Posted by: lornasass | March 31, 2012

BUSYNESS IS OVERRATED

Here I am walking the labyrinth at EarthRise, the IONS retreat center in Petaluma, CA
Photo by Michael Steinman

For most of my life I’ve admired busy people, congratulating them on making the most of their time. When I questioned how they did so much in a day, such people would earnestly respond something like, “I’ll have time to sleep when I’m dead.”

Actually, I used to be one of those people, the type who over-scheduled days, constantly on fast-forward to do the next thing.  In fact, my neck leans forward on my shoulders, as if to remind me that I’m supposed to be ahead of myself, doing it all.

Recently a man about 45 told me that he had purposely structured his work and social life so that he wouldn’t feel busy. I was thrilled to hear such clarity and conscious decision-making about something so precious as how to manage one’s time on earth. It was also a great relief to hear that someone had actually managed to survive withdrawal from the busyness addiction.

This man told me, “My mother kept herself in such a state of busyness all her life that she never had more than five minutes for people. I didn’t want to live like that.  If a friend suggests we have coffee together, I’m happy to pass a few hours in leisurely conversation and I prize having the two hours available to do just that.”

I loved hearing this and it confirmed an idea that has long been hatching in my mind:  busyness is vastly overrated. Busyness starts in the mind with a to-do list.  It then plants itself in the body:  adrenaline pumps us forward to complete the to-do list and we feel stressed.  At the end of the day we’ve gotten a lot done– and our culture rewards achievement–so we feel good momentarily, patting ourselves on the back, but many of us are so wound up that we can’t sleep at night.  There’s always more to do and often our spirits feel neglected and we find ourselves wondering, “Is this all there is?”

So, dear reader, here’s what I’m wondering: What if laziness became a virtue and people were judged successful by how much time they took off? 

What if we did nothing and stopped worrying about becoming sinners with idle hands?  I suspect most of us have a kind of black-and-white thinking about busyness:  If I slack off, I’ll become a slacker.  Soon I’ll be on welfare or even worse, on the street.  This steep slippery slope sounds kind of silly when you think of it this way, but behind all this busyness, I suspect most of us fear that we’ll fail to be productive human beings if we let ourselves stop and smell the roses.

Years ago I read a book on creativity that prescribed extended periods of laziness to give the imagination freedom to roam.  At that time I was shocked, but now I’m believer.  Slowing down and doing less has been very rewarding for me.  I feel calmer, happier, and more fulfilled.  Plus, I’m seeing more magic, beauty, and mystery in this extraordinary experiment we’re participating in.

So how about pretending that we live in a country where the person with the most leisure time is considered the most successful in our society? (I am reminded of the country of Bhutan, whose gross national product is personal happiness.  Honest!) 

Yes dear reader, if you are feeling too busy, why not give laziness a chance?  Take some really deep breaths every time you remember.  Go on a long, meandering walk to nowhere in particular.  Even better, sit and do nothing  and see what happens.

Please let me know how it goes!

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Responses

  1. Your latest essay came at a perfect time. As a kid I used to love lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, and just thinking (something I doubt kids have much opportunity to do anymore.) Now I just long for a free hour to sit and do rug-hooking or some similar mindless but relaxing endeavor–without feeling guilty. My house is always is shambles (for a variety of reasons) but there HAS to be time to do something that’s just pleasure–without sitting at the keyboard. Thanks for reminding us! (However, I won’t be sharing your message with my college freshmen!)l

    • Really sweet to hear from you. Hope you get to do NOTHING really soon!

  2. Lorna! The timing of this is perfect. I am sending this to a client who’s hooked on doing. Thanks for the call to laziness!

  3. Reading this post, I kept thinking about the collective cultural indoctrination that busy was not only the way to wealth (think of Ben Franklin) but what God wanted us to do. And I recalled this poem, which I think has made its deep impression in the collective consciousness: the source of all those people in our lives asking reproachfully, “Don’t you have something to do?”

    Here’s the theme song of BUSYNESS: note that all Nature is feverishly occupied and Satan is just waiting for you to put your Swiffer down for a moment so that he can snatch you down to Hell.

    Isaac Watts wrote this poem in his 1715 THE DIVINE AND MORAL SONGS FOR THE USE OF CHILDREN (Lewis Carroll parodied it in ALICE IN WONDERLAND).

    How doth the little busy bee
    Improve each shining hour,
    And gather honey all the day
    From every opening flower.

    How skillfully she builds her cell!
    How neat she spreads the wax!
    And labours hard to store it well
    With the sweet food she makes.

    In works of labour, or of skill,
    I would be busy too;
    For Satan finds some mischief still
    For idle hands to do.

    In books, or work, or healthful play,
    Let my first years be past,
    That I may give for every day
    Some good account at last.

    (Irving Berlin countered this about two hundred years later, with his lovely song LAZY . . . . )


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