What are we busy about?
“All Nature seems at work.”
These are the opening words to Coleridge’s 1825 poem ‘Work without Hope’. He goes on to close the opening stanza with a couplet that would strike fear into the heart of many a middle manager:
“And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.”
His timesheets would, no doubt, have made for less than pretty reading. In fact, this restful joy in simply being would be heretical to us in the 21st century.
Ask anyone how they are and the response is highly likely to contain the word ‘busy’.
This is worn with a sense of weary inevitability, but also a latent pride - being busy is synonymous with being productive. Being productive, in turn, implies improvement and development.
But development of what?
This development is almost universally tied to the self. The individual is our primary social unit, and all of our available time is seen as an opportunity to cultivate the self.
Personal development is an obsession that also crosses the boundary between professional and personal. Socializing becomes networking, trips to museums and galleries are a chance to update our social media feeds and display our commitment to self-development.
Our language reflects this, with new words required to express our ever-increasing range of states of mind. Portmanteaux like ‘hangry’ evince this - the simple emotional state of being hungry leads to anger, and this new joint state merits a word of its own.
We have come a long way from the Greek of Homer’s time, which contained no word for ‘intent’ or ‘intention’. The individual’s mind was seen as subordinate to wider causes - notably religion and the city, or ‘polis’. These allegiances have, broadly speaking, dissipated over time.
What we are left with is a similar desire for meaning, but now applied to one’s own life in isolation. Time is the great limiting factor here, so it attracts a large portion of our attention.
But it is not enough for us just to spend some of our free time on self-improvement. It has to be measured, tracked, quantified and then qualified.
For business leaders, this is driven by a desire to impose a sense of control over two eternal uncontrollables: people and time. The task is Sisyphean and can provide only illusory power, but its lure is too tantalizing to ignore. If we could measure how employees spend their time, after all, we could undoubtedly drive myriad ‘efficiencies’.
For the individual, the aim is to extract as much as possible from the time available. And if one’s career feels unfulfilling, the self-applied pressure to develop during leisure time only increases.
To be less than busy is, therefore, to be left behind by one’s peers, to squander a precious resource when one could be improving.
In that sense, we can feel reassured by ultimately arbitrary units of measurement. I have found this recently with the Duolingo app, during my almost-certainly-doomed attempts to learn Swedish.
The app is certainly very useful and well designed, but it does attempt to measure the user’s fluency in a language on a percentage scale (I am 4% fluent in Swedish, apparently.)
To me, this at first felt slightly jarring, as it is an odd unit of measurement when it comes to learning a language. But on a deeper level, it speaks volumes. We are still prepared to play along, as it feeds into our sense of measurable self-cultivation.
What are the alternatives?
Dissatisfaction is an inherent part of existence, and it has been a driving force behind many revolutionary innovations.
Nonetheless, some of its symptoms are less than appealing. The need to be as productive as possible in our professional lives has bled into our leisure time too, where the pressure to eat, live and learn ‘better’ has never been greater.
But the goal we seek is chimerical. As a result, constant monitoring of progress is misleading at best, meaningless at worst.
There is some solace to be sought in the simplest of pleasures along the way. In this, we can take advice from ‘Leisure’ by William Henry Davies, which closes with the following couplet:
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.