Beware the busy life!

We were in the middle of a discussion about possibilities for the future. The future painted itself as an alluring picture. One member of the team that was discussing the problem, was clearly worried. That worry stemmed from the load that the present day and its travails threw in already. There were processes to build. Projects to complete. People to meet. His calendar remained filled to the brim. He wondered where he would pull time out from for this ‘future’ discussion?

It was soon apparent that we weren’t headed anywhere. Nobody competes against a full calendar. Unless you are insanely brave or completely naive! We were stuck. It became clear that if we wanted to get anywhere productive, we needed to step off the ‘busyness’ treadmill. That was tough. Considering how critical the present day challenges were.

We are all genuinely busy. Aren’t we? With overflowing calendars and a constant hum in our minds about how busy we are and how much we miss leisure.

The busy life occupies us and our imagination. In this lovely piece in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviewing ‘Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time’ by Brigid Schulte, writes that being busy has acquired ‘social status’.  ( Here is another review of the same book. This time, by the NYT )

“Keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to out-schedule them”, she writes. Some of us are afflicted with what I call the ‘Full Calendar Syndrome’. The condition that causes palpitation upon seeing a few slots on the calendar ‘open’. Busyness reassures many of us with a sense of worth and progress. But what a travesty, that. More on that later.

Amongst the things that ‘busyness’ robs us of, is the possibility of looking around and seeing beyond our problems. Often times, the very aspect of looking in another direction gives us great clarity on the problems we work on. Full calendars and occupied minds, prevent us from creative thinking and missing obvious solutions that could be staring us in the eye otherwise.

John Maynard Keynes wrote “Economic Possibilities for our grandchildren” in 1930.  Kolbert’s piece pointed to this paper and obviously I downloaded it in some spare time, in the midst of being busy.

Its ten pages long and a fascinating piece to read, and to think of how his mind traveled a hundred years from the heights of the Economic Depression of the 1930s to peer into the future is some thought in itself.

Simply and simplistically put, Keynes felt that a hundred years from 1930 there would be so much wealth in the world that would automatically lead to an abundance of leisure!

His thoughts on the scale of our economic growth are well in tune with where the world has reached. But his posits on the scale of economic growth leading us to having substantial leisure hasn’t seen the light of the day. In fact, we have gone the other way. Wealth has only increased our ‘buysness’ and leisure has almost acquired the status of a bad word.

Bertrand Russell, another of those men, who rode those times with thoughts and words that caused people to pause and think, wrote “In praise of idleness” in 1935. (He makes a persuasive case for a four day work week which obviously, didn’t go a great distance but it’s a great read nevertheless). “The general thesis which binds the essays together is that the world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”

I would call to special attention “..vigorous action is admirable even when misguided..”

While ‘Busyness’ is certainly something to contend with, the other aspect that bears down on us heavily is the hysteria that surrounds our ‘busyness’, in our own minds. How many of us think our days are so packed that we don’t have a minute to breathe? Of course, most of us! On the one hand, we pack our days with much work (and if we don’t, there is worry that seeps in) and on the other our constant refrain in our minds revolves around ‘how busy we are’ and how much that interferes with what we would rather be doing!

The question that begs our attention, large chunks of it, is this : “What am I busy with?” It is but obvious that this question hardly gets asked and the possibility of it getting answered with care and thought, is even more remote.

Too busy to improve

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life” – Socrates

Socrates said it like none else.

There are strikingly simple things that can be done to jump off this treadmill. Simple stuff. For one, a simple scan of our workday will lead us to some levels of insight. Are we really busy with stuff that counts or is it a meaningless routine that we hazily go through the motions.

Conscious Choice
Leading a life of purpose and commitment, as cliched as it may sound, against a life of ‘routine busy’ is a result of conscious choice. It has to be consciously lived by design before it becomes a default mode of living. In the absence of conscious choice and action, there is enough and more of an activity swirl that happens around us that keep us going and suddenly we wonder where the last several years went!

Elizabeth Kolbert further writes, “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. 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”.

She goes on to write, “…so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion”

The antidote to this of course is to pause, find some time and think about life! To figure out what you are driven by? How do we want to get there? These need to be thought through and worked out. It is but obvious that several times, our choices are unconscious. From a set of options that popped in front of us because of the circumstances that we are in. Not a set of options that we created in line with what we wanted to do in life! To use the much abused and cliched word : ‘Purpose’!

Our life choices need thinking. Its our life. Even if our lives have many elements of routine, there are always avenues to make them rich and full.

If there was one purpose to this note it is this : to cause you to get to a “pause and ponder” mode about your ‘busyness’.  If you have come this far in this post, well, you might as well consider doing that. 🙂

Writing goals down and concertedly working on it, is a great place to begin. It works. All the time. Far better then when you dont write it down. If you have the time that is. Writing them down is perhaps the wheel that can set your success cart rolling in the right direction! Its a great first step. Of course, most of us know this. The question really is, ‘how many of us practice this’!

Do you?

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