Escaping the Busy Trap
A few years back, shortly after I graduated from college and moved to DC, I read an article titled “The Busy Trap,” written by a journalist named Tim Kreider. The thesis of the New York Times article suggested that Americans spend so much time building a resume and chasing accolades that there is little time left for healthy, unstructured living. Kreider posited that this constant pursuit, your ever-present to-do list, eventually has a deleterious effect on our personalities and interpersonal relationships.
It’s a bit of a dire message, right? There is an inherent value in staying busy and constantly striving to overcome challenges en route to the next achievement. At some point, however, running a never-ending race can lead to single-mindedness so significant that activities, commitments, pastimes, even people that aren’t aligned with your goals fall to the wayside.
One of the aspects of college life that I appreciated so fondly was the myriad opportunities to grow intellectually and socially outside of the classroom. Maintaining a respectable GPA on the path to a degree was the first order of business, but saving time for friendships and hobbies was necessary for my soul. I put in the hours to meet every deadline for assignments and engaged in a few extracurriculars to pad my resume and hopefully differentiate my case from my peers. But I also reserved a large percentage of my time every week for the activities that made me feel like me. Looking back on the non-academic activities that school offered, it’s no wonder I found college such a fun, enriching experience…
- I knocked heads with my rugby teammates at trainings and matches several times per week to the tune of one or twelve concussions.
- I wrote some music and performed with friends at campus open-mic nights like I was related to the Gallagher brothers.
- I stoked some Almost Famous ambitions by authoring album reviews for the university newspaper and an arts and culture magazine.
- I trained for the annual charity boxing tournament where a close friend and rugby teammate punched me in the face until my ankle re-broke in front of all of our friends.
- I deejayed for the campus radio station where I discovered many up-and-coming artists that are still on my list of favorite bands not named Creed.
- I worked as a campus tour guide for the admissions office because I liked to look cool in front of high school kids and I’m a naturally elite backwards walker.
- I even did my best to keep up in late-night video game binges where my parents’ refusal to allow Nintendo or PlayStation in the house as I grew up rendered me the perennial bottom-feeder of Alumni Hall Super Smash Brothers tournaments.
I was busy, sure. But my days weren’t dedicated to a sole responsibility or one corner of my identity. My experiences were diverse, my motivations were natural, and the effects on my sanity throughout paper deadlines and looming exams were cathartic.
So when I left the bubble of my campus and hometown I took the busy trap message to heart as I began my post-graduate career in Washington, DC, where success and status reign supreme. I established a more leisurely career trajectory than some of my wildly talented, driven, and successful peers with the intent of maintaining a grip on some of the personal pursuits that make me happy. For a few years, I did a great job preserving that balance. I continued playing rugby – and experiencing occasional cranial trauma – with an area club team. I continued writing music and even recorded a rough EP with my now-brother-in-law when we scored a Groupon deal for recording studio time. I actively sought out new experiences in every nook and cranny of my new city. Yet recently, I came to the uncomfortable realization that over time, I’ve surrendered some of the space I carved out for what I want to do to the expanding list of what I need to do.
I need to make two clarifying points here, and follow each up with a corresponding “but.” First, I understand that priorities change and commitments evolve as you grow older. Increased responsibilities are a sign of achievement and require a proportional increase in attention and dedication. But, they don’t preclude you from enjoying the activities and experiences that your soul craves. Second, the streamlining of my time and attention does not make me unhappy. On the contrary, work is stimulating, and I’m eager to enjoy my free time in the evenings and on weekends with family and friends. But, I miss some of the personal pursuits I held so dear in my more carefree years.
I must have been feeling this all the way back at the beginning of the year. There is a note in my phone from January 8 year titled "2016 Goals." In the note I laid out some fairly ambiguous ambitions, many of which relate to these activities I miss, divided into three categories titled “Mind,” “Body,” and “Soul." Upon further review, I’m actually doing fairly well at meeting some of those goals here in late October. However, I’ve got a long way to go to ace my self-imposed challenge, and it’s scary to promise myself that I’ll still meet my goals this late in the game.
So in an effort to sprint through 2016’s finish line, and hopefully establish some healthy habits, I’m taking a page out of Collin’s book to cap off this post. His most recent piece about overcoming the fear of failure hit home, and I’m going to join him in making a public commitment. Starting now, I will reestablish room in my daily life for the hobbies that are calling for my dedication and open the door to some new interests begging for attention. That promise may sound vague and half-assed, but rest assured that my efforts will be whole-assed. My hope is that in short order, I have some new or rediscovered interest or skill that I won’t shut up about when people ask what’s new in my life.
I’ve signed myself up for quite a bit. Time to get busy.