Two different pieces on the culture of being busy came out over the weekend, in two different national publications.
The first, “You’re not that busy” (Sunday Life) played on the idea that we have a lot more free time than we realise, and the way to feel less busy is to tell ourselves “you’re not that busy”. Viola! Problem solved.
The second, “This column will change your life: stop being busy” (The Guardian) took advice from Brigid Schulte, who said that the time management game is designed to be unwinnable. You just pick what is the most meaningful way to spend your life, and make time for it. Even if that means you haven’t cleaned your bathroom in a month.
I just want to go ahead and call bullshit on both articles.
Of course we’re busy. And of course we’re overwhelmed. That’s the way our society has been set up, right?
Exercise. Keep up with the 24 hour news cycle. Be able to comment on new NSW Premier Mike Baird, the latest Game of Thrones ep, and the new bar that everyone’s raving about. Don’t neglect your friends. Don’t neglect your family. Eat five portions of veg a day, and try not to binge on chips. Plan your next backpacking adventure. Figure out your next career move. And don’t forget to try and get eight hours of sleep a night.
“The art of busyness”, writes Hanna Rosin in Sunday Life, “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.”
I don’t doubt that there are those out there humble bragging about their hectic schedule – “Honestly, I just don’t know to get any writing done when we’re leaving for Thailand next week… and I haven’t even packed!” – while continuing to find the time to post perfectly constructed Instagram photos upwards of four times a day on Facebook. I know these people. They litter my feed. I don’t care if you’re posting about your ‘perfect’ life or your ‘busy’ life: if you’re posting that much, you are not that busy. Deal with it.
But for every ‘look at me, I’m so busy, isn’t my life important’ people out there, there are dozens of others who actually are busy. They’ve bitten off more than they can chew, and now they’re not quite sure how to handle it.
There’s only one time management option left, writes Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian). “Step one: identify what seem to be, right now, the most meaningful ways to spend your life. Step two: schedule time for those things. There is no step three. Everything else just has to fit around them – or not. Approach life like this and a lot of unimportant things won’t get done, but, crucially, a lot of important things won’t get done either. Certain friendships will be neglected; certain amazing experiences won’t be had; you won’t eat or exercise as well as you theoretically could. In an era of extreme busyness, the only conceivable way to live a meaningful life is to not do thousands of meaningful things.”
Just what are we “fitting around here” and not? For me, the most meaningful ways to spend my life at this point in time is to write (at work or otherwise), and spend time with my close friends and family. That’s pretty much it. That means that the other things in my life, from the mundane to paying bills and cleaning, to the somewhat necessary, like exercising and running errands for my parents, to the more exciting, like seeing friends and attending launch parties, would all fall to the wayside. They might get scheduled in, but then again, they might not.
The problem with this theory, is that it equates what is most important to us with what is most valuable to us, which aren’t the same thing at all. There aren’t many out there that love a 6am wake up to push their body to its limits at the gym each morning, but we do it. Why? Billions of dollars in scientific research, healthcare professionals, and journal articles and media telling us we’re better off for it. And we are.
Then there’s the little, crappy things we don’t particularly like doing, but are necessary. I mean the really boring things: paying bills, washing your sheets, taking the rubbish out etc. Nothing makes me feel more calm and ready to deal with the day than making my bed in the morning, and cleaning the dishes after breakfast. The chances of these two things happening on the same today fall somewhere near Barry O’Farrell using his new free time to open a late night bar in Kings Cross, but at least the option is there. Should we let these little fall to the wayside in pursuit of the meaningful things in our lives, even if neglecting these things will lead to less control over that same life?
The reason we feel so busy these days is that there’s a lot to feel busy about. And I mean a LOT. We’re supposed to pursue a career with meaning, which if you’re getting into journalism, means a lot of working for free and writing for free. If you have a full time job, you’ll already be aware that ’9 to 5 with an hour for lunch’ is a lie you picked up in high school.
Then there’s keeping up with your mates. By the time you’ve left university, it’s likely you have a few different friendship groups, all of whom require nights of drinking (and the time suck of the subsequent hangover). If you can somehow combine these friendship groups, you are indeed a god amongst men.
Social media means we’ve all assigned ourselves data entry jobs, and crucial questions like “Is this an Instagram or Snapchat photo?” drain your decision making skills. And let’s not even get started with the group chat phenomenon where you’ll log onto Facebook after a few hours, only to be greeted by a 100+ notifications you’ll never actually be bothered to read, but will feel their presence hanging over you like a dog that needs to be walked.
Some of this is pressure we put on ourselves, and some of it is pressure from society. Some of it is necessary pressure, and some of it isn’t. Working out what is necessary (staying healthy) and what isn’t (seeing friends you no longer enjoy spending time with) is the hardest part. Simple suggestions like “tell yourself you’re not that busy” or “just focus on what’s most important to you” aren’t going to make those decisions any easier.
And this is all before we get to that other big time suck: procrastination. We waste time doing anything to put off doing the things we should be doing, even if it’s as boring as refreshing Facebook to see if anything new has happened in the last five minutes. Tim Urban, one half of the duo behind Wait But Why, calls this the Dark Playground.
“The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well,” he writes in his post, Why Procrastinators Procrastinate. “It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.”
So the busy person who is also a procrastinator then can’t even relax, because they have no anxiety-free leisure time. Time is broken up into two categories: time spent doing important stuff, and time spent procrastinating from doing the important stuff. We can all relate to this from time to time – when we had an important exam, for example – but if this is your day to day, then you have issues. It is not a sustainable model.
And that’s where we reach the crucial difference between ‘humble-brag busy’ and ‘out-of-control busy’. The humble brag types aren’t ridden by anxiety caused from procrastination or not getting on top of the ‘less important but necessary’ things in their life. They’re just important, and have a lot going on, and want you to know about it. Good for them. Go save the Crimea with your recycled knits, or whatever.
The out-of-control busy is where you’ll find the rest of us. The response “I’m so busy” to the question “How are you?” isn’t given to imply your own importance is greater than everyone else. It’s given because “I woke up every hour riddled with anxiety that I wasn’t going to get everything done, and am currently surviving on caffeine and sugar before I can collapse into bed tonight” isn’t an acceptable answer.
How do you tell the difference? Easy. If “I’m busy” is given with a self-satisfied smile of someone who is über happy with their life, then they’re humble bragging. If it’s given with manic eyes and a twitching facial part, they’re not coping with the busyness.
And simple telling yourself “I’m not that busy” isn’t going to fix it.