‘Beware the barrenness of a busy life’
‘Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork…’
Ephesians 5:11 (MSG)
Everyone’s busy nowadays
There are advantages to spending a whole day painting the dining room. You get the rare luxury of listening, undisturbed to the radio. And there are some great programmes, even during the daytime. In particular I’ve enjoyed listening to a series on busyness, called ‘Oliver Burkeman is Busy’.
There’s little doubt that life seems so much more hectic than it used to be. When we’re asked how we’re doing instead of saying ‘fine’ the standard response is now ‘busy’. Modern technology was supposed to give us more leisure time but instead we feel that there is always more to do than time available. We get back from holiday and compete with our colleagues to see who has the most unread emails in their inbox.
The strange thing is that we are actually not, in fact, any busier now than previous generations. We tend to do less paid work but the non-paid areas have mushroomed. Research has also shown that those who complain the most about being too busy are not actually the busiest! It would also seem that on average women are actually busier than men mainly thanks to the non-paid jobs such as housework and childcare.
So why do we feel so busy?
Too much information
One reason we feel so fraught is the amount of information that comes our way. It’s estimated that the amount of knowledge will soon be doubling every 11 hours. Sometimes it seems like a fire hose of data, texts, emails, articles, Facebook and Twitter has been turned on us. Foolishly we feel that everyone else around us is on top of all this stuff so we feel under pressure to do the same.
Ruining the moment
Busyness can also invade our private space when we allow the need to feel productive to intrude into other areas of our lives. What is appropriate at our work desk can destroy our enjoyment of simple pleasures.
We might be enjoying a beautiful sunset with a loved one but feel that we must post a picture on Instagram. Immediately we are switching from being present to love and beauty to marketing a product- a photo- and so the moment is corrupted.
Or maybe we enrol in a course on prayer or meditation but treat it like another self-improvement project so it adds to our stress levels and our schedule becomes even more hectic.
The paradox of efficiency
One paradox of our modern frantic lives is that labour-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners or washing machines often fail to save us time. Research has shown that we tend to use the time saved to up our expectations of what our homes should look like. We end up spending just as much time doing housework as if we’d cleaned or washed by hand. Instead of simply making the house look clean we try and reproduce the amazing home we saw on the telly last week.
And the incredible efficiency of computers doesn’t help us either and for similar reasons. We can do a project like a household budget in a fraction of the time but then the sense of the endless possibilities at our fingertips kicks in and we try to cram in a hundred more projects that we’d never thought of before.
Confusing effort with status
Nowadays there is a tendency to equate busyness with worth or status. The unforgiveable sin is to be idle as that must mean that we are useless. We can feel this about our life at work but it also creeps into other pasrs of our lives. We feel better about ourselves if we are really busy doing stuff like taking the kids to clubs, running marathons or doing more housework. We are sending ourselves a message- that we must be important if we try so hard.
There is also what is known as the Zeigarnik effect. Bluma Zeigarnik noticed back in 1928 that waiters in restaurants were much better at remembering an order that was incomplete than one that they had finished serving. Hence we find it a struggle to switch off from work if there are unfinished projects on our mind. And in our instant world of 24/7 emails and texts we are constantly bombarded with the next thing that needs our attention so we have a feeling of never being on top of our workload.
Living without limits
In our crazy, messed up modern world we fall for the fallacy of trying to live as if there were no limits. We are fed the fantasy that we can have it all and do it all and the smart phones in our hands and the computers on our laps make the delusion believable. But this only feeds a sense of panic as we begin to feel out of control, as there is always more for us to do. To make us feel we’re back in the driving seat we try and do even more, rather like the alcoholic who believes that the next drink really will make him feel better.
So busyness can have an addictive quality that can be very hard to break. We get addicted to something when we feel out of control. We instinctively reach out for this something that we can control, like staying late at work, answering emails as they arrive or forever cleaning the house. The problem is that the simpler the activity or the more easily quantifiable, the easier it is to become addicted to it. The things that really matter like tricky relationships, playing with the kids or preparing a healthy meal are too messy and fail to give us a buzz so we reach for the quick fix of the simple and the easy.
Oh, is that a text message that’s just arrived? Excuse me while I have a quick look…
Saying goodbye to compulsive busyness
The good news is that the habit of busyness can be unlearnt. Life doesn’t have to be this way. Compulsions can be broken, stress can be relieved and we can discover a sense of rhythm and rest.
In a future blog I’ll share some of the secrets of discovering a more unhurried and less stressful lifestyle even when there’s lots going on.