Breaking ‘Busy’: Giving Up On The B-Word

We are suspended in a constant state of leisure, in which near everything we do is driven not out of necessity, but choice.

Wake up. Turn off your iPhone alarm. Check for emails you might have missed last night. Sit on the toilet. Read some news. Take a shower. Check your iPhone halfway through to see what you missed. Get dressed. Check the weather. Look outside. Check again. Put in your earphones as you iron your shirt. Walk out the door, pick out a song and then head to class.

What did you just accomplish? Cut out my interaction with devices, and what just took 40 minutes could have easily taken 15. We’ve bought into this narrative that we are busier than any generation before us—that invasive technology has opened the floodgates for constant intrusion, and that we, the users of these devices, are held hostage by a growing set of expectations.

Tune out the noise.

For many of us, life has actually become so painfully efficient that we have more free time than we could ever fathom trying to spend. We are suspended in a constant state of leisure, in which near everything we do is driven not out of necessity, but choice. Even the simplest, most human activities of the day—the ones necessary for survival—can now be paired with something else to make them feel a little less bothersome. Meanwhile, our brain is filled with “busy” signals, driving us to check our phones, bring out our laptops, look at our watches, and repeat.

This is the “busy student” delusion.

On Friday, the Marketing Department at Boston College released a video feature on the research of Professor Adam Brasel. In a study on multitasking, Brasel left participants in a room for half an hour with a television and a computer screen, with cameras placed inconspicuously around the room. Over the course of 27 minutes, the average subject in the study shifted attention between devices over a hundred times. The subjects were asked afterward how often they thought they shifted their focus while in the room. Most would give numbers like seven or ten.

If one person goes mad, there’s usually a diagnosis, a system of treatment, but how do you begin to address the madness of a generation? At its surface, the “leisure state” technology allows us is a matter of privilege, and perhaps the “busy student” delusion is actually relatively contained on a global scale.

But beyond that, it’s a question of purpose. It was simple enough for my grandmother, growing up on a farm, to rationalize that her time had meaning. She grew up during the Great Depression, and her attention was needed to provide food for the family and help pay the bills. For me, it can almost be a challenge seeing what value I’m creating in any specific action, what service to the world I’m providing, why I should spend my time as such. By convincing myself I’m “busy”—that my time has purpose and that there’s more work for me to do than I can ever get to—I never have to ask the tough question of what it all means in the first place.

The cult of distractibility is, in part, the curse of living in interesting times. American culture has shifted more over the last 20 years than it has during any peaceful time in history, and we’re still stumbling to figure out what’s next. Much of our time is currently victim to this false narrative of busy, but when the bubble’s bound to pop—and almost surely it will—we’ll have to rethink what makes our days worthwhile. We’ll have to refocus on some issues a little further from our glance.

Put in your earphones as you iron your shirt. Walk out the door, pick out a song and then head to class. You see a friend. She asks you how you’re doing. You look up from your phone.

Don’t dare say the B-word.

Featured Image Courtesy of John Wiley / Heights Editor

About John Wiley 98 Articles
John Wiley was the Editor-in-Chief of The Heights in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @johnjaywiley.