Are we busy because it serves us or because we want to be busy? Why millennials appear to be more productive and miserable than the generations before them? Is this a new step in our cultural evolution, or yet another dead end? The main claim of this article: “Being busy is more than just feeling important and needy, it is about feeling we are doing the right thing instead of wondering what this right thing is”. Here I do not provide solutions, but ask questions that might make you think.
I am an addict. Maybe.
I have a confession to make. I am an addict. My addiction is probably the most common among busy professionals: I need to be busy. This addiction is exceptionally sneaky. Everything appears to be great, I feel I am in full control of things, I am happy and then a crisis comes. Like a comics hero I perform some marvelous acts using my superpowers and the piece is restored. I feel relief and anxious at the same time. Looking for another something to go wrong, for a chance to fix things. Nothing happens and I feel miserable. So I generate a crisis. I fix it and feel exhausted. There are much better ways to live. Right? So why I feel more alive when I am busy?
This is not a real addiction. Families do not get broken, I will not suffer from a physical malady, and money is not being spent on a quick fix. There is guilt though, for not being my better self. Could I live differently?
Four hours of work per week
Tim Ferris argues 4 hours of work per week are enough. The guy certainly built a successful business and claims to live from the revenues of that business. Now, he was incredibly lucky and his business instincts are great. I do not encourage you to check your own luck if you cannot afford it. Many of my friends lost a lot of money trying to do a similar deed. Those who are successful as entrepreneurs definitely work A LOT. Possibly they are addicted to being busy in a different way: creating content or looking for the next business opportunity.
Quite possibly I also work about four hours per week. The rest of the time I am doing other things. How do we separate work from fun? Boring meetings are very similar to dinners with my parents. Writing for pleasure is not unlike writing for money. Learning and implementing new tech is something I could pay for if other people would not pay me instead. About 4 hours per week I do the things that I hate because I HAVE TO. The rest of the time I have the freedom of choice: at home, at work, and working from home. Why do I feel missing out?
The curse of the social media
While 20 years ago we imagined a good life by watching some strangers on TV, now we see our friends having fun on social media. If something is worth posting, the person posting it looks absolutely happy. Those individuals who do not post on social media, tell stories that we visualize in already known format of social media. It always feels like we are missing a great opportunity. Probably we all are missing many good opportunities, and many more very bad but initially good looking situations.
When I was young I do not remember so many possibilities for having fun. I was bored more often than happy. Now I feel overstimulated. My kids also appear to be overstimulated. If nothing happens we do not really know what to do with ourselves. It’s like we lost the art to enjoy the boredom and procrastinate.
Quite possibly we have much less willpower than the previous generation. We have too many choices, which robs us from the default choice of “live as you always do”. Yesterday I ordered some food from the online store. After making about 50 choices within 5 min, I thought that was it. The next day I got a call, and I was told some stuff was missing, so I needed to have 20 more choices regarding the alternatives while driving the car with 3 kids trying to understand a person with a very bad accent within 3 min. Every choice we make is an exercise in willpower. In addition to simply living, we are bombarded by direct advertisements and indirect advertisements by our friends. When we make so many choices, how can we have the willpower for meaningful existence?
Being busy is more than just feeling important and needy, it is about doing the right thing instead of wondering what the right thing is. While we do the heavy lifting, our willpower does not have to work extra. We do not have to choose if we are following a protocol. We do not need to wonder whether we are right or wrong.
Dealing with doubts
While we are busy doing stuff, we are not anxious about the stuff we already did. This wonderful article describes a graph of a simple task, from the moment of anticipation through the depth of disillusionment and to the moment of acceptance. We living the happiest hours when we simply do our job. Writing this blog is the happiest part of being a learning expert. I need to learn new things all the time, stepping out of my comfort zone and constantly dealing with embarrassment. Then I need to deal with students, marketing issues and strategy. A thousand choices to make and a thousand ways to fail differently. Maybe if I was a perfect narcissist, that would make my life easier in a couple of ways. I would honestly think that I am the best person for any job and that everybody needs to hear what I have to say. This is not my case. I am probably overly sensitive to criticism, even constructive criticism. When someone gets frustrated and misfires his frustration in my direction I feel hurt. My doubts are multiplied. So I prefer to do what I do best: look busy.
The vicious cycle of productivity
I want to think that I am very productive. My reading speed, memory scores, creativity measures, and other cognitive abilities are very high. I was not born this way, and I am pretty sure my wife can teach anybody to be more productive than I am. In fact, most people investing so many efforts in increasing their productivity should outperform me easily. This is not me trying to sell you Anna’s lessons. I would not be stupid enough to put a sales pitch below the fold of the article.
At the same time, the higher I measure in productivity quotas the more things I have to do. Everybody trusts me to do the right things. And I love to do these tasks, both because I am very productive and because I want to feel busy. When I do not have anything to do, I stupidly multitask: watching TV and practicing something else at the same time. At least I am double busy. It feels so good! And then I am too busy to do the stuff that makes me doubt myself.
Approximately once a month I get an intervention from my family. My wife and my kids, sometimes my friends or my parents, tell me to stop being busy and focus on the important stuff. I am missing too much of what other people call “life”. Every week I spend probably two hours in nature, maybe five hours moving, and the rest of the time I am not really there because I appear to be busy. The funny thing: when I find that I have enough willpower to procrastinate with my loved ones, they are either too tired or too busy for me. So I find something else to do until they free up, and get lost in the new activity.
Quite possibly, this addiction is a cultural issue. My wife gets the other part of the same problem. She is eaten by doubts if the choices she makes are the right ones. We have been planning bar-mitzvah for my son on and off for a year now and still do not have a plan. To compare, the planning of our wedding took about a week. We simply did what felt right at the moment, and enjoyed every moment of the events. We married roughly fifteen years ago but changed a lot since. Maybe the world changed a lot since. I do not know.
Maybe our current culture is characterized by a fear of missing out, a constant search for better alternatives, and an easy escape into being busy. It is better than alcohol, violence and mindless boredom of our ancestors, but not something we evolved to do yet. Either we need to wait for the evolution to catch up or find a still better way of life.