Doesn’t it always seem like there’s never enough time in the day? It’s gotten to the point where “I’m so busy” has actually become a legitimately acceptable answer when you ask someone how their day is going.
At first, I wondered if this was simply a function of having becoming an adult with a full schedule and real responsibilities. But then I remembered that even kids are over-scheduled these days. (Plus, did adults in the ’50s feel this way?)
There has been quite a lot written about our constant search for more time – which often manifests itself in the form of an epidemic of busyness (almost to the point of narcissism), overflowing inboxes and national discussions about work-life balance.
Maybe people have been feeling swamped for as long as productivity has been a part of life, but it seems to me that there has been a very real cultural change in our attitudes toward time.
PUTTING OUT FIRES
At work and in life, it appears as if being behind is now the default. We meet friends for drinks to “catch up,” presumably (or at least in my case) because we haven’t seen them in forever. And while a full-time work day is still technically only eight hours, that’s not a reality for most of us – either because we’re working overtime, checking work emails at home and on vacation, or spending the rest of our free time pursuing side projects and entrepreneurial ventures.
There are always more projects than can be completed, more ideas than can be fleshed out, and too often, we’re just trying to stay afloat.
As our work demands more of us, we’re constantly trying to put out fires instead of spending time being creative.
A BADGE OF HONOR
But even when we’re taking action, many of us rarely take the time to celebrate our accomplishments, instead choosing to continue pursuing a frenetic state of activity.
As a constant setter of goals and maker of lists, I relish the feeling of checking something off. But more often than not, I’m looking to the next item before even pausing to reflect on what I’ve actually achieved.
Personally, I struggle with inaction. If I so much as take a nap on a Sunday afternoon or occasionally indulge in a few hours of TV after work, I know I’ll be battling that nagging feeling in the back of my head that there is something more productive I could be doing. And because I have so many goals (see my list here) and commitments like this blog and my workout routine, there is literally always something that I could be attending to.
Perhaps it has to do with the increasing value placed on “makers,” entrepreneurs, world-changers and 40-under-40 superstars, but it seems like more and more, our culture measures worth through activity, or at least the appearance of it.
In this New York Times op-ed, Tim Kreider writes:
“The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it […] Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
THE ILLUSION OF ACTION
But behind the trend toward constant activity, there seems to be an underlying theme of thoughtlessness. We’re almost operating on autopilot, acting according to a preset program that often has not determined by ourselves. Now, we get through the day by checking off tasks, reading and answering an endless flow emails and doing a bunch of little things that don’t really add up to much. Remember the 80/20 rule?
I have to admit that I can be judgmental of people who don’t manage their time well – who can’t make meetings on time or keep track of their schedule. If you’re constantly busy, but you’re not actually achieving much, it tells me that you either completely clueless or you’re not thinking critically enough about your goals.
In the age of Google, Siri and a host of other technology that does our thinking for us, we’ve freed up our time to pack in more: more meetings, more communication, more activity, instead of more time for reflection.
I recently read this article that was written a few years ago by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University, after he found out he had lung cancer.
Here’s what he has to say about time:
“Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.”
Sadly, he passed away this month. Reading his article immediately made me think of my dad, and his experience during the final months of his life. As he grew increasingly confined to an apartment and then to a chair, I imagined time must have felt at once endless and too scarce.
Somehow, without realizing it, I’ve internalized that feeling of ambivalence: knowing that there’s time ahead of me – to be, to grow, to change and to become my best self – while also being hyper-aware of how little a guarantee any of us have that we might be here in a year, or even a day.
It’s changed by perspective on busyness, for sure. For one, I’ve realized that it’s a luxury – when my dad was sick, all I wanted to do was give him more time so that he could do all the things he never got around to.
One of the most obvious reactions to finding out that your time is limited “might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions,” says Kalanithi in his essay.
“Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time, it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. But even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder, some days I simply persist.”
It might do us all a little good to start pondering while we still have the time.