We were walking through the mall, minding our own business, when the hollering began. “Hello there! How are you?” It was a friend – well, acquaintance really – one of those alpha mums who it’s almost impossible not to bump into at every play date or café in town. She came swishing across the sea of other shoppers to stand right in front of us. Cue air kisses. “Oh I’m afraid I’ve got absolutely no time to talk, I’m just so busy,” she gushed – before taking the time to reel off the numerous commitments and important events she had on her to-do list. Several minutes later and she finally wrapped it up: “I’m sorry, but I really can’t stand here all day talking, I’ve got so much to get sorted.” And with a sweep of slinky silk, she was off.
We stood there feeling a bit stunned for a few moments… She’d just gone out of her way to come and talk to us, in order to explain why she had absolutely no time to come and talk to us… If that’s not the definition of a 20th-century ‘busybody’, we don’t know what is.
But it’s not just busybody types who like to go on about their full schedules nowadays. How many times have you responded to a ‘How are you?’ with something along the lines of: ‘Crazy busy’, ‘Things are hectic right now’, ‘It’s been manic’…?
And yet, however much we might bemoan our packed diaries, the research shows that, actually, we kind of enjoy it. A 2014 Harvard Business School study found that displaying one’s busyness and a lack of leisure time can lead to inferences of status and an aspirational image in the eyes of others – which we begin to crave, reinforcing our busy behaviour.
It’s a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and something that the leisured classes of Downton Abbey era wouldn’t have been able to comprehend – the very word ‘weekend’ used to be seen as vulgar, being a sure sign that you must have to work for a living. But today, hard work is seen as a virtue, and we equate busyness with productivity. To the point at which saying you’re busy has become a sort of humble brag – a boast about our importance disguised as a complaint.
In her book Daring Greatly, social scientist Dr Brene Brown says that, for many of us, ‘crazy busy’ has become a numbing strategy, akin to drugs or alcohol, used to shield ourselves against vulnerability. She says, “We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
Busyness has become another piece of armour against that niggling inner monologue that says we aren’t good enough – your life can’t possibly be trivial or unimportant if you are so in demand you never have any free time, right? Take a look at your diary – all those extra meetings, workshops, clubs obligations… We tell ourselves we have to do them, but what would happen if we just didn’t? Would the world really come to an end?
Maybe it’s time we took a deep breath and learnt to value just being idle again. After all, it’s in those moments of doing nothing that we can be at our most creative – like Newton musing under the apple tree, the best ideas can come to us in the quietest of moments.
So, the next time you feel your flustered busy self emerging, have a think about the real reasons your life might feel so hectic all the time. And remember the words from that WH Davies verse: “A poor life this if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare.”