Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Busy are You? Do you need an 'undisclosed location' to get things done?

Sometimes I wonder if my colleagues think I'm joking when I say I get better
cell service out on the dock. This is the dock.
I am now in an “Undisclosed Location” (UL) a la Tim Kreider, where I can get excellent Internet service if I sit on this dock and lean a little. My email can’t ping too often, and I’m prepared to do Some Real Writing. (I’m not sure about the caps,but I figure if Kreider needs to capitalize UL, the “real” writing completed in the UL must be worth caps, too.)

I’m a little late in the game marveling over how much attention Kreider’s blog entry on the New York Times Opinionator about being “busy” received. Honestly, I think Kreider wrote this piece to stir up some interest in his new book, and I doubt even he believes being busy is a bad thing, but he created an awful lot of space for others to be so wrong about the idea of "busyness."

First, Kreider writes:
I can't help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn't a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn't matter.
Doesn’t this sentence disparage the work of every single person who supports himself/herself/a family? If the work we do doesn’t matter, then why do it at all? To feel important? Or to keep ourselves in food, clothing, shelter, and Netflix?
Kreider thinks he has found a way to work five hours a day and make a living he finds comfortable. Kreider puts a lot of stock in idleness and its role in his writing. For a writer, artist, or anyone who draws on mental energy to create, what Kreider is calling idleness is essential and hardly idleness at all. Innovation requires space to think, so if those hours are added onto the five hours of actual writing Kreider does in a day, is he still working only five hours a day?


Forbes contributor John Baldonisays Kreider gets it right when he says that we should stop valuing “busyness as a positive.” Baldoni says management needs to carve out time in their schedules, “the way that sculptors shape stone.” He goes on to explain, “This becomes the time when managers do their real work – meeting with direct reports and reflecting on their performance.” (Perhaps Baldoni typically has problems with pronouns. Whose performance? The performance of the direct reports? Or the manager’s own performance? One sounds like micromanagement and the other sounds a lot like naval gazing. Maybe he’s referring to the company’s performance (in which case the pronoun should be “its")). But, Grammar Girl can explain pronouns much better than I can.

Slate contributor J. Bryan Lowder explains that people sit around the library at 3 a.m. lamenting their busyness, and points out “that if they’d just that the large majority of them could have finished their work in a reasonable amount of time if they had actually concentrated on doing it instead of discussing it over burnt espresso at 3 a.m.”

College students are still trying to grow into their big-people shoes, and unless they’re trying to build a start-up in their dorm, we all know most will look back on these days and ask, “How did I ever think I was busy back then?”

Undergraduates aside, what I really want to know is what is wrong with being busy? Or being so busy? Or crazy busy? I thought Lucas Kavner at the Huff Post blog, who called Kreider’s argument “so damned rational,”might explain the argument, but he really doesn't. Instead, he said the article became ubiquitous. Oh, Kavner, are you being hyperbolic on purpose? Ubiquitous, as I’m sure you know, means that something is everywhere, as in, “In the US, computing is ubiquitous.” Kreider’s article received more than 800 comments, but ubiquitous? And rational? That suggests he has evidence that we use it as a boast. I believe Kreider cites a friend’s lament about being busy as evidence. I’m only slightly hyperbolic when I say that he’s one cousin away from having the beginning of an urban legend on his hands. Everyone knows those things always happen to the cousin of a good friend.

To say that being busy is a boast wrapped in a complaint is ridiculous.

Sometimes in the land where I grew up, saying “I’m busy,” is an admittance: “I’m making it in this life and I’m thankful for it.”

To a startup, “I’m busy,” means, “Woo-hoo, customers! But let’s not jinx the situation.”

At times, “I’m so busy,” may be sort of like an apology: “I know I have been a rotten friend lately, but life has handed me a bunch of lemons, and I’m sparing you the details of what happens when all those lemons start to rot.”

Do you really want to know about my rotting lemons right now?

I didn’t think so.

Maybe I’m just sensitive because I have been crazy busy for a little while. But it’s okay because I’ve been sitting poolside and beach side for two days now. But, I’m so thankful for the busyness and the fact that I have skills that I can use to support my family.

If you need to figure out whether you’re just-right busy, too busy, or crazy busy, track your hours and see what you find.

The worst part of Kreider’s column is that he acknowledges that busyness is almost always self-imposed, as if volunteering for things or taking classes is a bad thing: “they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” He tries to tell us that he got busy and so he unplugged, but what he really says is:
Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I'm writing this.
Wait.wait.wait.wait.wait.

Kreider is so busy that he has to go to the UL just to get some work done?

Does it really get any busier than that? Does Kreider have any space at all to disparage friends who say they are crazy busy?

Most of the rest of us—including the busy, busy people he chastises—do their work without having to hide. As a result of being so wrong about busyness, his email box has filled up, causing him to be even busier.

But getting back to the basics, here’s what we know: Kreider is promoting a book. He needs to get busy. And if he wants to sell many, many copies, he needs to get crazy busy.

Kreider, of course, knew that all along.

1 comment:

Lyndsy said...

There's definitely nothing wrong with being busy; I get a decent high off of it. But Kreider's piece resonated with me. After reading your take on it (after writing my own, different take), I realized that Kreider doesn't directly address the kind of busyness that "doesn't matter:" Perhaps that definition is customized to the individual, but he also doesn't say that.

I did find it funny that he's complaining from the standpoint of an arguably successful standpoint. He's published and writing articles for the New York Times? Clearly he's put in his time and been busy. It also sounds like he's overworked and ready for a break…which he's taking.

So, yeah, his piece sounds a little hypocritical, but there's certainly something to be said about checking back in with ourselves and asking, "Are you happy with all you're doing?"

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