Tuesday, February 6, 2007

On being too busy

"Do few things and do them well." - St. Francis

Busy people recognize busy-ness. In conversation, we can connect with our compatriots.

"I've got a meeting tonight, and I have to run and do some errands, but later if you want to we could..."

In between all that, a busy person will recognize his or her own situation. "Yeah," they might think, "I know how that goes."

But, like most of a busy person's relationships, that may be all we glean from the encounter. It may be that appointments and engagements takes the other person away, or perhaps your own busy-ness carries you off. For what can be learned of our friends and family if there's no time to learn it?

Thomas de Zengotita, in his book "Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It," likens this skimming to the feeling you get when a limb - arm, leg, foot, whichever - falls asleep. "Ever notice," he writes, "how, when your hand is numb, everything feels thin?"

Sure, anyone can relate to that. Zengotita says this can be read as a "guiding metaphor" for the "mediated adult" - being someone who is so "busy" being an adult, with all its activities and responsibilities, that life tends to feel a bit thin. Or maybe we don't feel it at all. We're so used to that thinness that we think life should feel this way.

Only when "the ultimately real descends upon us in the form of tragic accident" does that haze lift - sometimes, only briefly. "And then," Zengotita goes on, "we remark upon how things have been put in perspective."

Like a stone skimming a pond, we merely tread the surface. We tip-toe on only the tip of the iceberg. In both, we never truly get wet.

Unless disaster strikes.

I can certainly relate. I remember there were times, in college, when I would have an entire day's worth of activities and to-dos planned that only at the end of the day could I really sit down, relax, maybe get some homework done. Things haven't improved all that much. I'm still involved in many organizations, have friends in town and out to visit and socialize with, have hobbies to maintain, and somewhere in there I eat and sleep. Then get up and go to work. Over and over again.

Life is fleeting. It's fleeting because I'm so busy doing the flying.

Lately, though, I've been stepping back and taking a look at how I do things. Instead of running all over hell's half acre, I make a point of setting aside a few nights for relaxing, or doing things with friends, or just doing nothing at all. I'm selfish with my time. And why shouldn't I be? It's one of those things you can never get back, no matter how much you multitask.

Multitasking, in fact, can be held accountable for some of our busy-ness. Even on the ride home from work, you can call friends or family, set up your schedule for the rest of the night, maybe do a few errands why you're out and about. So busy. With cell phones, PDAs, etc., technology has its stake in this, too.

We probably never set life on cruise control as we do now. Now, we just let the engine of busy-dom jet along at an ever-faster pace. Meanwhile, our relationship with our actual lives begin to thin at the margins.

Ever notice how life seemed so much slower "back then?" Perhaps it was because there was less to do, but also because people didn't feel the compulsion to cram their day with the day-to-day. Long conversations, extended meals, walks and community events - these are what filled people's time. It was quality, not quantity.

Saint Francis understood this. His words tell us that a person's life can be truly fulfilled only when mastery of a few key ideas, skills, or accomplishments are realized. Today's world is filled with so many choices (think about the cereal aisle at the grocery store) that to land on and master any one thing become difficult. Why do a few things well when you can do all sorts of things half-assed?

But Tom Hodgkinson, in his book "How to be Idle," says that being busy robs us of the very things that make us human: thought and self reflection. How can we get to know ourselves, he argues, when we're too busy to stop and think?

He even quotes Oscar Wilde, from Wilde's essay "The Critic as Artist":

The contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being, merely, but becoming - this is what the critical spirit can give us.

In other words, a "to-do" list (which I swear by, I'll admit) keeps us from finding ourselves. It's all a distraction. Amidst so much to do, we have forgotten what matters. And - back to that "thinness" metaphor again - we eventually become superficial beings, instead of the realized versions of a potential self.

While playing video game football hardly helps me realize my potential self (accept, perhaps, when I can beat Don), it helps me settle, helps me use my brain, and helps me relax.

It's also one of the reasons I've found Buddhism so attractive lately. I don't have a religious bone in my body, but something about the practical aspects of mindfulness, and concentration, and just sitting and thinking - it's awfully hard to ignore the benefits. Instead of being so worried about planning, or regretting, or being anxious about things I can't control, I simply let them be. It's a fine art, and a talent, and I hope I can develop it more.

For some, however, being busy is all they know how to do. Running on all six cylinders is the usual - only on vacations or when they're asleep do they know the meaning of "down time." In the meantime, there is this drive to get things done. Perhaps, when the too-busy person looks back at their life, they will feel a sense of accomplishment.

But at what cost?

I think you can have it both ways. You can do lots of things - strike off those items on the to-do list, one by one - but still keep a sense of connectiveness to those you care about. It's about moderation. And (here's a multitasker's buzz-word) time management. Shucks, even a day spent on the couch, watching a movie, being lazy - it can be beneficial. Running on overdrive has to have its cost, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and certainly physically.

And when it does, what will all that running around be worth?

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