternoon naps were normal, and people visited over tea and biscuits. Afternoons stretched out long and golden, full of the reading of books and spinning of dreams.

    Then I got to college where people made an art out of being busy. There was a kind of twisted pride to taking a greater-than-normal course load, working 20 hours a week, volunteering AND doing extra research/internships. All good things on their own, but I don’t think crowding one’s life leads to healthy and happy people.

    When we lived in Vermont, life moved much more slowly than it does in Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia is crazy with all these white-collar professionals trying to give their kids every opportunity–which means totally overscheduling them. Kids go to school till 3:30, then do around of afterschool programs and extracurriculars that go on well into the evening. Even in the summer, kids are so busy with camps that my son is having a hard time getting together with some friends for playdates. So far, I’m protecting our post-lunch hours pretty jealously for my kids to read, think, and dream. We’ll see how it goes.

    Sorry. This is a hot-button issue with you as you can no doubt tell. And it is a difficult issue because so many families have both parents working outside the home *and* there is the natural desire to give one’s children as many academic and extracurricular advantages as one can. Unfortunately free, unscheduled time is not ranked very highly.

    • Rabia, your childhood sounds delightful, with that long stretch of golden time each day. I remember so many lazy summer afternoons, reading by the little window in a corner nook in my room. Hours upon hours.

      I do understand that people want to give their children as many opportunities as possible, but I also see how my own children grow and develop within their unstructured time — and I’ve seen what happens to them, and to us, as a family, when we try to do too much, rushing from one activity to another. They get overwhelmed and burnt out. The activities aren’t fun or educational at that point — they are just one more notch in a crazy day.

      Here’s to the value of free time and idleness!

      • Totally!

        We vacationed in Maine two summers ago, on Mt. Desert Island (Acadia Park). It was a lovely time for all, with much hiking and walking the coast and just being outside. It was the best family vacation we’d ever taken (not that we take all that many.. ;).

        • This one was a splurge for us too — but worth it. We didn’t make it to Acadia, but I’d love to go there next time. I must say, I’m a little bit in love with Maine.

  2. This is not my particular problem (I have others), because I do love to enjoy the slower pace of life. I feel fortunate because there have been times in my life when I’ve been caught in the Busy Trap — but when my children were young I decided that they were my top priority because I knew they’d be grown in a blink (as you know they are now in college…). And my husband helped me because he’s always been focused on the journey not the destination, and he helps me when I lose sight of that. Glad you enjoyed Maine! 🙂

    • I always love your reminders to me to slow down and enjoy these precious moments when my kids are little — please keep telling me that, okay? (I need a lot of reminders!!) I loved Maine — sorry we didn’t connect. Next time!

  3. I was a serious sufferer of this strange disease… but then I started getting ill, or forgetful (and unproductive), or depressed, and I had to learn to slow down. I now alternate between periods (days, even weeks) when I count myself proud if I tick off just one item off my To Do list (which I still compile, of course, old habits die hard), with more frenetic periods. Which don’t last too long.
    I do occasionally feel guilty about my laziness and inefficiency, so it’s still work in progress finding that balance.

    • I think you are ahead of me on this journey, because my frenetic periods usually outweigh those days when I am content to tick off a single item. I’m working on it. The summer is easier. I’ve been trying, this week, to foster idleness. I really love it — when I remember. Like you, I am forgetful and unproductive and depressed when I rush too much. Thanks 🙂

  4. Even in retirement, when each hour of my day is answerable only to me, I have found myself still frantically filling my days with stuff – projects and “to-do” lists. True, the stuff is of my own choosing but I have been wondering why I find it so difficult to be idle – is it my a “hedge against emptiness?” Much to think about here. Thank you for sharing the fine article and your wise words.

    • Ah, yes — the frantic desire to fill the day up. Ugh. I am so miserable when I get caught there, but it is so hard to pull myself out. Let’s keep reminding each other to slow down — I think we are cosmic twins in this. xoxo

  5. I’ve found that when I have control over my time (including financial control with a good balance between being home and free and out working a job) I gravitate toward a personal balance that works for me and nourishes my calmer nature, and of course my writing.

    Being unemployed in the US without a degree has been hard for me. (Actually in today’s job market an advanced degree and a proven sales record can get a person closer to a job, but I’ve learned from the people who sit beside me in lectures and seminars for job seekers, that it’s not necessarily true if interviewers don’t perceive you as “a good fit.”) I’m not young anymore, but employment services stress how much you have to hustle in so many areas of life just to get an interview. There’s the hustle to internalize many facts and ways of thinking that don’t make sense for living a decent authentic life, but are said to be essential mindsets one must have in order to get “the job.”

    Experts tell us to tend to stress reduction and to look for fulfilling work we’re suited to, but if we try to honor our individual selves by doing that, others imply that we’re lazy or mentally lacking when we can’t find employment. I’ve worked several short-lived jobs in the past few years that hurt me to my soul, because the bills needed to be paid.

    To understand the dueling views the poor have to survive with, one only has to listen to how politicians ignore us, say that we have “safeguards in place already” and it’s really the middle class that’s in trouble, or tell us that we’re just not working hard enough.

    Some people are lucky — perhaps they know someone who could vouch for them to a full-time (or at least living wage part-time) employer they know, or they have roommates or family who can lighten the load of living expenses and taxes. Some of the lucky ones don’t make much but can deliver good work without experiencing undue stress, because they got one the few jobs available that doesn’t involve physicality they can’t endure, or emotionally painful lying to and misguiding of clients. But when one hasn’t found work yet, or the work is awful with either physical or emotional tolls (or both) where’s the room to live a less stressed, less busy life?

    • Ré, I am so, so sorry you are going through this struggle. I wish I had an easy answer — or, honestly, ANY kind of answer that wouldn’t seem trite or simplistic. You are right, I think, that there are times when busyness isn’t a choice, but a necessity, sometimes an awful one, filled with that “hustle” that you write about.
      I hope you find something soon, a job that will grant you both a living wage and peace of mind. I’m glad you are writing Words One Hundred — its a gift for readers, and probably for you too. Good luck, and best wishes.

  6. Yes yes yes a 1000 times yes. This is so the kind of thing I love discussing and will probably blog on it soon as well. (Will reference you as well as NYT article.)

    Love everything you said here.

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