Why do we valorize busyness?

Years ago, when I was walking back to my college dorm room one Vermont evening after dinner, I noticed my residential assistant (RA) standing underneath a tree, staring into its branches. When I stopped to ask him what he was doing, he jumped. 

“Um, well, I’m supposed to be at a meeting, but I started watching these squirrels instead.”

I thought about Jon and the squirrels for hours afterward. Who misses a meeting to watch a squirrel? 

It would be easy to say that Jon was distractible or unreliable. A person who can be pulled away from commitments, who will put a moment of wonder above a work responsibility, might be considered unserious. He might be considered bad at his job.

Yet Jon was actually really good at his job. His tendency to stop and admire seemingly small things (like squirrels in trees), and his refusal to cave to the culture of busyness and constant rushing about, actually made him more focused and effective as an RA, not less. He told me later that he always wanted to do what was honest and natural. Sometimes, that meant missing a meeting, I suppose. But it also meant turning away from the squirrel to talk with me and to provoke me to think deeply about what was truly important.

Years later, this interaction still has me wondering: why does our culture valourise busyness? Why is it deemed honourable to be constantly distracted by a pinging cell phone, but a waste of time to watch the squirrels?

Busyness is a utilitarian value

In my work as a homemaker, historian, and writer, I am constantly at the mercy of our culture’s obsession with being busy. Since being a homemaker does not contribute directly (though it certainly does contribute indirectly) to the Gross Domestic Product, much public and private pressure suggests that homemaking and full-time childrearing are only acceptable paths if you can frame them as a job and prove that you are doing something productive with them. High standards of housekeeping and running kids around to various activities come to mind, as do arguments that emphasise the economic value of homemaking as a “job”.

In other words, a good homemaker is a productive homemaker, one with visible, measurable output. “It’s the most important job in the world,” we are sometimes told (with varying levels of sincerity), “so get busy.”

The same can be said for writing, teaching, and many other professions. Our society is a highly utilitarian one; it measures an individual’s value by what he does, not by who he is. And if a person does not appear to be busy, he may appear not to be doing anything at all, or certainly not anything worthwhile. The highest praise our culture can ever give an individual might be summed up by the compliment that Thomas the Tank Engine so often receives in the famous children’s television show: “Thomas, you are a very useful engine.”

There’s a history to this, tied up largely in the Industrial Revolution and its rearrangement of family structure and labour along wage-earning and non-wage-earning lines. Instead of men, women, and children working together toward subsistence and wealth-building on a (frequently multi-generational) family farm, industrialisation drove a division of work into wage-earning and non-wage-earning categories tied to production value rather than shared stewardship or communal well-being.

It was in this context that nineteenth-century feminists found themselves highlighting the economic aspects of homemaking in an effort to gain respect for women’s work. As Ivana Greco demonstrates, this also drove women to reclaim the terminology that summed up their work in the home over time.

Interested in economic production above all else, we have come to equate busyness with importance, value, and well-being, even as we sense somewhere deep down that this is not quite how life works. Should our production of economic goods really be the core of our social or personal worth? Is our productivity our reason for being, our best defence against accusations that we are merely taking up space? Human beings are not, in fact, engines, so what on earth are we keeping ourselves so busy for?

We all know the justifications we’ve used. In high school, we keep busy so that we can have a college application packed with activities. In college, we keep busy so that we can be attractive to graduate, medical, or law schools, or to the best employers. In graduate school, we work sixty-hour weeks so that we can get good professional placements later on. In our first post-graduate jobs, we burn the candle at both ends so that we can get tenure or make partner. Finally, we get that big promotion, only to discover that far from being finished, we are now at the peak of our careers. Now we are really busy! Just a few more years until we can retire!

Worse still, we tell ourselves that we do this for our children, so that through a sky-high standard of living (earned through our professional busyness) and the best schools and lessons money can buy, they can be properly prepared for high school, and then college, and then, well, see above. Our families keep us busy, and we keep busy for our families. Busyness is family-friendly!

Some busy companies even prove their family-friendliness by including coverage for egg-freezing in the employment package they offer female employees. “Having a baby now would be too risky,” they say; “you might have to stop producing other things for a little while.” But somehow, it is considered family-friendly to help women delay babies until the latest possible moment (with no guarantee that the eventual conception will even work). Babies, the narrative goes, are only acceptable once you are no longer such a useful engine.

Meanwhile, universities claim family-friendliness by offering policies designed to help graduate students who have children. Some of these do help: affordable on-campus family housing comes to mind. Yet many of these policies look good on paper but do little to actually support mothers, because they cannot destigmatise motherhood in the campus culture.

The same is true for many professor mothers who have the option to take maternity leave or stop the tenure clock when having a baby: it is often possible to do so, but it is also likely to cause the mother to fall behind in reputation and other professional intangibles. So it can be professionally quite unwise, even openly frowned upon, to stop professional work even briefly.

So corporations and universities keep their family-friendly reputations, but production doesn’t have to suffer. Against all odds, their female employees will keep busy. To do otherwise is simply too risky.

Busyness is driven by fear

Beyond financial considerations, it is this sort of reputational, value-oriented risk that is the unspoken secret behind the valourisation of busyness in our culture. When you stop being busy, even just for a moment, it can feel frightening, even destabilising. We fear that if we cease our activity even for a moment, we will be forced to confront some of the deeper questions that our busyness helps us avoid; to address some of the problems our constant motion allows us to skirt past.

When our exterior lives become quiet, our interior lives become louder, and we can no longer avoid wondering: Who am I if I am not producing something, or at least appearing as if I am? If I slow down, will the people I value now cease to value me? Do I have worth beyond my usefulness?


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I suspect that many of us operate on an always-busy basis because we feel spiritually unmoored, a reality that comes to the fore when we step off the hamster wheel and face the fears that lie waiting. Yet Christ himself reminds us, in the story of his gentle rebuke of his friend Martha of Bethany, that industry is secondary to the virtue of trusting in God’s love for us.

Although I am no theologian, I take comfort in the fact that without condemning Martha for her desire to serve others through cooking and cleaning, Jesus does direct her away from her anxiety about it all: “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needful” (Luke 10:38–42). In other words, work is important, but accepting God’s love for us is essential.

Without my busyness to distract me and tell me my worth, I will have to face the interior fears and questions that really animate who I am. I will have to ask myself, Do I believe that I am unconditionally loved — that my value is inherent rather than earned? I will have to trust like Mary before my Martha work can become rightly ordered.

This kind of risk-taking, this stopping to ask such a question, is also the kind of experience in which our humanity is found, the deep humanity that is based on dependence, not autonomy; on vulnerability, not stoicism; on love, not transaction. It is where connection to nature, God, and other human beings happens. It is not productive; but it is good.

Busyness, on the other hand, is, in truth, often neither. Busyness only gives the veneer of productivity; it is common to be busy without being productive, as well as to be productive without being busy. Busyness gives the impression of productivity (and therefore seriousness, responsibility, reliability, etc.) because it relays a sense of activity and importance, but we have plenty of evidence from ultra-productive companies that productivity can, in fact, increase when employees are released from busywork and inflexible work hours.

In fact, even when busyness is productive, it is usually only economically so. What about the production of intangibles through a quieter sort of attention or industry? For example, when a mother rocks her baby to sleep, she is not busy, but she is being productive. In ceasing her busyness in favour of giving quiet, sustained attention to this small creature, she is creating an attachment that will, God willing, form the basis for her child’s lifelong emotional security. Likewise, a biologist’s time spent hiking with her phone turned off is not busy, but her tech-free hike will produce the mental and emotional health that fuels her ability to innovate when she goes back to the lab. 

Or, in a final example, take my own absence from professional life for ten years while I was having and rearing my four babies. My CV looks mostly blank for these years, suggesting laziness or a lack of professional seriousness. I was not “busy” in the way the professional world would define it. Yet in my first year of professional writing after this decade of “inactivity”, I published an average of one article or essay per week, in large part because I did so much preparatory thinking during my ten “not busy” years. Those ten years of professional un-busyness led to the most professionally productive year of my life.

Busyness as a false virtue

What, then, is the real virtue that can counter our tendency toward constant busyness? To return to the story of my RA, Jon, we might consider whether it is really the squirrel in the tree that is the distraction, and the meeting the lost opportunity, or whether it might be the other way around.

Jon made it to his meeting eventually, I suppose, or was able to make up for it. But he did not give up his humanity in favour of being just perfectly on time, making room for nothing but his busyness. Instead, he recognised that paying attention to the life all around him would help him grow both as a person and as an RA.

Likewise, my children are not distractions from my professional life or from some potential pursuit of excellence in housekeeping. My daily and repeated real connections with my kids, my spouse, our natural world, and myself are the true source of my ability to produce anything worth having, whether it is a reasonably tidy home, an insightful academic lecture, or a moderately coherent essay like this one. When I give in to busyness (as opposed to healthy industriousness), it is usually just a way of avoiding the real work of my life, whether personal, professional, or relational.

Yet, busyness is not always a bad thing. While I was in the process of writing this essay, a concrete example of this reality walked past my coffee shop table in the form of an acquaintance of mine.

“How are you?” she asked me.

“Oh, fine,” I said. “How are you?”

“Oh, so busy!” she responded. “I like to keep busy in the wintertime because otherwise, I tend to get a little bit blue.”

Is my friend wrong to keep busy instead of lazing around feeling depressed during a long, cold January? Surely not. Some people thrive on packed schedules, and not just as a means of escape. Indeed, for my friend, scheduling lots of activities in January is a wise way for her to protect herself against the winter doldrums, whereas in July, she is more of a relax-by-the-pool sort of person. 

It does not, then, make sense to demonise a full, high-energy life in every situation. Activity and busyness are no more synonymous than are productivity and busyness. The bigger question we must ask ourselves is: what sort of busyness are we creating, and toward what goods is it ordered?

A family might pursue travel soccer for the kids out of a desire to spend more family time together doing an activity they all enjoy, for example. They might be busy, but it would be in the service of family togetherness, a real good.

Yet another family might opt out of the very same travel soccer team in order to spend more time reading books aloud together in the evenings, and that family’s lack of busyness would not be slothful or self-indulgent, but would also be oriented toward the good of family togetherness.

Both scenarios treat neither busyness nor the lack thereof as a virtue. Instead, the virtue in question in these families’ discernment about travel soccer is primarily the cardinal virtue of prudence (wisdom). For busyness itself must be neutral; it is neither a good nor an evil. It is just a state of activity that should not be valourised at all. 

So my friend Jon, faced with the choice between watching a squirrel and making it to his meeting on time, could well have chosen either and have been choosing well: but only if he was choosing for a good reason. Choosing the squirrel out of laziness would have been as bad as choosing the meeting out of workaholism. Martha of Bethany was not to blame for doing the dishes; her mistake was in thinking that the dishes couldn’t wait when something more important demanded her attention.

That is the trap of busyness: believing that the busyness itself is what matters, instead of placing all our work and all our rest at the feet of our maker. That is the trap that the addiction to busyness in our culture lays for us. That is the trap that we ought to resist.

Encourage your friends to stop and smell the roses, or at least consider why they might not be doing so: share this article using the various social media buttons above.

This article originally appeared in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute. 

Dixie Dillon Lane is a historian of American education, an associate editor at Hearth & Field, and an essayist with bylines at Current, Front Porch Republic, the Institute for Family Studies blog, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from the University of Notre Dame and lives in Virginia with her husband and four children. You can read more of her work via her newsletter, The Hollow, and follow her on Twitter @DixieDillonLane.

Image: Pexels


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  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-04-03 21:27:40 +1100
  • mrscracker
    Squirrels are a lot more interesting than most meetings & many meetings are pretty pointless & redundant, but I think it’s more about dependability & keeping one’s commitments. Even squirrels have commitments. I watch one every day filling up on bird seed to feed her babies.
  • Dixie Lane