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Why Am I So Damned Busy?

A friend of mine wrote me a long email lamenting his lack of time, and he wrote that it’s not just him but it’s a chronic problem of our time:

“..As I drifted in and out of these conversations, I kept noticing how many times people said things like: “Oh yeah, I just wish we weren’t so busy,” or “We’d love to do more of this kind of thing, but there’s just never time, you know?”, or “life just moves to quickly,” “or life just gets in the way and pretty soon five years have gone by.”

In the circle of people that we socialized with back in Boston, “busy” is often the prelude and coda of conversations. So I very much know what he’s talking about. But his mistake is assuming that a guy who’s taking a whole year off would be able to somehow shed some light on this state of affairs. Sorry buddy. Living on a remote island without a job, I often ask myself the exact same question: why am I so busy?

Making Candles the Old Way

Tonight we all went to the Rødøy school’s Christmas Craft Night. One station is candle making. You tied a string to a stick and dip it in hot wax, which coats the string with a thin layer of wax. And you dip again, and again. You must leave enough time between dips, or the wax around the string would get too hot and the whole thing would slide off the string. One parent said to me, “I rather go to the store.” Me, too. You can get a 12-pack at Ikea for $2.99.

That’s just it, isn’t it? We now have the choice. Once upon a time people didn’t. I’m reading a book about rice farming for the children. If you’re a rice farmer, your day is pretty well programmed. You plant the seedling. You flood the fields. Your hours are dictated by the amount of day-light. It’s hard work, no doubt, and I surely don’t want to be a rice farmer, but there is a serene rigidity to that life. There isn’t the luxury, or the curse, of asking the question, “what else could I be doing right now?”

For all the complaints of being busy, I think the people who cry busy, myself included, have historically unprecedented freedom and control over our time. Nobody really needs to work 10 hours a day. Nobody really needs to read Greek, Roman and Norse mythology for their children. We do it because we have a handful of pressing imperatives: career, money, children, family, fun, fitness, etc.. Unlike the rice farmer of the old days, these imperatives can never be fully completed. There is no limit. Why couldn’t Marcus be the next Yo-Yo Ma? Why couldn’t I be the CEO of Microsoft? Why couldn’t our family go diving in the Maldives?

So back to the man on a remote island without a job. I’m busy as hell! I need to spend time with the children and family. I need to exercise. I need to hike and catch fish and salt fish and cook them. I need to blog – damn this blog that calls my name every three, four days. I need to write the iPhone app that’s been my obsession. But that’s not a career – I need to keep in touch so I can have a job when I go back. Still, I haven’t had time to paint an oil painting, to play the Ukelele, to compile my travel notes from Africa, to finish reading a book! Do you believe it, I haven’t finished a book in the three and a half months since I came here.

So you see, I have total freedom and total control over my time. But somehow, I don’t feel it. But I promise this, before I leave this island, I want to have a solution to this problem.

  1. Rosa #

    Good luck finding the solution to that problem. As long as you choose what to fill your days with, it is fun. The only thing is how much to fill them not to get saturated.

    December 14, 2011
  2. Ellen Crocker #

    I remember many, many years ago when my children were teen-agers and I was working, I played weekly in a doubles tennis group. We were all “busy”, except one woman who said, “I’m not busy; I have enough time.” I was impressed because underneath it all the “busy” implied somehow that our lives were important

    December 14, 2011
  3. Ellen Crocker #

    …and more. When I retired I heard people around me mouthing the cliche, “I don’t know how I found time to work; I am so busy.” The same thing, forty years later. I make it a practice to be aware of where I am, what I am doing, and to be “present” in the Buddhist sense. I have created a life with ample time. If not now, when?

    December 14, 2011
    • Yes, it’s true. Claiming to be busy is not just for CEOs but also for the unemployed. Being busy is like a badge of honor. After all we live in a society with deep roots in Protestant work ethics. Yes, I’d like to create a life with ample time. At least the illusion of having ample time. How?

      December 15, 2011
  4. Joe #

    I’m glad you took up this thread of discussion, winston, and I hope some peole have wisdom to share. For full disclosure, I am the guy Winston was quoting, and I’d like to add some insight to my original comment: I agree with you at least in part, Winston. I just had an 8-hour flight, and after the usual hectic preparations and last-minute worries, I noticed that as soon as I settled into my seat on the plane, everything changed. I did a couple of things that I’ve been meaing to do–go through my little personal file of things to do,read some things I’d printed out, make some notes for future to-do items, clean up some other things. Then wrote a bit in my journal, which I have only done about twice inthe last year. And I did all that in about 50 minutes before i watched a movie and fell asleep.

    Those 50 minutes made up the most peaceful, relaxing time in recent memory. And it occurred to me, it’s not the things I was doing, but the fact that those were the only things I could do. If I had been at home, I would have been thinking of a hundred other things I’d rather be doing, or 50 things I probably should be doing. I probably would have run downstairs to make coffee at least three times during those 50 minutes. I would have checked the news on the Internet, checked my email, Etc. etc. But I was just in an airplane seat with one small file full of personal papers, a presentation for work to read, no internet connection, and nowhere to go. So I thoroughly and absolutely enjoyed my time. I even thought if I could stay awake longer, I’d read through that dammned presentation, and probably even enjoy that! There was no reason to debate what to do. I was just doing it, 100%.

    And you know the real kicker? Those 50 minutes seemed like hours, in a good way.

    So, choice (too much of it) definitely plays a big role. I think this is one reason why taking one day a week (at least) to absolutely be free of work/responsibility is such a healthy idea. You might still wrestle with the choices about what you want to do, but you at least will remove the poisonous notion that hangs over your head telling you there’s something you “should be doing”.

    Maybe the key to this is knowing what limitations to put on ourselves. You can have many choices on the macro-scale, but on the micro scale, from moment-to-moment, maybe it’s better if things are somewhat constrained/limited.

    I’m looking forward to your big solution…

    December 15, 2011
    • Oh I love flying. When I was working I flew at least once a month, and often between Boston and London. I loved it for the exact same reason you mentioned, plus, there’s somehow less guilt for wasting time, because even if you do nothing, something — making progress to your destination — is being accomplished.
      Thanks for supplying a great topic.

      December 15, 2011
  5. Kirrily #

    wonderful blog, Winston. This is something I have thought about a lot. I’m not working now (for six months) and all the fun little projects I’d planned to do have been swallowed up in bigger busy-ness. Why do I not have any time? Three reasons come to mind:

    1) Some of it is the looser time control, so that now when I should be doing my taxes (which was not one of the fun projects by the way), I am reading some entertaining emails and this blog instead! But I think the time I spend on this is balanced by the ’empty’ time I had commuting to work.

    2) I have an unreasonable expectation of what I will get done each day. And when this predictably means I end the day without finishing everything, I put it down to inexplicable busyness.

    3) I don’t place enough value on meeting friends for coffees with friend, sitting on the verandah enjoying cups of tea and the sounds of birds, etc. So these things don’t get factored into the ‘to do’ list. But it is doing these things that make me feel less busy. They make the day seem longer.

    But also I think, Ellen, what you wrote struck a chord in me. I am going to try to be more present in each moment rather than thinking of all the things I need to do after this, later when the kids are in bed, tomorrow, etc. And I am also going to make more space for the quiet moments that really count for so much more…. after I finish my taxes of course.

    December 15, 2011
    • It is crazy, isn’t it? You would think that not having a job would mean endless, blissful tranquility for doing all the projects we’ve meaning to do. Not. You’re right about strict time management. Because having “taxes” hanging over your head makes listening to the bird a bit less enjoyable. Having reasonable expectations is also important. If anything, it makes you feel better. I’ve been spending a huge amount of time on developing this iPhone app. It’s something I should be proud of. But that satisfaction is mired by the feeling that I’ve neglected other things.

      December 15, 2011
  6. Todd Brown #

    I could not agree more. Over scheduled. Expect too much out of a day. I think one key is some rigidity in scheduling, like you suggested for the rice farmer. If I get up each day at about the same time, and I go to bed each day at about the same time, and I get enough sleep, then I feel much better, much less stressed. Also, having dinner with the family at about the same time each evening. Unfortunately, my work is shift work and does not allow that. But one day…

    December 15, 2011
    • Unlike the rice farmer who has to deal with real, unchangeable constraints, we don’t. So it really comes down to placing ARTIFICIAL constraints on how to spending our time, right?
      Todd, I thought you’re an organic cattle farmer now, not an emergency room doctor any more…

      December 15, 2011
  7. Like you, Winston, I am also taking a break from the world of paying work – in my case, to write a novel (and a blog), and I also often feel too busy, and overwhelmed by what I “need” to accomplish in a day. I think Ellen is right on the mark that we have become a culture that equates business with worth, so on some level we feel the need to keep busy. I think it is also true that we have unprecedented choice about how to spend our time – just as we have unprecedented choices of toothpaste brands and laundry detergents and TV channels – but all of that choice has the effect of making us more anxious and less happy. Sometimes, less (to do, buy etc.) is more.

    December 15, 2011
    • It is a fact that choices in fact make us less happy. This was shown in studies over and over.
      Also, you’re right in using the word “anxious.” After all, busyness is not in itself a bad thing. Hopefully we have enough interests to feel our days with things to do. But feeling anxious about not having enough time – that is thing that we should try to exterminate.
      Best of luck in the literary pursuit and your monthly dares. I like your blog!

      December 15, 2011
  8. “I’m busy as hell!”, Winston, from my childhood;-) thanks to my mother…
    Three schools at once (music and ballet except ordinary), three years of special English courses at the end:-)
    And so on…
    I stopped working when my daughter was born and I was 35…
    In 15 years of being a housewife I understood that I need my OUN FREE TIME! My husband was laughing a lot…
    Now my children have their own families and I’m free and retied!
    And still I have no enough time though “I have total freedom and total control over my time.”
    And as you and many others I want to have a solution to this problem!!!
    First of all I stopped saying a word BUSY!
    It helps a lot…
    We are waiting for your solution, Winston!

    December 15, 2011
    • When I have a solution, you know where I’ll post it!

      December 15, 2011
  9. I think having more choices simply means you need to choose. If you really want to do a project, then clear your schedule and get to it. I often feel overwhelmed with everything I ‘need’ to do, but when it comes down to it we only need to eat and breathe and sleep, really.

    I think part of the need to be busy stems from comparing yourself with people around you. People who are doing more, achieving more, and why shouldn’t you be like that? I’m starting to get over that way of thinking now that quite a few of the busy and accomplished people I looked up to were recently diagnosed with burn-out.

    So I’d say the solution is to choose and plan and settle for that plan. Easier said than done though!

    December 15, 2011
    • My point exactly. We in effect make ourselves busy, and we really only have ourselves to blame.

      December 19, 2011
  10. Great post and comments… I completely agree with everything said above… It`s seems as though the current economical model that drives our civilization influences us in a way that wasn`t anticipated. The choices and possibilities it creates are overwhelming. Also the social networking doesn`t really help to lessen the effects… You see what others are doing and unintentionally you make a comparison. These thing combined give a disturbing result: We go in a supermarket for bread, thinking we have to finish some project later that evening, after preparing our food, and dreaming of the holidays, and on top of that there are 50 different kinds of bread…

    I think that simplicity in our lives and priorities for everything we do, would help us fight the “busy” syndrom and be happier in a very natural way.

    What I mean is this: The rice farmer has only on top priority. To live and survive. He has only one option to achieve this: the grow rice. There are no career options, no choices on what fun project to spend your abundance of free time. So simplicity and priorities are very easy definable in such cases. But in our society (those that have internet access at least … ) the top priority is no longer to simply survive. Now we have shifted this perspective towards something even more engaging – to accomplish something in life. This by itself is not simple. And leads, for example, to confused children, because their parents wanted them to be great musicians on seven different instruments…

    My flow of thoughts is an example of just that. I jump from one topic to another, mixing examples that shouldn`t be mixed and etc. My own solution for the time being is to prioritize my life and simplify everything I want, need and wish to have or accomplish.

    Oh, one more thing. If you haven`t read “THE IDLE THOUGHTS OF AN IDLE FELLOW” by Jerome K. Jerome, read at least the first chapter: “ON BEING IDLE”… 🙂 You just might find something there. It can be read online at

    December 16, 2011
    • At the end of the day, I prefer our lives to the rice farmer’s. We live more fulfilling lives. We can have aspirations. Our lives are far more colorful. But I don’t have the anxiety it creates. So this is my quest, is there a way to keep the good aspects of modern life, while getting rid of the bad? Or, this is a take-it-or-leave-it bargain?

      December 19, 2011
  11. Excellent post! Children also add an added busy piece to a parents life. I have becomeuch better at managing my time since having a family.

    December 16, 2011
    • Very true. I don’t remember being very busy when I was young and single.

      December 19, 2011

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