We Are Busy People Despite What The Research Says

Research suggests that we’re not as objectively busy as we think we are. Accepting the research findings, Kyle Kowalski then provides hypotheses, which seek to explain why we might feel so busy anyway.

My tack? It’s more elemental. I simply reject the premise upon which the research findings are based. It’s not strictly a question of measuring how much housework we have to do versus how much housework others before us had to do. It’s rather, and more metaphysically so, a question of asking: “How did we become busy people?

For Americans are, undeniably so, busy people.

Consider an often overlooked fact about human consciousness. Suppose the invention of household appliances such as washers and driers have diminished the time owners spend on washing and drying clothes. No need to suppose; it’s a fact. What has been overlooked, however, it how it’s possible for someone to change the object or contents of doing from one thing (e.g., handwashing clothes) to another (e.g., renovating a home). This is even easier to see in the case of someone who’s neurotic. If a neurotic person is told that crime in New York has gone down since the 1980s, this person may grant your point without giving up on his neuroticism; his neuroticism may just take up another object (e.g., death by infectious disease) while not so merrily continuing.

I think this has more or less happened. The evidence from our consciousness reveals more about who we think we are than the research may indicate.

Here is one metaphysical story–an abstract and fictional one, yes–that one could tell to illustrate how busyness in the lives of Americans could have arisen.

  1. Doer.– Ask yourself, “Who am I?” Swiftly take whoever you are to be an agent. You are a doer.
  2. Saturation.– Next, let your life be utterly saturated by this identity. Let yourself be consumed by what is it you have to, wish to, need to, or would like to do.
  3. Central Question.– Next, may this to be your formative, anxious question: “What do I have to, wish to, need to, or would like to get done–now or next?” (Goal-setting and planning are simply more sophisticated means of realizing these ends.)
  4. Time Famine.– Concomitantly, think of time as only–only!–that which enables or disables human agency. Time is friendly just when it enables me to get as much done as I’d like to, unfriendly, even hostile, when it thwarts my efforts, stymying my attempts. (Elsewhere, I have called this “time famine.”)

Now let conditional happiness be that state of mind that is contingent almost exclusively on how much you actually got done. Then you feel proud, satisfied, or relieved when you’ve completed just about everything you wanted to. Else, you feel despondent, anxious, overwhelmed, or (over time) burned out when you did not or could not.

The suggestion, then, is that this basic conception of being human just means that we moderns are attached to busyness in the sense of being seemingly incapable of conceiving of ourselves outside of it. At the same time, we’re frightful of whatever lies on the other side. What Protestants denigrated as “idleness” or “laziness” scared us, rattling us to no end.

Ours, therefore, is not a question of doing nothing. It’s a question of non-doing. Call this the open secret of contemplative science.