Sunday, July 26, 2009

Are We Obsessed with Being Busy?

Despite the fact this summer has been filled with searing economic pains, deaths of too many, crazy weather disasters and money laundering scandals, warm temperatures beget a yearning to slow down. An agrarian throwback, summer is supposed to be a time to relax, enjoy a meal outdoors, have a few friends over, or nap in a hammock. In my last post, of "Why American's are the Worst Vacationers" I explored our reluctance to truly unwind.

While we may want to slow down, most of us cannot shut the madness off. It is as if our collective CPU's are running on overdrive, and our brains are whirring like the fans behind the home computer on a hot day. We are working harder, faster and without stopping for so long, the idea of just shutting down is barely comprehensible.

Have you ever noticed the typical answer to the question, "How are you?" has shifted from "I'm fine" to something like; "Fine... but busy." Busy. The word flies around like the black flies in my kitchen. Being busy has become something of an expectation, a badge of honor. If you're NOT busy, you must either be a loser, or in a slump.

According to a survey of 6,500 executives, conducted for Sheraton Hotels and reported in the Daily News (9/15/08): 85% of professionals feel compelled to be on call around the clock, occasionally get up in the middle of the night to check their e-mails, 87% bring their BlackBerrys into the bedroom at night, and 84% check their e-mail right before going to sleep.

Aside from work, we have created a great pressure to be "busy" filling the social calendar. Arrangements for lunch, coffee, drinks and exercise have replaced just strolling over to the neighbor's to hang out for a couple of hours. Today, more American's are living alone than ever before, and the protocol for "dropping in" has shifted from the norm to downright rude. Everyone is "too busy" to be bothered with an unexpected guest.

Today's families operate with "busy" as standard fare. From infants on, each day is broken into segments filled with "something to do." There are baby fun centers all over the country just for toddlers. As they grow, most 3-5 year olds are scheduled with several activities that sets a pace, and an expectation to be busy. It never lets up through the school years. In fact, residents in my town are fighting to change a policy that does not allow middle school children any time for recess during the day. Clearly the school supports "busy" too. At what price?

The allure of being engaged and busy is seductive - yet living in a chronic state unravels our emotional equilibrium and puts our health at risk. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her essay "The Cult of Busyness," said that being busy has become the new status symbol, more than cars, homes, clothes, or money. Admitting you don't like busy must mean you are depressed. And, if you stop being busy, you may just have to face deeper feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Dr.'s Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz have a new book called, The Lonely American- Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century. The married pair of therapists has found many of their clients are coming to them with a powerful experience of loneliness, yet it is a state they barely recognize, and are reluctant to share, as if it were somehow shameful. It is more acceptable to be depressed than to be lonely-yet loneliness appears to be the inevitable byproduct of our frenetic contemporary lifestyle.

"Americans in the 21st Century devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history, yet somehow the devices fail us: studies show that we feel increasingly alone," they write. "Unfortunately, talking about loneliness in America is deeply stigmatized; we see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness."
Olds and Schwartz continue; "People in our society drift away from social connections because of both a push and a pull. The push is the frenetic, overscheduled, hypernetworked intensity of modern life. The pull is the American pantheon of self-reliant heroes who stand apart from the crowd. As a culture, we all romanticize standing apart and long to have destiny in our hands. But as individuals, each of us hates feeling left out."

I struggle with being busy vs. being burned out on a regular basis. I like to drive fast, eat fast, read fast, type fast and can multi-task with the best of them. When I finally do stop, I often walk around in circles, trying to figure out what to 'do' with myself! Sound familiar?

The only way to have enough energy to properly develop those connections is to get off the merry-go-round and slow life down. There is even a whole, "slow movement" - complete with categories like slow cities, slow food, slow schools and slow money. Think Italy...ahhh.

The founders of Slow Movement recognize the trend of being to busy as "time poverty," and write,

"We are searching for connection. We want connection to people - ourselves, our family, our community, our friends, - to food, to place (where we live), and to life. We want connection to all that it means to live - we want to live a connected life."

While going slow may not be completely appealing, I ran across a word recently that I love: "Downshifting." It has been drifting through my mind quite regularly. The whole idea is desirable in a deeply primal way. I could potentially see idling down from 5th gear to 4th now and then. Tracey Smith started a movement for downshifting, and promotes a "National Downshifting Week" every Spring. Downshifters are those trying to recover from a credit crunch, live more sustainably or consciously spend less in order to have more time with the ones they love.

Like any fast car, downshifting cannot happen all at once. No one goes screaming down the highway at 90 mph and then throws it into first. Downshifting requires one gear at a time. How can all of us downshift just one gear this week? Here's some ideas:

- Make a meal at home instead of eating out.
- Make a point not to check emails after 6pm and dust off a book.
- Go for a long walk before work- even if you get a little sweaty...
- Let the house get a little disheveled
- Use some of that vacation time and take a half day off.

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