It’s a (Busy) Trap!

If you can spare a few moments, read this. It’s about the ‘busy’ trap we tend to set for ourselves.

Do you know the ending of The Paper Chase? If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. If you have seen it, do you remember the final scene? When I saw that scene I was dumbstruck. I could never have done that.

At school I kept telling myself that the grades didn’t really matter, since the A students and the C students all walked away with the same piece of paper. Even if I hadn’t been balancing my grades to maintain a scholarship, I still would have needed to know what some instructor thought of my work.

And that’s a hard feeling for me to shake. Almost 75% of my life so far has been dedicated to getting grades. The first 20% was dedicated to not choking on LEGOs.

I remember thinking what would I do with my life after grad school, after grades. In The Real World as we students called it, with a mixture of aspiration and terror. What would it feel like to go home and not have to do homework? To ride the TTC and read something unrelated to business case studies or historical methodology?

Turned out I made it just as busy as it was before.  I volunteered my time, filling it with things to do. And why do I do it? At least many of the articles about hyper-schedules have kids to worry about, and their kids’ schedules fill their time. But I don’t have kids. All I have to is wake, eat, work, and sleep. I’m assigning myself everything else.

I thought it was a Gen-Y thing. You know, we bratty entitled youth who’ve been told all through school we’d enter a workforce desperate for new blood after the baby boomers all retired, only to end up over-educated and under-employed?

Back when I worked for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture (one of my favourite work experiences ever) all the summer contract workers had lunch with the Assistant Deputy Minister. He was asking us about our backgrounds and what brought us to our contracts – and where we’d be applying for university. Most of us had in fact already graduated for university, or some (like myself) were just finishing graduate school.  Yet we were desperate for these contracts because it was what we, with all our extra training, were able to get. Since our school and experience weren’t enough, we were also big on the extra-curriculars, filling our time with volunteering and freelancing.

I thought maybe it was some socialized woman thing, a need to help others and make oneself useful. My partner would look so despondent when I told him I’d be home late yet again because of a volunteer engagement, something I heard echoed by my fellow volunteer-addict women friends. But when I tweeted about the feeling, a bunch of my men friends said they knew they, too, made themselves busier than they had to.

So if I can’t blame it on my age or gender socialization, why do I do it?

I think I worked it out, and if you make yourself too busy, if you’re a volunteer-addict, I want to know if the following rings true at all for you.

It’s because I want to impress people. I want to build my profile. I’m volunteering for initiatives in which I believe, of course. But I’m also doing it for my career. I’m doing it so you’ll be impressed and say good things about me, and refer me. I’m jumping through hoops that I set up for myself so I can be engaged and involved and build the career I so desperately want. I’m putting on a show! I’m doing this for you!

You feel me, Maximus Decimus Meridius?

Alright. Well written down I come across like a giddy puppy desperate for approval. It’s not quite like that. But there’s absolutely some truth to it.

I’m really glad these articles about the false nature of our busy-ness are coming out. I think of a time in the future when I’m more established in my career, when I won’t feel the need to busy myself with so many things.

And I’ve already made some progress towards that state. Sorting out the things I just do with my time from the things I do with my time that make me happy, make my life fuller. Notably, in recent weeks I’ve been freelancing on the art/design side, something I realized makes me a truly happy woman. So I’m going to work on doing that more. Because it’s all well and good to fill my time, but I’ve only got so much time. So here’s to maximizing the good times.

What say you? Have you mastered a blissfully idle lifestyle? How did you do it? Are you instead like me, a busy bee spinning your wheels and asking yourself why do you it? …Why do you do it?

For reals. I want to know. Tell me your secrets, over-achievers!


9 thoughts on “It’s a (Busy) Trap!

  1. Emma,

    I can definitely relate – I’ve always tried to fill my time by doing something productive because it would either impress someone, impress myself, or further me along in my life goals.

    Something I quickly learned post-university: there are plenty of things along the way where you have to just stop and appreciate. You don’t always have to be busy, you don’t always have to hustle, you don’t always have to bust your ass for that next dollar, that next strong connection, that next impossible feat completed.

    You can advance your life by working hard and working smart, but you should make time to sit back and just enjoy yourself. Took me a long while to learn. And I still struggle with it today.

    • Hi Jon.

      Thanks so much for your comment! Was there something that helped you realize what wasn’t worth the hustle? Was there a point of achievement you reached when you thought to yourself you could take it easy? Or did it come from within? I get antsy when I try to take a break, and often end up reading or knitting just so I know my downtime has been put towards completing something. Good to hear I’m not so alone in the struggle for un-busy-ness!

  2. This article is somewhat timely for me, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m not, by and large, that busy. As an introvert I don’t tend to go out that much and as a video game fanatic I tend to enjoy spending my weekends holed up at home with a good game.

    I’ve noticed that, among my friends, this almost seems something to be ashamed of. People seem to admire folks; the busier they are, the more admirable they are. They brag about long hours, about how tired they are, all that. For some folks it is couched somewhat; they say they’re doing what they love, which makes it all okay. I call BS somewhat, as I think no matter what you love to do it can still exhaust you, and I think some people still fall for this busyness trap, giving in to this culture of admiration for business.

    I wonder if in some ways it’s a coping mechanism. For a lot of people, to make ends meet or get ahead you’re expected to be insanely busy. It’s part of moving up in that industry. So, do they lament it, complain about it, or turn it into a virtue? Obviously the latter has happened.

    The funny thing is, despite having generally decent work/life balance in life, I feel guilty about it. I feel like I should be working more, like I’m not an admirable or good person if I’m not working more or working harder. Thanks for the reminder that maybe that guilt isn’t entirely worthwhile.

    • The original article made an excellent point – “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” Idleness is slothfullness, and all that.

      And your guilt is not worthwhile. When people say “I don’t know how you have the energy/time for all you do” I think to myself… I have time and energy? I’m far less involved than others in my network, which makes me feel guilty, and inspires an arms race of busyness. But when I slow down, I feel guilty.

      Hmm, looks like the busy trap has a lot to do with guilt too. Self-imposed guilt. And I think we could all use a break.

  3. UGH I hate that you wrote the real reason why you overbook because it’s the secret reason that we all have that no one talks about – it’s for our resume, for the future. Yes, of course I believe in what I do, but I want to look back one day and say “well, at least I didn’t waste any time”. Though having said that, I can’t remember the last time I did an activity without multitasking. If I watch TV I’ll knit or crochet. If I take public transit, I’ll make sure I have a book to read. If I’m in a long car trip, I’ll do one of the two. If I’m lying out on a dock in the summer enjoying the heat… I’ll make sure there’s a podcast loaded up on my iPod.

    I think it all comes down to the fact that I know there are a plethora of books to read, CDs to listen to, museums to visit, courses to take etc. and if I don’t make time for them I’ll be missing out on such enriching opportunities. Not to mention the fact that I’m making my own content for the world and if I, as someone who is passionate about art and culture, am not out there taking advantage of as much as I can, then who will do it for what I’m producing?

    To many awesome things. So little time.

    • The secret is out! We do it to look good to others (and ourselved, but let’s not forget others)

      And yes, good ol’ Fear of Missing Out/FOMO rears its seductive head. There is so much to do – can you ever really relax and not feel the tug of what you could be doing?

      Yet don’t we bust our backs to be busy to do well to get paid to go on vacation to… do nothing? Isn’t that the dream? The NY Times article quoted: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.” Work now, play later.

      I still like volunteering and feel good about it, but I need to reign in on careless volunteering, putting my hours where they don’t need to be, and where they don’t make me happy. Taking a cue from one of @josephtravers’ recent tweets: “Just do the fun volunteer stuff.” Cheers to that.

  4. What a fabulous conversation! Actual discussion from a blog post, good for you Emma! You’ve hit a nerve indeed. I promised you this morning I was going to share a couple secrets of mine as a lot of people know me as a ‘networking enthusiast’ – which for many means they think I spend a lot of time at events. Quite the opposite.

    A life statement of mine is “if hindsight is 20/20, I want to spend my life living through the learned wisdom of those who have gone before me”. And so in my 20’s I spent time learning from the mistakes and wins of mentors in their 50s, 40s, 30s and late 20s. I asked them why so many in my fundraising/nonprofit sector are divorced, why so many passionate entrepreneurs are estranged from their families and why currently the only answer to “how are you” is *sigh* “busy”.

    So they gave me tips, books to read, things to consider and a game plan. It’s not fool proof but it’s been a good road map to follow. To know how to use your 20’s to maximize connecting time ( I worked 40 hours and volunteered 40 hours a week ), to use the family building years to draw back and strategically invest ( quit 90% of the volunteer gigs and invested in one on one connections. While I spend only 1 night a week max at events I meet a referred stranger or networking contact almost five days a week at 8am at the Starbucks next to my office ) while spending important evening quality time with that family I want to keep.

    Now that we have social media we can be at home and connected more than ever! Dump those inefficient rooms full of strangers! Qualify the event, and invest when you share a lot in common with 80% of those attending. Thanks to schedulers like tweetdeck and hootesuite I may “look” ever-present ( I’m often not at the conference but at my office surfing the hashtag and learning almost as much!) and actually be present at work and for our loved ones ( I throw all electronic devices in a locked room from 6 to 10pm every single day ).

    Sure the recession has been one of the big culprits here, we answer “busy” to “how are you” because we don’t want to seem like we’re expendable, everyone not absolutely necessary to the company or social-profit charity has been fired right? We’re going to have to change this culture one day, one answer at a time. “How are you” – the time has come to start answering “good, I’m getting things under control”. Because as I’ve learned, it’s not about faking it until you make it, it’s about setting the goal and being that person, putting yourself where you want to end up and one day soon you’ll wake up in that place ( I can only say this because I tried it and it worked for me ).

    Like many others who have commented, I’m focused now on slowing down. This summer especially….seems like it was 2006 since summers were slow. It won’t be slow until we MAKE it slow. To play the devil’s advocate – remember – slow is PRODUCTIVE!!! The great thinkers of our time disconnected. Einstein loved to go off alone and think. Steve Jobs was a big time walker during the day. Instead of coming up with great ideas in the shower or on the can ( which is the only time we get a spare moment these days, until Apple invents the iToilet ) it’s time to MAKE spare moments in our personal and work lives.

    Surround yourself with peers and mentors who help you do this by pushing/pulling you to where you need to be and who you need to be.

    I think my response was longer than your post….what a dork. Hope it’s helpful.


    • Thanks for your comment! I am no stranger to leaving comments longer than the original blog post, so it’s nice to know I’m also not the only one.

      I love your idea of locking away electronic devices for the evening. I realized I had hit a point of maturity when I started relating more to Calvin’s dad than Calvin (…from Calvin & Hobbes, if that’s not clear). There’s a strip where he bemoans new technology (back when the strip was written!) because instead of getting more leisure time, we actually just get busier.

      And that pesky recession, or fear of being let go, is definitely a cause of unease, part of the drive to prove oneself engaged and useful. If those golden years of prosperity and hiring could return, that would be great. But until then you’re right, we just need to slow down and be more selective with how we fill our time. Do less, better. Or more strategically.

      Looking forward to doing just that!

  5. Pingback: Finding my happy place | emmajenkin

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