The Tyranny of Busyness

““How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

— Anne Dillard

Day in and day out I hear how busy everyone is. It’s our national compulsion — we pack our schedules to the tipping point and then share JUST how insane our lives are, if we have time to do so. Despite all of our invocations to be present, to be mindful, to pursue self-care, to spark joy, our busyness is as pervasive as fake news and addictive as the devices that broadcast it. A few years ago I watched some poor soul drop into torpor as I explained how busy I was. I was not only boring the poor woman to death, but was also self-important in the process. I am quick to identify self absorption in others and was mortified by my hypocrisy. I knew better.

Decades earlier, I was regaling my sister with my schedule over the phone. I had to simultaneously move my studio and apartment; I was preparing for a group show; I had so so many unshakeable engagements; I had an energy suck of a boyfriend. The list went on. I probably implied that I was BUSIER than she was. She waited for me to finish and said: “Until you have your own children you have all the time in the world.” She had three young children and I got the message, but only understood it when I had my own children and was up all hours of the night with a sick child or whiling away hours playing chutes and ladders, or wondering if it should take an hour to get out the door. I never stopped apologizing to her for my impertinence.

It’s a hard habit to break. There is cultural validation in being busy and we have conflated human significance with the intensity of our calendar schedule. From an evolutionary standpoint busyness is not going to grow our brains, or safeguard our health. A packed schedule is not going to amplify our stardust. My busyness is not going to single-handedly save the planet. Do I really care if I’m regarded as a flaneur just because I’m not showcasing my path?

Social media reinforces all this agitation around doing and being. It is easy for all of us — producer and consumer —to be seduced by the filtered images and the airbrushed personas. And many users are driven to achieve goals just to have a viable post on Instagram — setting up a sinister feedback loop. Like most creatives, I use Instagram as a professional enhancement to showcase my studio, to reinforce that I am a working artist. But I also use it to suggest that I’m an interesting and nuanced person and attach many ancillary identities beyond my professional one simply to broaden my appeal. I tell myself that it is all part of the process of the reveal, but that could be a justification for garden variety narcissism.

Marie Kondo’s success as the good fairy of leaner living is no coincidence — the antidote to this first world problem of clutter is simplification. Material possessions are easier to purge than a to-do list but last month I decided to stop riding shotgun down the avalanche. I turned off my phone or programmed it so only my family can reach me when I’m working. I restored my written calendar and put a book back in my purse.I got up earlier. I eliminated social media apps to tackle my addiction to Instagram. I return emails once a day, not all day. I sliced my device time in half. The to do list remains daunting and the email pile grew —I still have to maintain the quotidian. I did realize how much of this “labor” is of my own manufacture, and of my own choosing, and that I need a much better “net for catching days.”