Why busy-ness is so damaging
Our economic and political order fuels a state of constant activity which harms both individual and community well-being.
There never seems to be enough time to accomplish all the things we must do. Life gets busier and busier. But what does all that busy-ness add to our lives?
Mainstream culture tells us that being busy is a virtue, so we want to be busy even if we complain about it. It means we’re productive and have purpose. Ideas like “time is money” and “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” have helped to define our culture. Both ideas work in concert with the global capitalist economy, which depends on keeping us busy in order to increase productivity, expand markets, and encourage hyper-consumption. Busy-ness also helps to keep us from questioning the assumptions and values that drive busy-ness itself.
Busy-ness is part of a broader set of structures that limit our choices and our ability to feel satisfied. What we call the “hegemony of busy-ness” refers two interrelated processes. First, busyness is a powerful cultural pressure. Second, and more importantly, this busy-ness perpetuates the social system that makes the rich richer and creates more and more economically vulnerable people. We are impelled to do more and to want to do more, but busy-ness limits our ability to improve our overall happiness, promote greater equity, or save our endangered planet.
Our global economic and political order fuels a state of constant activity, and busy-ness harms both individual and community well-being. There’s so much information thrown at us, we just don’t know where to start. Time poverty limits our ability to talk with neighbors and nurture communities. If time is money for some, it is also what gives meaning to our lives. Busy-ness disconnects us from our social habitats by preoccupying us with endless tasks and often meaningless information.
The upshot is that busy-ness undermines our physical and mental health as well as our ability to think and learn. Modern society has transformed homo sapiens into what former technology professional and Consciously Digital founder Anastasia Dedyukhina calls homo distractus -people who are continuously inundated with information and perpetually distracted.
A growing body of research shows that our increasingly online, multi-tasking world undermines our ability to concentrate and think deeply. With our eyes focused on the tiny screens we carry around, we become habituated to “skim reading,” and our attention spans have become limited to 40-60 characters. Although this benefits the companies that vie for our mental space, it weakens our capacities for engaged listening and empathy.
Screen time is also linked to rising rates of anxiety and depression. All of this bodes ill for the functioning of healthy democracies, constraining our ability to address the deep social divides and the urgent ecological crises of our times. We lose our ability to really listen to each other and to concentrate long enough to understand and analyze complex issues, leaving us unprepared to deal with the urgent problems we face.
The speed of digital communication, coupled with corporate-driven information delivery systems, has undermined democratic norms and practices in profound ways. Despite the internet’s capacity to democratize access to information, people are becoming increasingly segregated online as well as offline, making us easy targets for fake news. We’re being sorted out according to our likes, preferences, and ideological leanings.
Digital platforms need to keep us clicking to new content, and they care little whether or not this promotes healthy social interaction. The result is that we’re less in touch with people of different political persuasions and with diverse interests and experiences. Yet democracy requires people to share a sense of common purpose and commitment to dialogue and compromise. These are essential to addressing social conflicts and ensuring equity and justice for everyone.
Furthermore, the hegemony of busy-ness has starved the public sphere of its key ingredients: attentive citizens with a commitment to, and time for, engaging in common projects. The modern economy extracts attention and energy from the public sphere, reducing our capacity to hold political leaders accountable to publicly-defined priorities and norms.
What is it that urges us towards busy-ness? We see three main drivers of our frenzied state of activity: competitive labor markets, technology, and consumer culture. We’re overworked and overspent, according to economist Juliet Schor. And to compensate, we’re “amusing ourselves to death” - that is, sedating ourselves with electronic entertainment and consumer culture. Technology continuously speeds up and intensifies these trends.
We face ever-increasing pressures at work. Some of us struggle with un- or under-employment while others work multiple jobs, or work more and more hours. The fastest growing category of workers is the “precariat” - workers who lack job security and traditional benefits and who frequently work for far less than a living wage. Workplace vulnerability intensifies competition and the pressure to succeed, and this pressure affects people in both younger and older age brackets.
It starts with children even before they enter kindergarten. Parents feel pressure to use whatever advantages they have to ensure that their children have the cultural capital and test scores to succeed. And while younger generations see downward economic mobility, cuts in worker benefits and stagnant wages mean that today’s older workers must retire later with less secure and less generous benefits.
Is there a way out of this situation?
By accepting dominant narratives that prioritize wealth and turn time and other resources (including relationships) into avenues for accumulating more of it, we perpetuate a system that has generated unprecedented ecological and social crises. We are accomplices in our busy-ness, and we enable its ongoing extraction of social energies away from community well-being and toward the accumulation of things that end up in our landfills.
We need to name busyness as a social pathology. It’s time to challenge dominant narratives and create space for more people to be involved in meaningful conversations about how society is organized. To do this, we need to change our shared story about time. That means engaging in more critical conversations with more diverse groups of people about our uses of technology and the character of our communities and polities. Creating spaces where such conversations can take place requires deliberate actions on everyone’s part. Such conversations can occur in public places, book stores, coffee shops, or houses of worship. But first, creating such spaces and engaging with our neighbors requires our time.
At the individual level, getting out of our ideological silos requires that we slow down, unplug, and actually talk to folks who may not share our views. We need to be intentional about pausing and truly hearing the words of others while refraining from thinking about our next response. Conversations should not be social media spectacles: they are essential exercises for addressing conflicts and for building communities. Reclaiming our capacities for conversation and empathy is what will help us address today’s critical challenges.
But work must also happen in organizations and social movements to challenge the normalization of digital saturation and to help people remember lost or atrophied communication skills that help us talk with people who are different from us. Governments and schools can and should be important leaders in supporting initiatives to foster democratic dialogues and rebuilding more community-oriented values and cultural practices.
Slowing down helps us to see more. It helps us think, and thinking helps us to analyze the social, economic and political issues we face both locally and globally. Of course, thinking is also dangerous, primarily to those in positions of power. So it is no surprise that those at the top continue to encourage our busy-ness, endlessly inundating us with tasks, amusements, and soundbites that interfere with our ability to think deeply and act together for mutual benefit.
Thus, change requires work not just at the individual level but in politics, civil society and the economy. We need to create policies and practices to govern what is increasingly called the “attention economy.” For example, Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, calls for a “human reclamation project” to restore control over our lives. In the US, Democratic Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has proposed a federal Department of Attention Economy. And feminists have long called for a recognition of, and material support for, the care work that is needed to reproduce families and communities.
A more conscious allocation of our time would preserve more of this precious resource for the essential work of building a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic society, which is the foundation for all of our well-being.
Get our weekly email