It’s summer. Yesterday my kids (who are 12 and 9) slept until 9:30 am. They got up and watched “Home Alone” for the first time (we’d procured it for a road trip last weekend and they hadn’t gotten around to viewing). Then they went outside and rode scooters and chased the neighbor kids around in a game they made up that involves runners being chased by taggers on scooters and some sort of countdown. I don’t understand it, but it makes them really sweaty. When they got too hot, they came inside and read. It was a good summer day for them.
Were they busy? Well, sure. They were active. They did a lot of stuff. They had a good day.
Did they accomplish much? Not really, other than checking a classic kids movie off the “must see” list, and knocking off a chapter or two in the books they’re reading. They hung out. They played. They did good summery things that made them happy.
It made me happy, too.
I think of their day when I read Tim Kreider’s “Opinionator” essay from June 30 in the New York Times, the much passed-around and argued-about screed against grown-up busyness. It’s titled “The Busy Trap” and it includes killer statements like this:
They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.
He asserts that busyness is a “hedge against emptiness,” a way that we combat the feeling that our lives cannot be as silly or trivial or meaningless as they seem if we live in a way that seems as if we’re in demand all the live-long day.
Super-guilty, says the guy who makes a living in the advertising business (part of which involves ghost-tweeting for mostly minor but occasionally major celebrities).
Kreider complains about kids who are over-scheduled with sports and school and other activities.
He concludes: Life is too short to be busy. Especially when what we’re busy doing might be identified as meaningless activities — impossibly stupid meetings, irritating commutes, unnecessary emails. But we force each other to keep this pace because otherwise we’ll look like we’re not working hard enough. He’s right. Then he goes off the rails a bit by talking about ogling girls at the park or spending days drinking chilled minty drinks, and his lifestyle of idleness sounds like that of a jerk blessed by luxury.
But anyway, he made some good points. He got people talking. As a father, I’ve been wondering what lessons can I learn from this? Some ideas:
1. I shouldn’t equate busyness with productivity. Doing a lot of activities at work can look busy, but I may not be getting anything done. Sitting and staring into space may look like I’m wasting time, but I might be brainstorming a novel or figuring out a solution to a problem. As a self-employed, work-from-home professional, I need to be as productive as possible while trying to engage in as few unhelpful, “faux-ductive” activities as possible.
2. At my kids’ ages, productivity matters a whole lot less. I’d love for them to get some books read or accomplish some cool things this summer, but I also want them to enjoy as much unstructured play time as they can get — just because that’s something growing up will take away from them. It’s fleeting and important and it helps shape them into who they’ll become. And any time I spend engaged in unstructured play time with them is also beneficial time.
3. If I ever talk about being busy in a proud way, I’m wrong. I can be proud of my productivity. And I can be proud that I do enough work to provide for my family, but being so over-scheduled that I treat an interruption from my kids or wife as a nuisance is a bad, bad thing.
4. Balance is key. As Kreider states, the “ideal human life” falls somewhere between individual sloth and the rest of the world’s crazy hustle. But not at either extreme.
I’m not quite there yet. I’m self-employed and have plenty to do, but I’m always trying to save up for the future if the work dries up. I’ve written books and always worried that I’m not promoting them (or myself) enough. I produce and co-host a weekly podcast. I think I should get around to starting a novel. I need to update my twitter feed. I have things to do, and begin to feel antsy when I’m not sitting at my computer and doing them.
But are they important things? Productive things? Or are they just time-fillers that soothe me because they make me feel busy?
Good questions. I like how Kreider answers them:
“I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd.”
Choose time over money. Choose experiences over stuff. Choose people over work. It may be a luxury, but if I can afford it, I dare not leave it on the table.