Yesterday a great author shared this quote on Facebook:
“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
This reminded me of one of my favorite essays, Lazy: A Manifesto.
In the opening lines, Tim Kreider says this:
“It is pretty obviously a boast disguised as a complaint. The stock response to this is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have’ or ‘better than the opposite.'”
This thinking permeates our culture. It seems as though most people feel the need to be busy all day every day. Due to this need, everything we do can contribute to the feeling.
And that’s exactly what it is: a feeling. It’s a mental clutter that increases the time input of things and blows up their importance.
Some of the time, business takes the form of perfectionism, which is a form of procrastination. The desire to make something just right takes up more time than than having it done. A professor of mine recently told me “good is the new great.” Where I’ve seen this is in doing problem sets for classes. I would routinely finish my weekly thermo problem sets hours before some of the people I was working with simply because I called the work done. I don’t know for sure what they would do for hours, but while I was there they would debate various ways to solve the problem, talk themselves in circles and generally not accomplish much. They wanted the best way to solve the problem and to “deeply understand” it. Sure the solution I worked on with someone else had some pushy assumptions and brute forced the answer a little, but from that we gained a better working knowledge than the people who insisted on perfecting their understanding of the theory.
The busy part of that example is that they don’t sleep very much and the mental clutter builds up. As the next week’s problems come around, it keeps building.
I believe that the above example simply lacked commitment. The commitment to sit down and do the work.
In the same essay, Kreider says “They’re busy because they’re addicted to business and dread what they have to face in its absence.” What fills in the absence of business is committing to doing the difficult work.
This brings up another question: why do we feel busy even when we’re relaxing or not working? That brings us back to the mental clutter. When we don’t do the work, no matter how small it is, its perceived importance grows. And eventually, its possible to become too busy not doing something to actually do it. I noticed this today when I realized that I had been putting off cleaning my room for a few days. I felt that I was too busy to do it earlier. Looking back, the only important thing I was doing was avoiding doing it.
I felt busy because I couldn’t commit to just doing the work. I suspect that this is true for many others as well.