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With a recent focus on all things related to productivity and efficiency, the modern world’s philosophy of “do more and do it faster” is becoming widespread. But is this the way we should be living?

Are we actually more happy when we’re addicted to busy? How can we improve our lives when we’re constantly being told that busy is good?

Addicted to Busy

When was the last time that someone asked you how you were doing and your answer didn’t include “busy”?

Among my graduate student friends, this is a pretty rare occurrence. We’ve associated being busy with being productive — which we’ve hooked up with being successful and happy.

A number of people have taken notice of this over the past few years, and the idea of “the cult of busy(-ness)” has started to rise in the public consciousness. Whether through Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1985 essay in the New York Times about upper-middle-class, upwardly-mobile female professionals or one of the several more recent essays building on her ideas. A lot of people are discovering the idea that maybe being busy doesn’t mean success and happiness.

overwhelmed-woman

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We tend to think that if our schedules are packed, if we’re managing dozens of different tasks at a time, if we have six conference calls and 300 emails to deal with, we’re a success. We’re getting things done. We’re in demand. But where does this association come from?

But where does this association come from?

Ehrenreich observes that highly successful people (at least in her experience, presumably) don’t seem to be ultra-busy people. Their secret, she says, is “they learned very early in life how not to be busy,” and that they “are not, on the whole, the kind of people who keep glancing shiftily at their watches or making small lists entitled ‘To Do.'”

Whether or not you’ve met a lot of highly successful people, you almost certainly have experience with people who just seem to have it together: they accomplish what they need to, they spend time with their families, they go out with their friends, they have hobbies Learn Today & Earn Tomorrow: 8 Hobbies the Web Can Help You Start for Fun Learn Today & Earn Tomorrow: 8 Hobbies the Web Can Help You Start for Fun You can learn literally anything on the Internet -- and one of those might just go on to pay your bills someday. Sharpening your skills online is an open door to improving the quality of... Read More . . . and they never seem stressed about doing all of these things at the same time. Is it because they’re super-human? No, it’s because they reject the cult of busy.

What is “Busy”?

Many people, at this point in this article, are thinking something like “well, I am busy—I have tons of things to do, and not enough time to do them.” That might be true. But let me be clear here on exactly what “busy” is. Busy is not having a lot of things to do. Busy is a state of mind.

That might be true. But let me be clear here on exactly what “busy” is. Busy is not having a lot of things to do. Busy is a state of mind.

Many of us spend most of our lives in a busy state of mind — worrying about the next thing that needs to be done, thinking about all the things we can’t do while we’re working on a particular project, constantly checking our work email on our phones. It’s this state of always-on, rapidly changing attention and focus that creates the feeling of busy-ness.

too-many-notifications

Busy, in a way, is the opposite of mindfulness. When you’re in a state of mindfulness, you’re focusing on the task at hand Reclaim Your Focus: 5 Ideas To Deal With Short Attention Spans Reclaim Your Focus: 5 Ideas To Deal With Short Attention Spans We have more information available than every before, but this ironically has damaged our ability to absorb any of it. However, you can take action to improve your attention with a few simple steps. Read More , being cognizant of your thoughts, and staying in touch with what your mind and body need. When you’re busy, you’re rushing from one thing to the next, stressing and worrying about if you’re getting enough done, and generally being too focused on work.

Alice Wignall sums it up perfectly in her article for The Guardian:

I am not often busy. I sometimes work hard, but that’s different. You can be hard at work on a poem or conducting experimental brain surgery, but you wouldn’t call that busy. Beethoven never strolled to the dinner table at the end of a long day saying, “I tell you what, I’ve been incredibly busy writing my piano sonata No 14 in C sharp minor today. All those notes!”

The Slow Tech Movement

The last 30 years have seen the rise of a number of “slow” movements: slow food, slow cities, slow development, slow education, slow fashion, slow travel, even slow ageing (you can see a list of slow movements on Wikipedia). What unites all of these movements is that they place an emphasis on slowing down the pace of life and not doing everything at top speed. It’s not about doing everything as slowly as possible, but about doing things at the right pace for those activities.

Slow tech isn’t about slowing down our technologies — it’s about using them to improve our lives, rather than just to speed them up. One of the central tenets of slow tech is that life isn’t all about efficiency and productivity. Instead of emphasizing these two gold standards of the modern age, it emphasizes living an enjoyable, meaningful life. Sometimes technology helps us toward this goal, and sometimes it hinders.

relaxed-beach-tech

Most descriptions of the goals of the slow tech movement talk about reflection, but simple interaction is just as — if not more — important. Interaction with the people around you, from your family to your friends to the strangers on the bus. Focusing on the moment instead of checking to see whether or not you got the reply you need to take the next step on your project.

Slow tech isn’t about avoiding work or reducing the amount that we get done (though the latter can go a long way toward promoting a healthy relationship with technology), but about setting boundaries for when and where technology is appropriate, and when it isn’t. Setting these boundaries can be difficult, but the suggestions in the next section will get started.

Slowing Down Your Life

Improving the quality of your life through managing your interactions with technology is something we should all aspire to. The way you use technology and the types of changes you need to make depend very much on your personal circumstances, but these ten suggestions will give you a place to start:

  1. Don’t check your work email after 5:00 pm, or whenever you workday ends (freelancers, this includes you).
  2. Specify one day a week that will be screen free, at least between the hours of 8:00 am and 9:00 pm or so (the screen on the back of your camera could be an exception).
  3. Delete social media apps from your phone, and make an effort to be social with people you don’t know during the times you’d usually check your feeds.
  4. Take time every day to go for a walk to get some fresh air and look at the world around you. You might be surprised at what you see when you take your eyes off of your phone and your mind off your to-do list!
  5. Practice mindful browsing How The Simplicity Of Mindful Web Surfing Can Help You Focus How The Simplicity Of Mindful Web Surfing Can Help You Focus You can be more mindful of your browsing to stay focused, reduce stress, and be a lot more purposeful with your time online. With practice, you can strengthen your "mindfulness muscles". Read More .
  6. Read a book Reclaim Your Focus: 5 Ideas To Deal With Short Attention Spans Reclaim Your Focus: 5 Ideas To Deal With Short Attention Spans We have more information available than every before, but this ironically has damaged our ability to absorb any of it. However, you can take action to improve your attention with a few simple steps. Read More for entertaiment — not the latest about Agile programming or entrepreneurship, but a novel or non-fiction book about something that you enjoy or are curious about.
  7. Use a Pomodoro timer Cut Through Procrastination With These Pomodoro Technique Apps & Software Cut Through Procrastination With These Pomodoro Technique Apps & Software Procrastination is a malady that pervades students and workers in all corners of the world and it infects amateurs and professionals alike. As a writer, I suffer from procrastination on a daily basis. Some people... Read More to remind yourself to take breaks throughout the day and take your eyes off of your computer, tablet, and phone.
  8. Turn off push notifications for email and social media, and only check them when you intend to spend time reading and responding to things.
  9. Craft an information diet Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible [Feature] Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible [Feature] Email. Social networks. Blogs. Online video. People today consume more information than ever before, and typically only consume the things they really, really like. Clay Johnson compares this to a bad diet. "If you only... Read More that works for you.
  10. Declare all social situations (parties, bars, dinners, and so on) to be phone-free, with exceptions only for emergencies.

Picking up all ten of these habits isn’t going to be easy, but starting with one or two should help you make a change in your life. Even if you don’t think you’re a brain-washed member of the cult of busy, I challenge you to take on a couple of these. After taking a couple screen-free Sundays in a row, I realized that it was a phenomenally valuable practice to get into. And turning off email notifications on my phone makes me a little bit less of an email slave.

In a TED talk on the “Slow Movement”, award-winning writer Carl Honore asks us to think about time itself while debunking the myth that speed is best.

The slow tech movement combined with the practice of mindfulness will help you take back control of your life. We invented the technologies that we use today to help us live better lives, not to become slaves to them! Take some time over the next week to think about your relationship with tech and how it could improve. Talk to your friends, your kids, and your spouse, and make some goals together. It’s absolutely worth the time you’ll spend on it.

Do you try to practice any of the slow tech tips above? Do you feel like technology has taken over your life? Or that you’re totally consumed by busyness? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credits: Silhouette of man standing on city background (edited), A young beautiful woman stressed, A man at the the home computers surrounded by icons, Profile portrait view of a young woman via Shutterstock.

  1. Brad Merrill
    March 12, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    This is an awesome piece, Dann.

    One thing I'm working on is reserving weekends for myself, family, and friends, with as little screen time as possible. I work obsessively long hours during the week, and I enjoy work, but it's important to step away from the keyboard and live real life as well.

    • Dann Albright
      March 15, 2015 at 9:04 pm

      I'm really glad that you liked the article! Reserving weekends is something that I've been trying to get better at, too (although the fact that I'm writing this comment on Sunday night makes it clear that I haven't totally succeeded yet). I used to work a lot on weekends, but I'm finding that doing half days on Friday and Saturday isn't as refreshing as a whole day on Friday and having Saturday off.

      It's not always easy to step away, but it's definitely worth it. I hope your efforts are paying off!

  2. Saikat
    March 11, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    There are actually products being designed around the philosophy. Some go into the areas of "conscious computing".

    For instance -- http://www.designspotter.com/news-details/2011/09/ScreenTime.html

    • Dann Albright
      March 12, 2015 at 7:46 am

      "Conscious computing" definitely sounds like what SkyNet was doing before it took over. :-) That's a really cool idea, though—I love the Screen Time watch! That would be a great way to keep an eye on your digital life without engaging with more digital tools. Do these designs get made, or is that just something that was created for fun? I'd love to try one out. I'll also have to do some more research on conscious computing; that sounds like something I'd be very interested in.

  3. dragonmouth
    March 10, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    "Busy" sometimes means "not organized."

    I saw the following saying someplace= "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get."

    • Dann Albright
      March 12, 2015 at 7:44 am

      Yes, not having a plan or a system can definitely contribute to busy-ness. That's definitely not everyone's problem, but I think a lot of people would see some solid mental health benefits by taking a day off of work and taking stock of their tasks, projects, goals, and other things, and by getting them into some semblance of an order.

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