Are You Really That Busy?

Are You Really That Busy?

A few weeks back, Marti and I were cruising home from California in our RV. (For those of you who are surprised to learn that we have an RV, here’s the deal: While Marti drives, I work. While I drive, she works.) Our twenty-two-foot house and office on wheels provides 194 square feet of space, a simple way to keep our three dogs with us while we see the country and kick some butt at work.

Before our first RV trip—a five-thousand miler back and forth to California to launch my book —we got all set with a mobile wireless hotspot, an inverter to convert battery power to AC, special charging devices, plus our laptops, cell phones and productivity accessories.

This, we believed, would redefine mobile work.

But on the way home, we passed through the mountains. Signals don’t climb over three-thousand-foot rock faces or penetrate miles of desert. I dropped two client calls. My dreams of productivity were circling the drain. And I was becoming unglued. Helpless, I glanced up from my technology and looked out the window.

Windows in an RV are bigger than those in a car. And in that moment, ours were filled with grand gorges and high mountains. I was speechless. My cell phone wasn’t working but the universe was sending me a message: Shut up and pay attention.

Lesson #1: Next time your technology fails, look up. The universe may be trying to show you something.

In America, being busy is associated with being productive, the Holy Grail of Puritan work ethic. Women speak in code: “I don’t know how you do it all!” really means, “You are superwoman and should announce it with a fabulous cape.”

And in Wisconsin where our state animal is a badger, being productive is an implicit expectation. Like enjoying cheese curds. Or drinking brandy old-fashioneds.

On the other hand, those who seem unproductive or happy to stare out windows are seen as no-good slackers. Losers.

I admit, I’ve bought into America’s obsession with busyness; I admire people who work like the devil and kick ass. Mindy Kaling, for example, writes, directs and stars in her own TV show, The Mindy Project. She admits to days that start by 7 a.m. and end after 11 p.m.

But you won’t hear her griping about her long hours. As Kaling explained to Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross last September, “My mom [a gynecologist] and dad [an architect] raised me believing that everyone’s busy, so it’s not really a good conversation topic to talk about how busy you are, and it’s a little narcissistic, in fact, to talk about that because everyone is kind of stressed out no matter what job you’re in.”

Lesson #2: Being busy doesn’t make me special. It makes me normal, in an America-obsession-with-being-busy way. And talking about being busy is sort of, well, boring.

Are we busier today than our parents or grandparents were in their day?

In her poem Magdalene—The Seven Devils, New York poet laureate Marie Howe lists the seven evils that were cast out of Jesus’ friend, Mary Magdalene. Howe writes her poem in the first person. It starts:

The first [devil] was that I was very busy.
Later in the poem, she continues:
The second was that I was so busy. I had no time.
How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?

To think of Mary Magdalene complaining about being busy seems absurd. Mary lived in a time of stone tablets, not text messaging. Today, you and I check our smart phones 150 times per day.

What was Mary doing? Spinning cloth?

Lesson #3: Being busy—or at least citing it as a devil—is timeless.

Henry David Thoreau, the high priest of living simply, wrote, “It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Let’s make a pact, you and I. Let’s stop looking at our laps, checking incessantly for emails. Let’s look up once in a while. And let’s stop telling people that we’re busy. Let’s talk about what makes our hearts dance.

Rebecca Ryan is going on a digital diet. Pleae don’t e-mail her (this month).