Beware of Busyness

When friends ask me how I am feeling this year, my stock reply varies from “Busy!” to “Super busy!” or “Oh, you know … pretty busy.” Like many of my sophomore peers, I have hurled myself into extracurricular activities, delved more seriously into academic departments and even tacked on an extra class in the hope of discovering a major. My busyness this year is partly an effort to compensate for all my idleness last year—tanning by Pendleton Pool, waiting in line for Mudd Pasta Night and debating whether or not to go to Pub. As a result, my current schedule looks like it swallowed last year’s, and even the idea of Mudd Pasta Night is nothing short of absurd.

I had been relatively complacent with my busyness until a wise friend remarked, “You know, people who are busy are doing no work.” My instinct was, of course, to disagree, but his comment and a rereading of Tim Kreider’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap” have prompted some overdue contemplation. “It isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are,” Kreider argues. “What those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet.” Fine, so my film course is certainly not the I.C.U., but I am working; I am tired. Right?

Not quite, my friend would contend, and Kreider would support him. Perhaps I am enmeshed in an Olympics of obligations, but it is a competition into which I have entered myself. My activities are self-imposed, my engagements voluntary; in fact, my entire schedule is an abstraction. I recognize that many college students are committed to certain tasks for financial or other reasons. My point is, most of us could take our three credits and lay out on the quad. So why don’t we? Why this lust for obligation?

Kreider would explain our self-imposed busyness as an “existential reassurance,” our attempt to escape boredom and emptiness; a psychoanalyst might even diagnose it as a fear of death. I think that many of us are packing our schedules for the challenge, for that feeling of accomplishment after a long day that is nothing less than a high. I admit, it does feel oddly satisfying to tell someone you can’t meet up because you already have so much to do. Perceived busyness inevitably comes with a feeling of superiority.

Through our activities, we are following our curiosities, taking advantage of the resources around us, preparing ourselves for our futures. Therefore, I refuse to dismiss our pursuits as purely distraction, validation or insecurity. Still, it is important to recognize that they are not pure altruism either. Fighting the constraints of time does not make us heroic. Comparing schedules and hours of sleep with our friends over coffee doesn’t count as valuable social interaction. The “busiest” among us—those who skip dinner to work on an assignment, who check their e-mails during class, who rush around too quickly to think about anything but rushing—will admit that there is a fine line between routine and rut, between being engrossed and being overwhelmed. It is all too easy to trip over this boundary between involvement and isolation. Although I am enjoying my activities, I did feel the irony of my involvement recently when I made plans to spend time with my next-door neighbor—this is a girl I can literally hear through the wall.

To justify my imposed schedule, I consider it a path to knowledge—maybe even wisdom. I’ve got three more years here and I’m out to learn everything I can. If I’m not doing my assigned reading, then I’m wasting my time, not to mention my family’s money. Right? But the more I concentrate on turning pages, on showing up to the right place at the right time, the more I realize that the busyness approach to learning is narrow-minded and perhaps even selfish. My fixation on completing specific tasks has caused me to walk past enticing magazine articles, to ignore event fliers and to leave interesting conversations early. 

Reflection on my sophomore schedule forces me to debate the correlation between activity and productivity. I am starting to realize that busyness is not the only path to betterment. However, the conclusion I draw from this reflection is not to despair, quit or burn our books. If we remember that our obligations are of our own construction, then we should also recognize that busyness is largely a state of mind. Stress is our own added emphasis. The same wise friend who prompted my contemplation in the first place also offered me a solution. What we should do, he suggests, is make the important distinction between being “busy” and being “occupied.” To be occupied is to have an engagement—it is the physical time and space. To be busy, on the other hand, is to add a sense of burden, of constraint. The difference between busyness and occupation is the difference between obligation and opportunity. It is also a distinction I would never have considered had I not put down an assignment to talk to my friend.

Our reverence for busyness may have more dangerous repercussions than baggy eyes and dirty laundry. Most of our commitments here last a semester or two at the most, and then we can reevaluate, try again. The things we choose to fill our time after college may have more lasting effects. As we get older, I imagine the decision to choose occupation over busyness will take a concerted effort, a little luck and a good deal of bravery. 

For now, here’s what I think: to the best that you can, try to be occupied rather than busy. Go to dinner, talk to your friends, get some sleep. Why not contribute an opinion to TSL? Recall that your choices and perspectives are, well, yours. Whatever you decide to do, good luck!

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