“I wanted to figure out why I was so busy, but I couldn’t find the time to do it.”- Todd Stocker
Spring is here, and summer is sure to follow. It’s that time of year when humans, like every animal that hibernates, comes out of the cave, shakes off that long nap, and looks around to see what everyone else is doing. You’re bound to run into a lot of people who you haven’t spent much time with in a while. They’re going to ask you “How are you doing,?” and no matter what’s going on in your life you’ll respond with, “Good!” Then they’re going to ask you what you’ve been up to, to which you’ll respond with your second lie of the season, “Been busy, real busy.”
Modern life has forced humans to prioritize in ways that mankind has never had to before. It gets more complicated each year to prioritize our activities, and despite all the conveniences, creature comforts, and luxuries we enjoy, we still find ways to remain “busy.” Many of the activities we engage in are necessary, such as our jobs, caring for our children, washing, bathing, eating, sleeping, etc. But, our ancestors did the same daily chores without all the assistance and support that the modern world gives us. Great grandma probably canned a lot of her own vegetables, killed her own chickens, wrung out her laundry by hand, and made homemade spaghetti sauce. Great grandpa walked a couple of miles each way to the factory where he worked 50+ hours per week, did all his own yard work, carpentry, and found time to make sure that his kids stayed out of trouble. If you think about it, they probably cared about their spouses, children, and family as much as we do, and perhaps even more. I wonder if, when Great grandpa ran into an old buddy he hadn’t seen since last December if he lamented that he was “Busy, real busy?” Somehow though, I don’t think so.
The reality is that the term, busy, is a relative term, subject to changing with the times, societal norms, and our own personal evolution. Humans learn through imitation. You’ve been learning this way your whole life, even if you don’t realize it. As young children, we watch what others do, follow along as best we can, and eventually make some of those activities our own. This pattern continues in various ways, shapes, and forms for the rest of our lives. Granted, there are some things that we learned to do from books and school, but most of the more subtle and ingrained behaviors that we adopt are learned this way. This style of learning is one of the reasons that many of us believe that we are “too busy.” Some of the stuff that we are too busy with would make great grandma and grandpa roll over in their graves.
Evolutionary psychologists talk about a concept called “maladaptive evolution,” which is a behavior that persists in a species because it was adaptive in the past, but is maladaptive in current conditions. A simple example is the human craving for sweets. We crave sugar in our foods because our bodies are more inclined to store it as fat. Thousands of years ago, accumulating body fat was necessary for survival and was a reason that some survived and others died. We no longer have a need for all the body fat that we accumulate, having outgrown the need to provide our own heat. Likewise, we no longer need to be on the go 16 to 18 hours per day to satisfy survival needs. Many of the problematic behaviors that humans engage in in the 21st century can be traced back to our evolution and a previous time in human history when that kind of behavior was not only necessary, but was considered virtuous.
The “too busy” phenomenon remains as part of modern man’s attempts to feel significant, important, and in control of what happens to us. Much of what we are busy doing may not be as important as we think, but it is a way to feel in control of things that “could happen” and the “what if’s” of life. For example, I spoke to a guy the other day whose daily life is in havoc because of his son’s youth hockey schedule. It is “wicked important” that young Jason not miss practice, (keep in mind I live in the Boston area), because if he doesn’t he won’t skate with the A level team next year. This means that he will fall behind, skate with inferior players for a year, which will retard his athletic development, he won’t be able to get into a prep school, which means no Division I hockey scholarship and, of course, no lucrative NHL career.
Many parents schedule every aspect of their children’s lives, particularly when they are younger. They place their children into “playgroups,” ostensibly to give them socialization and healthy interaction with their peers. This is all well and good, but a secondary reason for this is to choose who their children will associate with. They usually pick children of families in similar social and economic circumstances as theirs, unconsciously insulating their children from kids of other races, backgrounds, and religious denominations. Many also over schedule their children with “healthy” activities, regardless of whether the child shows an interest in that activity or not. They do so in an attempt to protect their children from harm, idle time, and to teach them discipline. This is adaptive up to a point, but it is important to know where that point is. You have to ask yourself at some point, is your daughter’s dance class leading to a role in the Nutcracker in 15 years, or is it just a fun activity that she enjoys right now? Is it so important that your child is reading at a sixth grade level in grade 1? Does she really need tutoring with this if she is only reading on a first grade level? Many parents over schedule their children’s lives in an attempt to create meaning in their own lives, and to feel that they can control the future for their child. I was a classroom teacher for many years and witnessed firsthand the stress that this placed on children, as well as their families. Maybe your kid will learn more by choosing their own activities than they will by you presenting them with a smorgasbord of things to do.
Many people, regardless of what they do for work, take a strange pride in “taking work home,” and working at their job on their own time. I know, it’s a very difficult habit to break, as this is one of my own problems. I frequently find myself on camping trips in the dead of summer, in the middle of nowhere, checking my iPhone for emails to see what’s going on at my day job. Yeah, I know, I’m working on it. Like all behaviors, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge and recognize.
The adaptive function of work is that it gives our lives meaning and purpose. We’ve all heard stories of that guy who retired after working hard his entire life and then dropped dead his first week into retirement. Anecdotal evidence, or is there something to this? Maybe learning to relax and prioritize along the way to retirement may keep us from becoming that guy.
Being “wicked busy” (remember, I’m from the Boston area), prevents us from sitting with ourselves, our families, and some of our deeper thoughts. Most of us are afraid of introspection and being left alone with ourselves. This is a reason why so many people when asked to discuss what they believe in will begin with a discussion of politics, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, Obama, 9/11 conspiracies, etc. They never talk about how they feel about life, death, the universe, families, values, or ultimate questions. Even our beliefs appear to be influenced by other’s opinions, learned much as we did during childhood. It keeps us “busy,” distracting us from things that are frightening.
Coping with this need to be busy and occupied cannot be accomplished without recognizing that we are doing it. Sitting down and making an honest assessment of how you spend your time and what is truly important in your schedule is a must. If you have a family, particularly if you are currently parenting, It’s a good idea to sit down with your spouse and decide why you are scheduling that soccer practice, right after that hockey practice, on the afternoon of little Joey’s tutoring class, just before the sleepover that he is hosting for his birthday.
So, when you are emerging from that long winter’s hibernation this season and find yourself complaining to somebody the you are “busy,” ask yourself some questions, one of which is “Am I really?” It’s also a good idea to think about what you say to others and yourself about how busy you are. Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal essay written in 2012:
“Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.”
There are 168 hours in a week. Spend some time taking a look at how you are really spending them. Are you doing things that are important and what you are consciously choosing to do, or are you falling into some perverse kind of competition, a 21st century “keeping up with the Joneses?” If you are, stop, breathe, and reassess what you are doing with your life. And, take notice how frequently people you haven’t seen for a long time tell you that they are “wicked busy.”
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