Originally written 9/24/14, updated in 2017

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m not busy. I haven’t been busy all week, as a matter of fact. I have a list of items that I could be working on, but no pressing deadlines or meetings. My humble number of clients are either out of town or have cancelled because they’re just getting back into town and don’t need me yet.

I feel fine about this lack of busy-ness at the moment, but this is a relatively new experience.

Prior to writing this article, it occurred to me that maybe we are all trying to be busy to distract us from something that’s difficult, the same way procrastination consists of your mind finding the need to fix the tiniest of aberrations on your fingernail as far more important than completing your essay. But just as I finished filing my nail, a NYTimes article came out on exactly this subject. The author referenced research that indicates people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with themselves without external stimulation. It discussed “busy” as meaning overcommitted and overextended with little time to reflect and how people want to be busy to avoid difficult reflection.

From there, I found an earlier and more entertaining NYTimes article, in which Tim Kreider distinguishes busy from exhausted and notes that “busy” is mostly self-imposed. He suggests that we want to be busy to avoid facing the meaninglessness of our lives.

Being busy implies that we’re valuable. We have stuff to do because people want us to do that stuff and are likely paying us because we’re worth it. I’m not sure we’re trying to avoid meaninglessness so much as we’re desperately seeking meaning. Except that we mostly don’t find actual meaning or a sense of being truly valued. We find substitutions that look like it from the outside, and it seems we would be extremely embarrassed to admit that we aren’t really finding meaning through our own constructed busyness.

For most of us, we perpetuate this blueprint probably because this is all we’ve ever seen. Our friends or colleagues seem to be happy, so we should do what they do. If we’re not actually happy while spinning six plates and dancing on a ball, we assume the problem is with us or that those aren’t the right plates. Perhaps it’s because there are so many people following this path of constant distraction that it seems like it must be the “right” way. The shared reality is that we’re supposed to be busy, and if we aren’t, something is wrong. It’s a strong subliminal force.

Aside from people overtly telling us that things are going well and they’re really busy, this force seems to function through our automatic interpretation of lots of external cues to be indicative of the internal states of others, like walking quickly indicating the need to be somewhere important. For me, the relief to my confusion was in seeing these implicit comparisons in action.

A few weeks back, I attended a non-residential meditation retreat, meaning that I’d do meditation stuff from 9-5, but I still went home to my apartment at 5pm, interacting with the world only as my commute necessitates. For that week, I wasn’t producing anything at all. I wasn’t, to the naked eye, busy. The first couple of days were rough. I kept feeling this sense of guilt and emptiness that I couldn’t really shake. I tried to justify it to myself: this was something I had planned for, an experience that would build skills and insight, that I was actually doing very important mental work. I truly believed these things, but the guilt persisted.

We did an exercise where we took a subway ride — something common in our daily lives that we don’t usually bring mindfulness to — and then wrote a list of what we recalled noticing.

On the train, I sat down and looked down at the floor, in typical New Yorker fashion. Some very nice feet in sandals entered my view. I overtly noticed her clean pedicure, but there was also this very subtle sense of comparison happening. There was this knowing that she was better than me. It wasn’t even a thought in language. It was just a hint of a feeling, like a belief that is pre-existent. She probably made more money than me, was respected by her boss who probably wouldn’t respect me, she probably has a shiny little husband who loves her but who wouldn’t like me. I didn’t think any of these thoughts but I would have agreed with them if you had asked.

In listing what I remembered from the ride, I could see this happened with disturbing frequency. I noticed good-looking guys in suits, but there was this slight assumption that they wouldn’t be interested in me, of course — they were valuable and I wasn’t. I stepped aside to let a suited man go out of the subway before me, since he obviously had somewhere important to be and I didn’t.

The pattern pivoted mostly around nice things (bags, suits, shoes) that I interpreted as an indication of importance. Indications of being more important than me, more specifically. I could see that the beliefs about myself extended from there: I should be out making money rather than literally paying to do nothing for a week. Since I’m not making money, I’m not valuable. The guilt got heavier with the recognition of that simple belief. There was also some sense of unfairness and futility, like the world doesn’t see my value; I was defending myself by blaming the world.

If these thoughts are any indication of my mental patterns in general life, this would probably explain my incessant low-level anxiety. I may have been nearly constantly experiencing some negative emotion because of this pattern of tacitly comparing myself negatively to others. It’s no wonder why I generally feel some struggle with my self-worth when I’m not working or in school. I’ve been constantly telling myself in various ways that I suck and everyone else is better.

The next day of the retreat, I kept an eye out for these sneaky comparisons. I also gave my mind almost no room to create them by staying in my senses, focusing on the sounds and the feelings on my skin. The guilt evaporated. It no longer seemed like I was valueless for not being busy. The concept of busy vanished, along with the concept of value. It was just me and my senses, without interpretation. And I was okay, apparently.

For me, this seemed to be how the gravitational pull of the Busy Delusion was exhibiting — in an almost unobservable, multi-layered belief structure, falsely equating having expensive stuff or being well-groomed with value. Since observing these patterns, I haven’t felt the same strange nauseous anxiety on days when I’m not busy. I still don’t like being unfocused or unproductive when I’m intending to be, but that sensation doesn’t have the same guilt-soaked undertone.

Maybe people don’t want to be alone with their mind if they’re subject to similarly painful patterns of self-deprecation, but it was extremely helpful to see them occurring in something I do everyday. Obviously, it wouldn’t have been helpful if I thought those beliefs had merit. I needed to be able to see that just because people appear to have it together doesn’t mean they do. Just because people say they’re busy, it doesn’t mean they’re enjoying their life or that they’re busy with the things they want to be doing. It might even mean the opposite.

Perhaps we are confusing being submerged in an ocean of obligations with being engaged in an activity. While I wasn’t busy in the way people usually mean it while on that meditation retreat, I was doing something. It’s just not a thing that most of society would look at and judge as worthwhile. Maybe society doesn’t know what’s best.