‘Busy’ is relative in our overworked world

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Lots of things are relative. When I lived in Richmond, Va., I came home for a visit one winter, and it was about 34 degrees when I left. You would have thought it was Mt. Everest weather from the conversations you could overhear on the plane. A few hours later, I landed in Des Moines, where it was approximately the same temperature, and everyone was thrilled with how balmy it was. It all depends on what you’re used to—what’s “cold” to Virginians is very different from what’s “cold” to Iowans.

The same is true of the word “busy.” For some people, busy might mean a weekly commitment to an ongoing event. For others, it might seem like a vacation if there are only three events to try to rush to after work. It seems to be a bit of “the grass is always greener,” with some perception that others always have it more leisurely than we do.

I feel a bit like Casey Baumberger talking about a day in the life of a busy, hurried, sleep-deprived, energizer-bunny college student’s day, but not having a full-time job in no way means that you don’t have a full-time schedule—it just means you don’t have a full-time paycheck.

People move on from things for an infinite number of reasons—more time for other pursuits, more leisure time, more time with family, for travel, and so forth. I imagine that there might be a transition period if you retire from being a workaholic and haven’t nurtured friendships or other interests over the years.

But many people feel an overwhelming presence of neglected interests, relationships or pursuits that are demanding attention. When these people walk away from one obligation, it’s like opening an underwater door to a swimming pool—there’s a whoosh of time-demanding tasks that immediately wash over them to fill the void.

There’s no twiddling of thumbs. There’s no lull. There’s no pondering how to spend your time. On the contrary, the demands on your time that had been building all along suddenly clamor for any perceived freed-up time. This brings choices. Which ignored demands will get your attention now? It seems like demands upon our time are never completely met. It’s a constant juggling process, a continuous exercise in time management and endless decisions of what takes priority.

I can’t pull the series of all-nighters that I used to pull and when I do pull an all-nighter these days, sadly, my recovery time is longer. I may not do as much as quickly as my 20-year-old self did, but I still have more things to do than there are hours in the day to do them.

I’ll never be as up on the news as I want to be, as current in my field as I want to be, as knowledgeable about topics that interest me as I want to be. There will always be at least two dozen books on my shelf at any given time that I’d like to be reading but never do or TED talks that I’d like to watch but never will.

There’s always technology upgrades to learn, places to travel, museums to explore, lectures to attend, MOOCs to complete, performances to experience, bike trails to ride, ballgames to attend, home projects to tackle, worthwhile volunteer activities to perform and things to learn—into infinity. It’s never ending.

There are always old friendships to nurture, new friendships to explore, family to spend time with and general socializing and relationship building.

Maybe one day I’ll close one door and when I open others, there will be calm and peace and order behind those doors. But for now, it seems like a tidal wave when I open other doors. Any void only lasts a few minutes. Nature abhors a vacuum.

clock sunset stripIt reminds me of writer, producer and director Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived TV show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” It was a comedy about producing a Saturday Night Live-like show. The guy in charge had a giant countdown clock in his office, constantly reminding him how much time until the show went live.

He had to make hundreds of decisions and survive numerous unseen events to produce the show. It was a miracle the show aired. Then once the cast and crew had successfully performed their first live show, there was the teeniest slice in time in which the guy in charge could savor the moment while the clock sat on zero until the numbers defiantly flipped and restarted the countdown to the next live performance.

I don’t think I could live with the constant deadlines of a weekly live show or a newsroom staff writer, but previously ignored tasks keep me busy enough that I’ve never felt a giant void in the demands on my time.

It’s relative, I know. What’s busy to me may be sloth-like to others. But as long as I wish I could sleep less and accomplish more—I’m good. Don’t automatically assume I have more time on my hands than you.

And no doubt it’s the introvert in me or the privacy barriers always surrounding me, but I don’t feel the need to solicit approval from others as to how I choose to spend my time. I’m annoyed by the State Trooper who asks me where I’m going when writing my speeding ticket, but I do respond. If you stop me while breaking the law, I guess you get to ask me how I’m spending my time.

Similarly, if you’ve hired me as a consultant, by all means make sure I’m spending my time as I should be. If I’m damaging a family unit or harming a relationship by neglecting others, by all means confront me about my choices. Otherwise, if I’m not harming myself or others, if I’m at a healthy level of activity, if I’m not a complete hermit, then please don’t ask me to justify how I spend my time. Frankly, I don’t have time to tell you.

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