“Busy” has become the anthem of the anxious. And yet, when asked, most are hard-pressed to say what, exactly, they’re so busy doing. They shrug and say, “you know, with kids,” or an even more vague, “Not enough hours in the day.”
There was a time I envied those “busy” people. Thanks to a youth spent largely ignored by my more-popular peers, I equated “busy” with “popular.” At home with my books, I imagined “busy” meant parties and concerts, dinners with friends, and interesting work commitments. The lives of “busy” people struck me as exciting. Their time was in demand, and their busyness seemed an indictment of my own busy-less life.
Fast forward a decade and a half and I’m the mom of three children, owner of many pets, wife. Between giving birth and enrolling my eldest in high school, I’ve written a dozen books and umpteen magazine stories and blog posts. I’ve logged many hours behind the steering wheel or pulling warring toddlers in a trailer behind my bike. I’ve run a marathon, raised funds for AIDS orphans, helped mentor at-risk girls, and organized youth around the issue of climate change.
Somewhere in there have been a few parties, mostly hosted by me. There have been trips, dinners and fascinating work commitments. I’ve been busy. And somewhere in there as well, my “busy” became perilously close to “burned out.” Busy, I began to understand, can become a barrier to productive. I’ve learned there must be a yin to the yang. There must be a down to the up. There absolutely must be times of idleness. Or, as my friend Jamie puts it, “incubation.”
It’s an apt metaphor. Pregnant with my first child, I once lamented to a friend that I was just so bone-weary tired. Father of four, he blinked his eyes and then said very carefully “Of course you’re tired. You’re building a baby. Maybe today you built eyes. Or a liver.” Overlooking his oversimplification of baby building, I got his point. Though I wasn’t “busy,” I was working. Or perhaps I could say I was “incubating” a wonderful creation.
The problem with taking time to “incubate” is that the Puritans inside us see it as laziness. They see it as not working. And yet, the most progressive and productive companies have created environments in which employees can play. Think of Google’s pool tables and pianos. Apple’s lunch break concerts. “Eureka!” Archimedes allegedly cried as he streaked naked through the streets. He’d hit upon his theory of buoyancy in the bathtub, not at a desk.
Tim Kreider, a self-confessed loafer, wrote “The Busy Trap” for the New York Times online edition in part because his get-ahead friends were too busy to goof around with him. He insists that “the space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration…” In other words, he says, it’s crucial for getting work done.
If idleness insults your work ethic, think of it as incubation. The invisible growth stage where your creation gains strength and the tools it needs to survive once birthed.
Whatever you call it, build it into your life. So that the next time someone asks how you are, you can respond with a suggestion to talk about it over a long, lazy afternoon.