gamut sep15 busyness
I am a creature of habit. I suppose we all are, but my tendency to cling to repetitive action is, as far as I can tell, slightly more pronounced than the average Joe's. At times in my life, this character trait has been diagnosed as a "disorder." Clinically, I mean.
Some of my habits are destructive, while others are benign and purposeless. A few, however, I consider positive actions, and it's in this latter category that I place a dogmatic insistence on bringing a book to any event or gathering wherein I predict even a slight chance to knock out a chapter or two. And so I found myself, a few weeks ago, seated on a jumbo-sized cooler, hunched over a rapidly deconstructing copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. It was a hot and humid farmers market, where our family farm sells limited sundries to friends and neighbors, and chunks of chapters, prose certified as "classic," kept dropping from the spine without warning. And I mean this as a literal description—a significant section of Book Two fell to the asphalt with a dull thud.
This bookish habit of mine has found me reading in public quite a bit. Anyone who's ever poured over words in full view of the throng of humanity will recognize the throng of humanity's inevitable curiosity about the bound pages between a reader's hands. This market morning was no different, as a wide range of people, from customers to tourists to fellow vendors, repeated the familiar refrain: "What are you reading?" My response in this situation is usually to flash the book's cover at the curious, and 9 times out of 10, the response is as predictable as the initial query: "I love to read, but I hardly ever have time. I'm just so busy."
(At least two of these people hold terminal degrees in literature.)
What is this busyness? Or, more to the point, why do we all feel it crushing us like a Death Star trash compactor? Is it, as we've long been told, good to be too busy to think?
I'm not the only one asking these questions, of course. Termed by some as the "Cult of Busyness," social scientists voice concern over society's hero worship of people who do too damn much. Juggling harried sports, school, work and home schedules earns titles like "Super Mom" and "Ultra Dad." Develop a nervous tick, sacrifice sleep, lose all ability to focus on an immobile object for longer than five seconds: You're doing great! The ultimate goal, it seems, is to completely forget that people ever experienced joy over anything other than a crowded to-do list.
On its face, the idea seems simple enough: Work more, make more money. Do more, make more happiness. Rest less. But mounting evidence suggests modern notions of productivity may be flawed. In a study titled "Time Use and Productivity: The Wage Returns to Sleep," economists Matthew Gibson and Jeffrey Shrader looked at two cities that, while in the same time zone, experienced exactly an hour's difference in daylight—a geographical trait that results in an hour's sleep difference between the populations. They studied the cities' earnings data and found that the well-rested population earned 4.5 percent more than the city that stayed awake longer.
So schedule in an extra hour's sleep and do more in the truncated waking hours. Easy enough, right? Well, no—the quality of those open-eyed, hyperproductive hours matters too, especially to your health. The American Psychological Association's "Stress in America" report found that roughly a quarter of Americans realize they're overstressed to an unhealthy degree but say they're too busy to engage in stress-reducing activities. The study cited stress as a significant danger to physical, emotional and psychological well-being, a familiar claim my neuroscientist friend recently confirmed, saying stress is "dangerous as hell."
Why do we do this to ourselves? I've been different kinds of busy in my life—I've worked 80-hour weeks getting a business off the ground, and I've worked traditional schedules and filled the off-hours with all manner of unnecessary schedule complications. When times were closer to "normal," I found myself courting stress, busying myself with anxiety the moment I woke up. I'd open my eyes to a new day, feeling my brain reassemble itself, and start seeking instability, grabbing onto whatever point of panic I held hours earlier as I gracelessly dropped beneath the waves of consciousness, exhausted by a day of pawing at the details like a string of invisible worry beads.
Busyness and stress are addicting. Chaos has the habit of working itself into the marrow of our lives so effectively that, if it's somehow removed, we'll go out of our way to reintroduce it. An article in Science Magazine last year recounted a study in which participants were closed in a stimulus-free room with their own thoughts for 15 minutes. When offered a button that administered an unpleasant shock, half of the people chose to shock themselves rather than sit alone with an unentertained consciousness.
If Gamut were a self-help column, this is where I'd tell you to look for unnecessary busyness in your life, points of pointless stress, and cut them from your schedule. I'd tell you to make yourself do one stress-reducing activity every day, whether that be an hour of yoga or jogging or quiet time with tea and a book. I'd tell you to take care of yourself, that you're worth more than all those accumulated checkmarks on your schedule.
But Gamut's not a self-help column, it's just a page or so of barely structured chit-chat, so instead I'll tell you a story. Recently, I've felt stressed. Some busyness in our lives is unavoidable—we make our livelihood through animal husbandry, an inherently chaotic occupation—but we also participate in a number of child-centric activities, just like cityfolk. One recurring item on the kid calendar has caused my wife and I anxiety for many months, and after hours of discussion, we decided to nix it. Upon composing the email excusing our family from further participation, my wife walked into the room (where I sat writing this article) and nervously read me her composition, but when it came time to hit "send," her finger quivered over the mouse immobile. Her whole body seemed to lurch when she finally mustered the will to press the button. Then she sighed with relief, and we both went about our day feeling a little bit lighter.