Are You Busy?

Are You Busy?New York Times columnist Tim Kreider’s latest post has stirred up a flurry of comments (well over 800 as of this writing) on what’s now apparently an unavoidable aspect of modern life.

It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.”, Tim Kreider says.

Let’s go one step further. “Busy” has become the quintessential crutch statement of our time: “I’m too busy to exercise.” “Too busy to eat healthy.” “Too busy for a serious relationship.” Strange but true. Somewhere not long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, being “busy” became seen as desirable. Oh really? Let’s challenge that dogmatic theory.

Having a constantly busy schedule has become the norm for most of us. This despite the cornucopia of productivity apps and modern technological conveniences presumably designed to simplify our working lives and thwart our inner workaholic tendencies in favour of a more respectable work/life balance.

The necessity of putting food on the table, paying the bills and keeping a roof over our head invariably means we’re possibly falling into a perpetual state of busyness—the ‘busy’ trap as Tim Kreider calls it. We’re working longer hours, multitasking and packing more and more into each day (thanks to those handy always-on always-connected apps, among other things). Maybe we’re even working several jobs just to make ends meet. You could say it’s a trap because the busyness tends to creep up on us gradually over time. One moment you’re eating lunch at your desk and the next day you’re checking phone messages on the throne—oh yes, really! In my home town of Toronto average commute times to work can be anywhere from 40 to 80-minutes (each way) depending on where you live/work in the GTA, which certainly doesn’t help things when you’re wrestling with a packed schedule.

Can I Pencil You In For A 2:05 Stand-Up?
In the business world ‘busyness’ has an eerie cachet and is seen as a mark of productivity: getting things done, speed, efficiency, decisiveness; symbolic of the results-oriented take no prisoners work ethic prized by so many organizations. In this context the conventional wisdom equates being busy with accomplishing more. But more isn’t always better, nor is attempting to do more, at the expense of doing things better (quantity versus quality) necessarily a superior or bulletproof approach. Think about the muscle car with several hundred horsepower under the hood: awesome straight line speed, but can’t negotiate a corner worth a damn. There are reasonable limits to “more”.

Stop And Smell The Roses
So what about the other side of the equation? Doing less. Idleness is anything but an idle mind, but nevertheless viewed in a much different light by the business establishment in comparison to the breakneck busy-bodies (CrackBerry users, the end is nigh). But depending on where you sit, becoming less busy, if you’re so enlightened, can be a fruitful path to cognitive revitalization and productivity salvation (that’s like Tony Stark level creativity). Tim Kreider writes:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.

The ‘Busy’ Trap And Creativity
Great ideas need room to grow, space to breathe (geez, I sound like Bruce Mau giving a keynote). Not only idleness but also the marvellous concept of slowing down to a point there’s more room for play and critical observation suggest one’s creativity and overall problem solving ability can be more effectively invigorated than through the more-is-better volume approach.

If you’re reading this blog post you might work in the creative or design communications (or similar related) field. Perhaps you work among people who value creativity, technical mastery and innovativeness as indispensable skills among which help differentiate the products and services your company produces.

Now think about it, when was the last time you felt really (really) creative on a project?

Was it the time you had deliver 10 big things in as many weeks or was it the time your ideas had ample room to expand.

When we’re wearing our task-master-get-it-done-by-the-deadline hat we’re less likely to explore adjacencies, less inclined to generate multiple concepts or sketch out ideations based on divergent ideas.
When we’re really “busy” our imagination and creativity take a back seat to just banging things out (admittedly, there’s a time and a place for both). The ideas we deem most promising—the ones we invariably jump onto because of pressing time constraints and client deliverables—become the safe, the quick, and the easy. Originality gives way to something haphazardly repurposed; bold and clever become the cut & paste expected result. Enter the “I’ve seen this before” solution that will soon be forgotten.

Watch any episode of AMC’s The Pitch and you’ll see the extreme side of ‘busy’ in action. Advertising creatives know this scenario well. Pulling the all-nighter and working insane hours; creative teams enlisted to come up with “the big idea” in a matter of days (or hours). The pressure to knock the client’s socks off. Now that’s “Crazy busy” —but sustainable or the most conducive way to flush out the absolute best ideas? Well, perhaps not.

Image source: abjam77