Friday, July 27, 2012

Take it easy

A friend of ours is vacationing for several weeks on an island this summer. Every few days, she emails me to update me on her trip. And she always begins with a description of how many hours she has spent working each day since the last update.

Understand, this isn’t “voluntourism.” Working isn’t an inherent part of the vacation scheme. She’s a freelance writer, like me, and could theoretically go away for a few weeks without sitting down at the desk at all. But it’s very important to her to impress upon me that that’s not the case. So she tells me how many hours she worked – and then she goes on to cover the various water sports and cultural excursions that the vacation has encompassed so far.

This has compelled me to contemplate why she feels the need to report on her work schedule. In his essay “The Busy Trap” in the New York Times last month, Tim Kreider implies that being busy has become a badge of honor, that we all have plenty of acquaintances –like the one I’m describing – who seem to believe that if they don’t remind us again and again of how busy they are, we might think that they’re, I don’t know, on vacation. Slacking, even.

I try hard to avoid this inclination in myself and not to talk about how much work I have in the abstract. I’m happy to tell anyone who is interested about specific assignments currently under way, either because they’re interesting or because they are particularly challenging, but either way, the discussion is about the specific assignment, not the mere fact that I have work to do.

So instead of referring to myself and my family as being busy, I now think of it as having a full day when all the activities are of our choosing -- whether that means recreational activities we specifically want to do or work we agreed to take on because it’s more desirable than other possible ways of making a living, even if we might rather not be working at all. I think of “busy” as meaning the sense of a treadmill: items on the schedule that are onerous, self-perpetuating and generally unfulfilling. Having a full day, on the other hand, means a lot of generally appealing options to pursue.

Thinking about this has underscored for me how much I admire those people who don't talk about being busy, and how wary I sometimes am of those who do. Several years ago, when I worked for a large international company, I was called to serve on an ad hoc committee with our CEO. “The first available meeting time she has is in six months,” the CEO’s assistant told the rest of us as we tried to set up a meeting. This gave me an uneasy feeling. Really? The CEO was busy for six months? So who was steering the ship?

Conversely, it reminds me of the first time I met the obstetrician who later delivered both my children. On my very first appointment with him, he did a physical exam and then told me to dress and meet him in his office. When I walked into his office five minutes later, he was reading the sports section of the daily paper. I loved the fact that he was so open about not being overscheduled that he was sitting there reading the paper. It assured me that he would have time for me – which as a new patient was just what I needed to know.

I began this summer with a commitment to ease up. It’s not that I actually planned to work less – as a freelancer, I need all the work I can get right now – I just didn’t want to think quite so much about work. I wanted to think about summertime.

Now, summer is about halfway over. If nothing else, I’ve thought a lot about the extent to which “busy” is a state of mind. I have a lot to do. But I’m not willing to use the “b” word because I’m happy to be doing all of it. Busy? Not really. Just happily occupied.

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