Why are people today so proud of being constantly busy? Is this a good thing? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
In the early 20th century, the more leisure time you had, the more you showed your status. That has changed entirely. Now, the busier we are, the more we cram onto our calendars, keep our inboxes at zero (a tough task that, honestly, could be a full-time job in and of itself), manically post to social media, and work late into the night, the more status we seem to have.
It's really crazy when you think about it.
When I first began reporting on time pressure, and that feeling of being on the never-ending gerbil wheel of having too much to do and never enough time to get to it--an existential state of being I call The Overwhelm--I initially thought that perhaps being a journalist in Washington, D.C. had something to do with it. But then I went to Fargo, North Dakota, where a researcher has been studying the annual holiday letters of people, mostly in the Midwest, that have increasingly become not just the typical brag sheets, but brag sheets about how crazy busy people are.
It's almost as if being busy is now not just a status symbol, but a clear sign that we measure up, we fit in with the in crowd, and that we're worthy and important. There are myriad reasons why we've gotten so busy, from technology creating a faster pace of life, to rising costs and stagnating wages for many, to work that's become more complicated with fewer people to do it, to changing and confusing gender roles, just to name a few.
But what continues to strike me the most is how busyness keeps us separated from ourselves. We get so breathless, and often panicked, that we can no longer see the horizon. Social psychologists call this "tunneling." When we keep digging and digging, it gets darker and darker, and we're not even sure where we're going or why we're digging so fast. In the Middle Ages, sloth (as in one of the seven deadly sins) had a flip side, acedia--the state of constant, mindless busyness. Philosophers thought of the two conditions as two sides of the same coin, because in each we are divorced from our own souls.
What can we do about this? Just stop. Even for a moment. Look up out of the tunnel. Breathe. Begin to create open space to remember who you are, what's important to you, and where it is you want to go, rather than racing faster and faster and going nowhere, in the dark.
Here's a link to an excerpt from one of the chapters of my book, Too Busy to Live, that ran in the Washington Post: Why being too busy makes us feel so good.
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