Are We Too Busy?

This question is inspired by some of the feedback we got to last week’s question How Can You Help? Several people commented on how busy they are, and how time spent thinking about our questions and/or composing a thoughtful response is time that is taken away from other activities.

This is certainly a valid point. But it brings to mind another question: Why are we so busy? Over the last century or so, a growing number of devices have been introduced into our society that are supposedly “labor-saving” devices, like the electric vacuum cleaner or the automated dishwasher. But as we have access to more and more of these labor-saving devices, what is happening to all the hours the supposedly being saved?

Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where Lee and Michael discuss this question: ‘Are we too busy?’ We also discuss another question as well, ‘What are our responsibilities to others?’

Moreover, the Internet, and our ability to communicate much more easily with people all around the world, has shortened the day. 24-hour news channels have increased the amount of news available to us, while providing less and less time to process and make sense of that information.

But it may be possible to become accustomed to a world swamped with information and expectations. Our brains may be flexible enough to adapt to whatever demands our modern world places upon them.

So which is it? Are we too busy? Or are we just busy enough? Can we handle even more? If we are too busy, what can we do about it?

Related questions: What is time? What are our responsibilities to others? What is important? How have we changed?

12 thoughts on “Are We Too Busy?”

  1. The poor needing second jobs because their primary employers don’t offer a living wage; parents and children over-programmed to prepare for competition for the right college; our phones, work emails, and texts always making us reachable and demanding our immediate attention — yes, we are too busy.

    We are beyond too busy. We are overly-stressed

    Unfortunately, truly labor-saving devises (like those listed in the question) are not enough to make room for more free time. As note above, communication technologies have made us always reachable, for everything to be seen as urgent.

    What can we do about all of today’s demands? Can we escape the rat-race? I am not certain. Today’s overly-competitive environment seems inescapable if we want to “make it.”

    1. “…if we want to ‘make it’.” When I was your age, I wanted to “make it”, whatever that means. Now I’m inspired by Jesus – he didn’t “make it” – just the opposite – he was killed by the Jewish/Roman authorities. So I’m not interested in fame, money, power, the “American Dream”. I’m interested in becoming friends with God/Jesus/Advocate and doing their will, one day at a time.

      1. ps. Michael, you are doing great work, serving the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. Let me know if you need a hand in this work. I’m retired now, and looking for part-time work, paid or unpaid.

        1. Thanks, Tom. You know that ending poverty means a lot to me. And, if anybody ever wants me to explain what I mean by that, I’d be happy to oblige.

          Now, as for “making it,” I did not mean to imply “making it big.” I simply meant simply making it. As you note in your reply to Ben, capitalism has its defects (my in opinion, many). There are, to begin, haves and have nots. The have nots must do much to simply make ends meet. (Is that making it? Some would consider it so.) For a family to send their kids to college, massive loans must often be taken out — but that’s what it takes for both the parents and the kids to make it in their sense of sensible success. If someone wants to make it by becoming a homeowner, that gets harder and harder almost with each year that passes. (Renters incomes have not kept pace with housing inflation for at least 3 decades, I think.)

          As for your words about Jesus, we’ll save that for one of our offline conversations. But let me simply say that while I am an atheist, I am also a very spiritual guy. There is something bigger and better than any one of us. It is justice … social, economic, and racial justice. In my working for related causes, as hard as it can be many days, I know I am contributing to more than myself.

  2. Yes. American society (or a politically powerful segment thereof) judges people’s virtue based on how much they participate in the labor market. More overtime shows dedication to your job, and therefore virtue. Coffee shops in distant suburbs open at 4 a.m. to serve commuters who prove their virtue by showing up at work before 7. Sleep is for the dead. And, of course, single mothers must be forced into the workplace by welfare reform laws.

    But our bodies don’t stop needing sleep. Children don’t stop needing care. Grocery shopping and cooking and laundry take time. Family and friends get sick. Other countries recognize these things and build in social supports so people don’t have to work multiple jobs to stay afloat. We don’t, because we’re so wedded to the idea of work as virtue.

    1. Ben, I hear you. I was fortunate to work at a company that believed we have a life outside of work. Hardly ever worked overtime. Somehow, the work got done. I also worked for companies where the environment wasn’t so healthy and family-friendly.

      I’m concerned about the widening gap in America between the “haves” and the “have nots”. I’m currently reading a book by Muhammad Yunus entitled “A World of Three Zeros”-Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions. I’m not done with it yet, but really like his ideas about the short-comings of capitalism and his concept of “social businesses” where no one gets rich but the business contributes to a social need. Grameen Bank and micro lending for example.

  3. Yes and no. Those who are providers for their families are busier than ever, yet, often we fill our time with things that really shouldn’t be a priority. Technology, while extremely useful, is a huge time sucker. I guarantee that if we put away the unimportant technology for a day (television, video games, cellphone and computer use beyond important calls, texts and emails) we would realize that we have more time than we thought to focus on the things that are truly important.

    1. Cecile, I totally agree. Technology is supposed to make our lives better, and in some ways it does. Still, we need quiet time, away from tv, phones, etc. I’m enjoying this “snow day” because it’s giving me more time to read a good book or do something of my choosing. Thanks for your comments.

  4. This is a timely question. I left home this morning at 8 am and didn’t get home til 1:30. And this is Sunday, a day I should be taking it easy. If it hadn’t been for the snow, I would have had to leave home again for yet another meeting.

    So, I was too busy today, mainly because I tend to want to do too much. My theology teaches me that you can’t earn your way into heaven, that it’s a free gift from a loving Creator. If I can just learn how to say “no” more often, I’ll have all the time I need.

  5. Last year at about this time, I had a rather important meltdown. It came near the end of 15 years of full-time teaching (public high school), the last six of which I also tried to carve out significant time to focus on writing (short stories, a novel, memoir pieces). I need writing in my life the way people need air. And I love teaching. But I couldn’t make it all work. I constantly felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I was battling against a truth that I tried and failed to change: to be a good teacher, and do it full-time, means that there’s no room (no time, no energy) for anything else. Being a full-time teacher means working much more than 40-hour weeks. It means working evenings and weekends and, yes, many vacations. It means constantly having a stack of papers to grade hanging over you, draining you psychologically whenever it’s not draining your actual time. This is the expectation for teachers. We expect it of ourselves; our fellow teachers expect it of us; our administrators expect it of us; parents expect it of us; students expect it of us. It’s a vicious cycle of expectations. I expected it of myself because others expected it of me. I did it because the other teachers did it. We do this to ourselves and to each other. (And we are teaching our students to do this, too. Training another generation of workaholics.)

    But this is not just about being a teacher. This is true for many, many professions. As Ben mentioned in an earlier post, it’s in our culture. We expect this workaholism from ourselves and each other, and it just goes round and round. This is no way to live. I now teach part-time so that I have time for my writing. More importantly, I have nights and weekends back. For the first time since, well, ever. I’ve taken — and will continue to take — a big hit financially in order to do this. I may not be able to do this forever. I may never be able to retire because of this decision. But I just couldn’t go on the way I had.Now I am re-learning what it feels like to breathe.

  6. I think the sense of being too busy is a sense of being stuck in too much of an outwardly directed responsive mode. When we’re able to reflect on, identify, and act on our own important, personal priorities, we don’t feel “too busy.” Instead, we feel incredibly productive or like we have a very full and satisfying life. There’s only so much of the world around us that we can interact with on our terms, but I think it’s good to try every so often to expand that part of the world just a little bit more.

  7. I just came across this remarkable passage, from “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”, by Sogyal Rinpoche:

    “There are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practiced to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun and doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindu film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.

    “If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called ‘responsibilities’ accumulate to fill them up… We tell ourselves we want to spend time on the important things in life, but there never is any time.

    “Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the dog or cat, do last night’s washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go out and buy them, make breakfast — the list is endless. Then, there are clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair and makeup? Helpless, we watch our days fill up with telephone calls and petty projects with so many responsibilities — or shouldn’t we call them ‘irresponsibilities’?

    “Our lives seem to live us, to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away. In the end, we feel we have no choice or control over them.”

    I have never heard of our busy American lives described as “laziness” before, but it totally makes sense, and I’m going to think about it that way from now on. If something I care about doesn’t get done, it’s not because I am too busy — it is that I am too lazy to actually set my priorities properly.

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