Another take on The Busy Trap: Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are


Back in June 2012, the New York Times published The Busyness Trap, an op-ed by Tim Kreider.

Nearly two years later I still refer to it, and because of that piece, in 2013 I committed to saying “YES” to anyone who asked me to coffee or lunch. No excuses. No “let me get back to you.” Just YES. It was a fantastic experiment, and I learned a lot.

Chiefly, I learned that I wasn’t as busy and self-important as I perceived myself to be. It’s all about priorities and not letting the act of being busy become an idol. In fact, as Kreider notes, pulling back from the notion of busyness is critical to creative thinking, brain rest and ultimately, innovation.

This new piece from Hannah Rosin in Slate, Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are, picks up where Kreider left off. And I love the concept of “contaminated time.” Stealing that, for sure.

The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game. These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age. In her new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte calls this cultural epidemic the “overwhelm,” and it will be immediately recognizable to most working adults.”

Always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Muting the phone during a conference call so no one can hear soccer practice drills in the background, stepping over mounds of unfolded laundry, waking up in a 2 a.m. panic to run over the to-do list, and then summing up your life to your friends — in the two seconds you dedicate to seeing your friends — as “crazy all the time” while they nod in agreement.

To be deep in the overwhelm requires not just doing too many things in one 24-hour period but doing so many different kinds of things that they all blend into each other and a day has no sense of distinct phases. Researchers call it “contaminated time,” and apparently women are more susceptible to it than men, because they have a harder time shutting down the tape that runs in their heads about what needs to get done that day.

The only relief from the time pressure comes from cordoning off genuine stretches of free or leisure time, creating a sense of what Schulte calls “time serenity” or “flow.” But over the years, timeuse diaries show that women have become terrible at that, squeezing out any free time and instead, as Schulte puts is, resorting to “crappy bits of leisure time confetti.”

So if the time squeeze is so miserable, why do people brag about it? This is the curious thing about this particular disease — and the first clue to recovery.

“It’s very popular, the feeling that there are too many things going on, that people can’t get in control of their lives and the like,” Robinson says. “But when we look at peoples’ diaries there just doesn’t seem to be the evidence to back it up … It’s a paradox. When you tell people they have thirty or forty hours of free time every week, they don’t want to believe it.”

Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time, as Time Kreider wrote in “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” It’s the equivalent of being told that you’re redundant or obsolete.

And here’s Tim Kreider’s take from The Busy Trap

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

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…

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.

The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done…

What’s your take? How do you stay out of The Busy Trap?

5 thoughts on “Another take on The Busy Trap: Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are

  1. Great Post.

    I think culturally we have big problems due to this and our consistent drive towards homogeneity and risk aversion.

    People have been trained to say yes to everything asked, down time and self reflection are almost socially unacceptable.

    AI based Smart Filtering will try to solve this issue but I am not sure that a machine solution is the right fix.

    1. @Thornton – I love the idea of just letting the machines run the show. You’ve seen Wall-E, right? :)

  2. Working freelance for the past few years, I realize there’s a lot of comfort in structure, which is ironic as that’s where a lot of the “quest for busy” gets taught to us in the first place. I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself and even with a flexible schedule now, I manage to stack up work & chores to create a rush.

    But I do see more push back against this… For example, much of the millennial critique seems to be from the avoidance of doing things that conform to this attitude (if you don’t have a house, you don’t have a lawn and don’t have to mow it).

    Sadly it’s easier to get a positive response stating you have too much but there’s nothing better for delivering, whether at at work or personal projects, than having enough space to get to actually think about what I’m doing.

    1. The avoidance observation is fascinating. Reducing conflict by avoiding those situations altogether!

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