Occasionally something goes viral on the internet that really rubs me the wrong way. Which is why I want to talk about Tim Kreider’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” I know my perspective is not going to be popular with my Facebook friends, the great majority of whom posted a link to or quoted this article at least once in the last week. I, too, read the article, because I am a person who struggles with my constant “busyness” and trying to make the best use of my time and fit it all in. I’m forever having to prioritize and relegate and make sure I have a good Work Life Balance and that exercise doesn’t go by the wayside and that I spend enough Time With Friends and also, incidentally, manage to work enough to actually make money. I thought, it’s the New York Times, for God’s sakes; maybe they can teach me something new.
Like Kreider, I am a freelance writer, so I am responsible for my own time and how I spend it. But unlike Kreider, I haven’t yet cracked the code of how to make a decent living in an incredibly expensive area of the country by working only four to five hours a day, and only when I feel like it. For me — obviously a less evolved person than the author — 8 to 10-hour work days are a sad reality if I want to pay my rent on an hourly consultant’s wages. So there go those leisurely afternoons that Kreider seems to think are the dividing line between good people with their priorities on straight and “busy” people living an obnoxious lie. I don’t have the luxury of blowing off work every time someone calls me and asks me to do something random and fun at 11 in the morning on a weekday (which happens all the time, by the way; I have had to get real good at saying no).
Outside of my obvious bitterness at not being a successful enough writer to work only when I‘m really in the mood (does that ever even happen to writers?), there is something about “The ‘Busy’ Trap” that seems off to me on a much deeper level. It implies that time is only nobly spent when spontaneous and dictated exclusively by free will and compulsive urges.
I too was a “a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon” while I was growing up. It was the 70s, and there wasn’t a lot of parental oversight, except for the demand that we spend most of our time outside and out of sight. My brother and I spent many hours in the woods behind our house, exploring, having adventures, getting into all sorts of mischief, and, when all else failed, reading. And reading and reading and reading. This training on keeping myself “busy” — sorry, I know that’s a dirty word now — is probably part of the reason why I am a huuuuuuuuuuuuuge believer in leisure time, reading time, down time, creative time, outside time and personal time. In fact, “down time” is probably the main theme of this entire blog and was one of the earliest categories I created. I have written about the healing and nurturing power of leisure time again and again and again.
But Kreider seems to equate personal time with making as few plans and commitments as possible. I disagree entirely. I’m a Virgo and a 6 and I like to plan ahead. I often plan my leisure time out far in advance. For instance, I can tell you right now that I’m going to be taking a hike—maybe with some friends, maybe alone— this Sunday from precisely 1-4. Here’s why I know this:
- If I do not decide ahead of time what I want to do on Sunday, I will wake up Sunday morning and ask myself what I feel like doing, and the answer, always, will be: “Absolutely nothing. Sit on this couch with a hoody on and eat crap and maybe watch some bad television.” This will lead to a major spiral of self-loathing, guaranteed.
- But if I get up on Sunday morning and insist to myself that the hike, as planned, is going to happen regardless of my current level of drive, then I will go on that hike, and I will have a great time, and I will get some exercise and fresh air and sunshine, and I will be absolutely feel better and happier for it.
There is great freedom in structure.
Another example: every month I take a Creative Hooky Day, where I skip work and do something creative, with and by myself, all day, that I would not normally take the time to do. I go to museums; I visit botanical gardens; I seek out secret coffee shops and work on my memoir. I plan these days out way ahead of time. They are not spontaneous. I organize my life so that I can take these days off without the stress of knowing that a thousand clients are pelting me with emails and expecting a response, STAT. Because my hooky days are planned and organized, they are enjoyable and fulfilling.
The down side of all of my planning and organizing is that I am constantly telling people “Sorry, I'm busy” when they ask me to do things last minute. Often, those plans are to go for a hike by myself, or watch a movie I’ve been wanting to get around to, or go to the library and read magazines in a big cushy chair with a view of the redwoods. And yeah, I could cancel my totally optional plans with myself. BUT I DON’T WANT TO. Kreider points a finger at those who “schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 GPAs make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications.” Uh. I do that. I schedule in time with friends. I am not spontaneous. Really, I am not. Ever. And I’m okay with it. I don’t have that kind of personality that likes to shift gears quickly. Sue me. Or, just learn to love me that way I am and don’t judge me for it.
I feel like my life is rich with creative time, time spent outside, time with good friends, and that I simultaneously have the time to relax and become absorbed in my workdays as a freelance writer without having to worry about how my time will pan out. I map it out ahead of time; then I relax into it. This works for me.
It might not work for Tim Kreider. And Tim Kreider does, I must say, seem rather blessed in that he appears to be able to make a living without working very much, or have very many other responsibilities. Good for him. Tim, you can have your unstructured leisure time and I will keep being “busy” with my structured, nerdy, inflexible schedule! And never the twain shall meet.
And to my friends: I want to spend time with you, I really do. A week from Tuesday night. And if you acquiesce to make plans with me, I assure you that I will treat our date with reverence! I will cook you dinner! You will have my full attention for the entire time we are together! I will put my iPhone away and be totally present! But you have to… that’s right… make a plan with me.