The ‘Busy’ Trap (and my dirty little secret)

“You’re so busy!” “What have you been so busy with?” “Try to fit me in a few months down the line when you have time.” “You’re crazy…always doing stuff.” “Call me! Where are you?”

I get these comments said to me a lot, and I can’t think of many things that are more personally irritating. 

It’s true that I am often busy – whether it is a work commitment that goes into the evening or a plan with friends or a class or a stroll – yes, I’m busy. I live in New York City, where everyone moves a mile a minute and planning something for work or pleasure often has to happen months in advance. People get booked, and even folks who enjoy spontaneity – as I do – need to plan certain meetings in advance so as not to miss the chance. A concert here, a lecture there, a dinner or drinks in between…. well, that’s life. If you want to take advantage of it.

In a recent opinion piece by Tim Kreider in the New York Times, The ‘Busy’ Trap, frustration for these super-busy, ‘crazy’ lifestyles and the people who complain about have them is expressed loud and clear. (It’s actually a very good, interesting read.) Kreider writes:

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.

Fair point. Could be true for some. Fine. But, the author also self identifies as “the laziest ambitious person [he] know[s]”; so who is he to speak to what busyness is? In fact, this is the problem I have with being told through scolding voices how busy I am: I like what I do and know that my life is not trivial, and I feel that the activities I choose to fill my days and evenings with are in fact quite meaningful. Kreider and other doubters would know if they asked what folks were busy with instead of judging the quality of their busyness.

It’s easy when you have a large network and many interests to want to do it all, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it without resting. As Kreider correctly argues, you get tired. But, to keep a healthy balance of planned versus unplanned time for that multi-faceted, highly rooted in many social relationships person, you frustrate some people (friends! good friends!) in the process. You’re certainly not available every time they want to hop on the phone for catch up or go to the movies or grab dinner. I have seen this expressed – unfairly, albeit benignly in intent – over and over in whining statements of busyness in the tone of Kreiders article.

Here’s my dirty secret: I like committing to only what I can actually be fully present for. I don’t like to be late or overbooked or flake out. So, I decline things I don’t especially want to do, or can’t do fully. I also keep 2 nights a week and a large chunk of 1 weekend day always booked… for me. They are nights when I say I’m busy should people ask me to do something a few weeks out; I keep them free so I can enjoy these nights or weekend days however I choose in the moment. It could be alone or with others, at home or out, exhausting or relaxing, educational or silly, healthy or unhealthy. It’s time that I keep so that I don’t fall victim to having no time for myself, to allow for a healthy amount of spontaneity, and to recharge. I don’t do it to sound self important or too busy for others, although that is certainly a potential outcome.

There’s a balance to strike. It’s ok to pass on some things to open the door for others, and to hope that things you want to do and people you want to see can happen on a whim, or to just enjoy sitting sipping a (spiked) lemonade by yourself without feeling guilty. If you are always rejecting plans with the same person (like Kreider cites), perhaps there’s a larger self check-in of where that relationship fits in to your personal priority list. Taking some initiative to either spontaneously connect or schedule that connection on your time is a good step to fairly maintaining that relationship and your sanity.

To me, losing control and awareness of my time is what moves me from happily busy to pathetically busy. It is rare that I put something on the calendar many weeks out, because then I do indeed start to feel trapped. I see complaining about being ‘crazy busy’ or using busyness as an excuse (Kreider’s nemesis!) as a good tip off that I need to re-adjust, but not necessarily to stop doing. I don’t owe anyone but myself an explanation, but I do feel a need to be sincerely on board with my calendared items so that ‘busy’ doesn’t just become a transparently obnoxious rhetoric.

A last thought: every person has their own threshold for busy, too, and need for idleness. For Kreider,

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. 

For me, idleness is important though perhaps not as much so. Regardless, it’s the responsibility of a ‘busy’ person (you know who you are!) to recognize how your (seemingly) booked life might come across to others so that it can be communicated in a way that you are comfortable. Otherwise, people make assumptions often qualified in spiteful statements about busy people. A friend shouldn’t make another person feel guilty for leading a fulfilled life, so long as there is still quality time together.

I am a busy person. I’d like to think I’m good at it and have found a nice balance that is both fair to others and fair to myself. I do not think I’m generally overbooked, or pathetic, or using planned activities as a placebo for meaningful action. I don’t feel trapped by ‘busy’, but recognizing the threat of the trap is how I immunize against it. And I’m happy. Think twice before judging busy people, Kreider and friends.

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