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Rejecting the culture and worship of busyness

Bartleby the Scrivener

Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s catch phrase “I would prefer not to,” leads to extreme behaviour for the character, but I think we could learn a thing or two from this phrase, as well as Scrivener’s belief that “We must cultivate a relationship with inactivity, and not become disoriented or panicked at how unlike work, or being at some task, our leisure actually is.”

There have been many excellent articles and posts written about the culture of busyness. The growing number of such articles is an indication, perhaps, of how much this culture has grown over the years. I use the term “worship” in my title, because I think that’s become a very common approach to busyness: we worship at the altar of busyness like acolytes looking for validation of their worth and reward for their efforts.

Busyness has become a competitive sport; we all seem to feel the need to tell others how busy we are. How many times do you hear (or say) “Busy,” when people ask you how you are? In my professional environment, it seems that the number of hours we dedicate to work are seen a badge of honour: we list the number of evenings that we work, as well as weekends. We say we can’t not look at work email when we are on holidays because we will spend too much time catching up afterwards. We feel the need to take on tasks that fill almost every hour of our working days. Time and time again, people say how tired they are and busy, yet they take no time to rest, or to say no to tasks.

I say none of this to offend anyone; I’ve done all these things as well. As I say, busyness has become engrained into our culture. We are expected, it seems, to take on task after task and to work evenings and weekends. We are always connected and must respond at the drop of a hat. We are also to blame to some extent for people’s expectations; so, for example, I make it very clear to people that I’m not joking when I say that I don’t read or respond to email when I’m on holidays and I have found that people tend to send me fewer messages as a result. I think spending a few hours catching up with email when I return is a small price to pay for taking a true holiday from work.

How much of this obsession with busyness is tied to our fragile egos? Do we keep busy, and let others know how busy we are, because we feel the constant need to receive validation of our worth? Is our self worth tied so strongly to public perception (and our declaration) of our productivity? Do we unknowingly use our busyness as a way of showing that we are somehow better or more valid that others? If we aren’t busy, then we can’t be important and contributing members of society. In many ways, we have reduced ourselves to commodities.

Have we fallen into the trap of measuring our self worth with what we do and how much we produce? How many of us tie our identity do our professions and what we produce? Again, I’m pointing the finger at myself when I say this. One of the reasons I’ve embraced minimalism over the past few years is because I’m simply tired of being a rat on an endlessly-spinning wheel. I simply cannot and will not accept that who I am is defined by what I do for a living. Who I am is a combination of the principles, beliefs, values, and morals that I hold. My professional career is something that I do and enjoy, but it does not define who I am. It’s a cliche, I know, but there really is more to life than work.

I’m not going to get all new age and “intentional” on you; that’s simply not who I am. My brain is hardwired to always seek the most efficient and effective ways of doing things. I’ve extended this lens to the quality of my life, and working all hours of the day and over weekends is simply an inefficient way to live. Being constantly busy is actually a failure on my part to be efficient, because it means that I’m spending too much time on what I do for a living, and neglecting who I am as a person. Spending 12-14 hours a day on my work life (the what) means that I have little to no time to devote to me (the who). Neglecting the who is the ultimate inefficiency. The less time I spend on the who, the less efficient I am dealing with the what.

Every day, I carve out time for the who and guard it jealously. I’m an early bird, so I spend quality time on the who before I work on the what. The what takes a hiatus in the evenings and over the weekend. Does this mean I will produce less than others? Perhaps. Does this make me less self worthy? This is the ultimate question I need to deal with because of my emphasis on efficiency. I’ve learned, however, that efficiency and productivity are only loosely correlated. One can produce a lot of things; the quality of these things may not be that good, however. Even if the quality of the output is good, what is the impact on the who? I’ve seen what has happened to my health when I’ve placed the what above the who; this is the ultimate inefficiency and something I’m not willing to live with.

The more time I spend on the what, the less satisfaction I feel with the who. Ultimately, for me it’s the who that counts more. If I can’t take the time for the who, and to work on expanding my horizon and knowledge, I have failed my ultimate test of efficiency. Yes, the work I produce adds to my knowledge and, I hope makes a contribution to others, but this is only one aspect of who I am. I simply need more than this. And yes, I’m worth it.

What I’ve written above relates to only my reflections on what is important to me. I realize that other people’s lives, realities, and priorities differ from mine, and that the choices I make are designed for my well-being. I do think, however, that a reflection on the impact of busyness on our lives is worth the effort.

4 thoughts on “Rejecting the culture and worship of busyness”

  1. A brilliant discussion, Louise. Have you ever noticed that we (ie humanity) are never to busy to tell others how busy we are. Like you, I love exploring new ideas and thoughts, discussing them with kindred spirits. To do this, I have learned to breathe deeply, embrace life enthusiastically and reflect in silence.

    1. I think that silent reflection is so important, Rebecca. We seem to feel that it’s important to fill every minute of every day with some activity. I’m not sure if you’ve read the book “The philosophy of walking,” but it gives a brilliant account of how some of our leading philosophers developed their ideas while walking; they simply let their minds wander and explore. Inactivity is treated as a waste of time by our society, but I think that we can accomplish a great deal while being inactive. Another conversation we must have when I visit Victoria.

      1. I found the book, “A Philosophy of Walking” Frederic Gross, Clifford Harper, John Howe. (I think that is the book to which you refer) I am delighted that you introduced me to this book, for it comes at the most opportune time. I have been thinking a great deal of how meditation, walking, fellowship with self, creates moments of insight that can come only in unexpected moments when the mind is at rest. I enjoy our conversations, Louise and I look forward to our conversation when we both return to Victoria.

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