It's not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?--Henry David Thoreau
Some time ago, I was reading one of those magazines that try to help you simplify your life, and I came across an article touting the benefits of exercising during “downtimes.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m waiting for the spaghetti water to boil, I’m emptying the dishwasher or putting the Goldfish crackers back in the pantry. I’m already multitasking, and when I pick up a magazine that touts The Simple Life, I want that life to be simpler than the one I already lead, thank you. I think multitasking and efficiency have gone too far when I can’t make dinner or ride an elevator without being expected to tone my thighs.
Our culture seems to be obsessed with doing more, more, more. Anyone who doesn’t hold down a job and fill their leisure hours with “worthwhile activity” is a slacker. Among my friends and acquaintances, our most common complaint is how busy we are, or how behind we feel. In order to achieve all our goals (make dinner, get in shape…), we’re forced to multitask.
And where is all this multitasking getting us anyway? Are we finding great chunks of time to do things we really love? Or are we just making it possible to do two or 10 more unfulfilling, maybe even unnecessary tasks? I ask myself, do I really need to alphabetize my herbs and spices? Wash the laundry room shelves? Shave the dog?
Please don't shave me...
When you think about it, is multitasking really so great? Who hasn’t been irritated—if not endangered—by the classic multitasker: the driver talking on his/her cell phone?
But here’s the clincher. A study published in 2009 by Stanford researchers found that multitaskers are more distractible and have more trouble focusing than non-multitaskers. (And this is a surprise?) In short, according to those researchers, multitaskers are incompetent.
So why do we do this to ourselves? Perhaps our busyness and multitasking are defense mechanisms, meant to keep us from seeing the empty places in our lives. If we fill every minute with activity—sometimes with more than one—we won’t feel the loneliness, anger or anxiety we’re so afraid of.
Or maybe we’re afraid that others will think less of us if we don’t have a long list of activities and achievements to rattle off when we’re asked what’s new. What would happen, I wonder, if we told a co-worker we spent the previous evening playing board games with our kids? Would we lose his or her respect because we didn’t work late, shuttle the kids to gymnastics practice and pick up the dry cleaning? We’ve seen a certain smugness some of those busy people exude—and we don’t want to lose face in front of them. If we’re not as busy as they are, maybe we’re not as important?
Philosophical questions aside, we’re still faced with ever-increasing demands on our time and the same old 24 hours to meet those demands. Now we find out that one of our techniques for managing our lives is actually making them more difficult. Maybe what we need instead of a magazine article that encourages us to exercise during downtimes is a series of articles that give us permission simply to be in the moment, to appreciate the ambiance of a restaurant without doing ankle rotations while waiting for our salads to arrive. The first article could be “Do Less in More Time—a Guide to the Slow Life.” Other articles could include:
--“The Joy of Daydreaming”
--“Put Those Bills Away!” (How to watch TV without doing something else at the same time.)
--“Ten Ways to Say No to Unwanted Activities”
Come to think of it, we don’t really need permission from anyone. We have the right—the need even—to slow our lives down to a livable pace. Let’s give our poor overworked brains and bodies a chance to focus on one thing at a time. And occasionally, let’s make that one thing stopping to smell the roses.
...or watch the sunset