In The ‘Busy’ Trap, Tim Kreider debunks the idea that the frenetic pace of modern work is due only to forces beyond our control, arguing that people who describe themselves as “crazy busy” do so not to complain, but rather to boast. And this ironic shift goes one step further: people not only complain to dodge responsibility for boasting, but are really just boasting to ameliorate their anxiety about the pointlessness of their work. In other words, busyness is not a condition imposed by external forces (or not only imposed by external forces), but is also, and perhaps mainly, a choice.
Kreider details how he has made the opposite choice: to work 4-5 hours in the morning and then spend the rest of the day with friends, exercising or reading. Some of the essay sounds like justification for his decisions: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” But he ends the piece with a recognition of the tradeoffs he has made:
“My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but 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.”
This focus on choosing relationships over greater material gains is echoed in a 2011 Grist post by David Roberts, in which he lays out his concept of the “medium chill,” a slowed-down version of the rat race. Medium chill means making a choice to “[get] off the aspirational treadmill, forgoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for spending time on relationships and experiences.” Roberts describes the medium chill as a type of “satisficing,” or settling for a situation that is good enough rather than optimal. In the medium chill, there is no need to boast about how busy you are, because busyness is no longer a badge of honor.
So why don’t more of us adopt a medium chill lifestyle? Roberts draws on social science research to identify several possible reasons. First, it is particularly difficult for humans to close off possibilities (like making more money). Second, none of us is good at identifying what will make us happy (and perhaps, beyond a certain point, more money does not do that). Third, we over-emphasize the impact of external events on our happiness and vastly under-estimate the amount of internal control we have over our happiness.
While I agree with these points, especially the last one, I think that there is another to add. Neither Kreider nor Roberts delves into the second half of the ironic shift that boasting smoothes over the anxiety we feel about the point of our work. Many people may default to being busy because they don’t like what they do. But Kreider and Roberts have found a common activity — writing — that appears to satisfy their professional needs while enabling them to adopt the medium chill lifestyle. My point is that the kind of reorientation of priorities that Kreider and Roberts discuss may only be possible once a person has identified work that they relatively enjoy, and that enables them to control the location, amount and timing of their work. I say “relatively enjoy” because searching for the perfect work situation goes against the principle of “good enough” inherent in seeking to be less busy.
Along these lines, in his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton is skeptical of our being able to find the perfect work situation, and even more so of the ability of the modem workplace “…to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning” (p. 30). His view becomes clear as he observes a career counselor at work:
“…[Symons, the counselor] remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited — long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of [their professions] — what they properly should have been doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’.
“…Symons maintained [that this idea of the true calling] was prone to torture us with an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would in turn render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy and regret” (p. 113).
In the end, the principle of “good enough” seems to apply not only to how much we work, but also to what kind of work we do.