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Giving Busyness the Business

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How did "busy" become the new "fine"?

In olden times, when tweeters were birds and "facebook" was a printed college directory, the "how are you?" greeting was typically met with "fine." (A non-narcissist might have added, "You?") Now, we're "busy." (The alarming "crazy busy" or the compulsive "busy, busy, busy" -- the mere repetition of which is a self-fulfilling prophesy -- are simply variations on the theme.)

You might argue that the glorification of busyness stems from the demands of the digital age -- all those texts that need tending, all those blogs to read. But c'mon, we're no longer breaking our backs 16 hours a day on the farm, and tech breakthroughs actually give us the opportunity to be less busy: instant access to information, voice recognition software and digital photography, for better or worse, save countless trips to libraries, developing houses and offices.

Type-As use busyness as a way to project superiority: "I'm busy getting important things done, and therefore I'm better than you." For lazybones, it's an excuse for loafing: "You wash the dishes -- can't you see how busy I am?" World-class busy-bodies elicit sympathy for bad behavior while blaming the victim: "How dare you get mad at me for standing you up? Everyone wants a piece of me, and I'm overwhelmed."

The instant transmission of information and our shortened attention spans have turned the business of busyness into a competitive sport. The 24/7 variety is no longer good enough -- now you've got to be occupied 24/7/365.

Pulitzer-winning author James Stewart's new book "Tangled Webs," which limns the busy lies (and lives) of four public figures, has disgraced Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff winning over clients by promising that he never takes a moment off. And the book shows Martha Stewart so busy on an ultra-luxury vacation that she charges the entire trip to her company. Somehow, though, she finds the time to profit from the transaction by making her companion pay a proportionate share of the cost, which Martha herself busily pockets!

In last week's New York Times Magazine profile of Tina Brown -- former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor and current chief of the website The Daily Beast -- we learn:

Brown drives her staff at warp speed. "I'm up from 5 a.m., going online and sending BlackBerry messages out from then until I go to bed," she said. "People get used to that. ... Kathy O'Hearn from CNN has come over to develop our Web TV. Kathy says, 'Don't come here unless you're balls to the wall!' So now we call it 'B to the W!'"

A tonic to the warp-speed, "B to the W" existence is suggested by a recent Newsweek piece about Cary Grant. (Tina Brown also edits Newsweek, presumably in her sleep or from an alternate universe in which time warps backwards.) A new book by Grant's only daughter, Jennifer, depicts the debonair movie star as quite happy to retire at age 62 and be "just" a great dad for the next 20 years. His charming, funny and, most important, kind celebrity persona turns out to have been an authentic model for a life well lived.

The website Psych Central spotlights a research study that claims to have found that "people were happier when they were busy, even if they were forced into busyness." Based on this dubious proposition, the researchers bizarrely advocate what they call "[f]utile busyness, namely, busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness."

Keeping busy can help us through tough times. But how about a little non-busyness -- meditation, contemplation, pondering a philosophical issue or, yes, daydreaming? These practices can make us creatively "less busy" by revealing a distance between the external stimuli that flood our attention -- the emails, the Tweets and the texts -- and the impulse to respond.

I'm not talking here about the heroic millions who stretch human capacity to the limit just to make ends meet -- who, in any case, tend not to brag about how busy they are -- but about us lucky ones for whom busyness is something of a choice.

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life," Socrates said. Next time someone asks how you're doing, it might be fun to deadpan, "Not busy. You?"

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