When John Lennon wrote the famous line back in 1980, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,” he couldn’t have foreseen that a new era was about to begin that would raise the activity of being ‘busy’ to cult status. How did we get to a place where we publically glorify being busy? Why do we wear ‘busyness’ as a badge of honour and a measure of our success? How come we don’t cringe with embarrassment at our obsession with frenetic activity, despite the overwhelming evidence that it’s detrimental to our wellbeing and undermines our performance?
I let those questions and the many answers run through my mind as the sound of cowbells echoed through the stillness of an Alpine morning. A Facebook-post from a friend the previous evening had reminded me of the busyness that had ruined my last Alpine holiday seven years ago. In her post she described how she had delivered a presentation that morning which she’d prepared on the train after only three hours sleep, returned later on the train to attend an important meeting late that same afternoon, then made it to an informal networking gathering that evening. The issue here is not a ‘once off’ busy day, a busy week, or even a busy month, which are part of the natural rhythms of living and working. It’s about the socially acceptable status symbol attached to the cult of busyness. It’s when working a 40-hour week is seen as a cop-out, a failure, a lack, because ‘passionate’ and ‘motivated’ people are willing to work 80-100 hours a week and publically boast about it.
We all know that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is not, “I’m enjoying a leisurely life, interspersed with just the right amount of work”, or, “I’m super chilled just now”. No, just think of the social stigma, not to mention the blow to your self esteem of admitting that right now you are ‘doing nothing’ when the chorus around you lauds the contemporary evergreens: “I’m sooooooo busy”, or “I’m super busy”, or even “I’m crazy busy.” I, too, glorified my busyness and belonged to the ‘Super Busy 7/24 Brigade’. This is how I became a club member.
The Lure of Busyness
Once upon a time I had a job I genuinely loved, one that ticked all the boxes of my ideal career: lecturing and researching at university. However, a new era arrived that would radically change my dream job. The development of technology and social media (e-mails in particular) promised us all great improvements and increased efficiencies, but what actually happened was they created much more work and extended the working day well into the night and the weekend. With the rise of quality reviews, the value of my job was increasingly defined by accountants measuring units of performance. As quantifiable output became the sole measure of all things and that bar was raised on an annual basis, telling people I was busy, secured my worth and relevance within the organisation.
This increase in external pressures is, however, not the full story. I was living an economic model that coupled self-esteem with productivity, so being hyper busy in the workplace defined who I was. Busyness demonstrated that I had an important, responsible job and the work I did mattered a great deal – not least because there was always so much of it. Tim Kreider explored this aspect of glorifying being busy in his seminal article for the NY Times back in 2012, The ‘Busy’ Trap. Kreider points out that we chose busyness because of our “ambition or drive or anxiety” and because we are “addicted to busyness.” He then identifies what lies at the root of our addiction: we “dread what [we] might have to face in its absence.” His explanation has long been supported by Buddhism, which sees our busyness as a form of laziness that allows us hide behind a socially acceptable way of not confronting our own issues.
Courtney Martin further explores the egoism underpinning being busy. There is, she claims, a certain “arrogance” that comes with the “privilege” of self-imposed busyness and it’s that privilege that teaches us to “overvalue ourselves and undervalue others.” Martin accurately describes something unpleasantly true about our ‘need’ to be busy: “[T]his is the thing about privilege and the arrogance that stems from it: it keeps us weighted down with self-importance. It traps us in a fog of specialness and busyness.” I would add another ego-feeding mechanisms to the busyness trip. Our publically performed and publically acknowledged martyrdom is, after all, the highest and most admirable price to pay for our success.
Is there a Fix for our ‘Busy-Fix’?
Yes, there is. But it’s not something you can just tick off on your do-do list and continue as normal.
Let’s go back to the Alps, back to unapologetically (to myself) lying in bed listening to the mellow chorus of ringing cowbells. Then rewind to my previous Alpine holiday when I had cursed those cowbells for disturbing my concentration as I battled to get an article written for an approaching deadline. At the end of that holiday I had failed on two counts: I could neither relax nor work and left feeling more exhausted and anxious than when I arrived. What changed in those intervening seven years?
I learned how to be idle. As Robert Louis Stevenson explained back in 1877 in his essay An Apology for Idlers, being idle, “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, [and] has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.” Andrew Smart develops this notion using contemporary scientific research in his book, Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing and states right at the beginning that being idle “is one of the most important activities in life” because that’s when the brain is most active. Doing nothing allows the brain to process all the information it has gathered, opening up a space for creative ideas to surface and original insights to occur. It’s why Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree daydreaming and not worrying about cutting the grass when the theory of gravity occurred to him. Or the mathematician Archimedes was relaxing in his bathtub and not taking a ‘quick’ shower to get to his desk earlier when he had his eureka moment about how to measure the volume of an object with an irregular shape. Being idle is also the time when we can self reflect, when we can deal with those issues we otherwise avoid by being busy and develop a sense of self beyond work.
How to be Idle
So, if idleness is so important, if it’s not just a matter of doing nothing, then how does one just be idle? (Yes, there is a humorous, well-researched and thought-provoking book on this very topic by Tom Hodgkinson, How to be Idle.) Learning how to be idle evolved for me. What began as a programme to achieve more work-life-balance, developed into questioning that very term itself and eventually led me to leave my (once dream) job and create my own version of a dream life, that includes doing work I thoroughly enjoy.
Being idle, a.k.a. switching off, chilling out, unplugging, tuning out, pressing the ‘off’ button, etc., is about being idle for idleness sake. It’s about giving undivided attention to doing nothing. Being idle for its own sake is not to be confused with organizing down time to ‘sharpen the saw” of productivity and efficiency, nor is it something to add to the list of habits to become even more ‘effective’ in the workplace.
I have two strategies on How to be Idle:
- Press the STOP button.
STOP being busy, stop doing, stop thinking, stop planning, stop saving time, … Create a space, or spaces, in your day when all devices, all activities, all diversions, all external stimuli are ‘unplugged’. I began with a 10-minute slot morning and evening, which over the years developed into 20-minute slots dispersed throughout the day. Sunday has gradually been reinvented as a ‘day of rest’ in our home. That means no internet, no shopping, no tidying, no getting a ‘head start’ on the week ahead.
- After your press the STOP button, BE idle.
Just as there are endless potentials for turning off the outside world and incorporating ‘off-time’ into our daily lives, there are also limitless ways of being idle. Chose to give you attention to what slows you down, brings you joy, activates your imagination, keeps you in the present moment, connects you with your body, takes you outside your comfort zone, etc. Just remember: be idle for it’s own sake on a regular basis and resist the temptation to co-opt it for productivity-related outcomes.
Idleness must be Practised
Just in case you already feel skeptical about whether altering established behavioral patterns is that simple, the science of neuroplasticity proves we can change the structure and the function of our brains by practicing new responses to old behaviours. Two rules apply: you have to want to change and you have to commit to practising new responses. It takes up to around 4-5 weeks to establish new neural pathways in the brain and these pathways will go dormant if not activated regularly, in other words, ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.’
A final word of advice on the Art of Idleness. Annie Dillard reminds us in The Writing Life that how we spend our days, is how we spend our lives. So, the sooner you start practising idleness during your day, the better.