Redefining “busy”

It took me a few days to finish reading an article about how we’re all letting ourselves feel too damn busy. I should have seen that one coming.

The piece in question was a New York Times post last Saturday called “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” In it, writer and cartoonist Tim Kreider condemned a cult of self-induced over-scheduling–not among “people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs,” but those who had a choice:

It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

I have no doubt that such people exist, especially in the Washington area. But then Kreider went on to brag a little about how he had escaped that trap:

I also feel that four or five hours [of writing a day] is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie.

Another, much busier, cartoonist, Matt Bors, read that and was not amused by the smug entitlement he saw there:

What Kreider glosses over is how it is he able to maintain a living in New York City while working a maximum of 20 hours a week devoted to freelance writing. He alludes to a retreat in the essay, from which he writes, a home in Chesapeake Bay where he spends some of his time. Kreider is either extremely well-compensated for his time or he has another source of income, a privilege he doesn’t acknowledge in the article, that allows for his leisurely lifestyle.

I don’t feel as overworked as Bors describes himself to be, but I sure don’t have time for multiple afternoons off, much less ditching work to “drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long,” as Kreider memorably put it. And yet when I look at how my output has dropped compared to my Post workload–well, should I?

Last week, for example, I wrote about 2,600 words for my various clients, plus maybe 650 words here. In about the same seven-day period two years ago, I pounded out–yikes–about 4,900 words’ worth of blog posts, plus another 1,100 words of print columns. (The likes of Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias probably write still more on any given week, but I have no idea how they do it.) My increased verbosity on Twitter made up for some of that, but still… by those numbers, you’d think I’m now leading a Kreider-esque life of ease.

I assure you, I am not. I may take the occasional nap after lunch (a meal I almost never eat at my desk anymore), but I still struggle to get everything on the to-do list done by Friday evening. And if I take two hours off in the afternoon to run some errands–often the most efficient way to get chores done–I have to make that up after dinner or over the weekend.

I would like to think that the work has expanded to fill the time in the healthiest way possible–I’m taking more time to research, write and rewrite each story, then join the conversation with readers on social media and in comments threads. But it could be that I’ve just gotten less efficient and, worse, am losing my deadline-writing habits.

(This post, for example, should have been done an hour ago. Why haven’t I clicked “Publish” already?)

The risk of inefficiency is that it can box you into the artificial busyness Kreider decried. And that, in turn, carries long-term risks, as he noted in that post’s least resentment-inducing paragraph:

The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

So if anybody asks, that’s why I’ll be at the Nationals game tomorrow.