I hear you are busy

“Busy-ness” seems to be the new fad. “I am soooooo busy”, the new buzz phrase. “It’s just crazy”. The competition relates to who is busier, who is able to do more and may relay longer narratives about everything that must be done today. This has a ring of conformity – if everybody is busy then surely I need to be at least as busy, but even better if I can be busier. 

Legendary ethologist Niko Tinberger pointed out that hostility in social creatures are almost universal against “individuals that behave in an abnormal manner”. Do we think it is abnormal to not be busy? John Locke asks why the consent of the majority should suffice? Campbell (1988) reminds us that it is characteristic that majority rule is understood as effective in politics and thinking, further, Campbell reminds us that in thinking, the majority is always wrong. 

As we then conform to society, which begs us to be constantly busy, the inevitable question that arises is: Busy with what? Perhaps even more importantly, what are the outputs of this “busy-ness”? 

We could translate busy-ness into doing. I am doing this, that and the other. On the opposite end of the continuum we might then find “being”. Possibly prudent to note that we are human beings, not human doings. Philosophically, being is the quality or state of existence; absolute existence in its perfect, unqualified state. Hannah Arendt reminds us that the nature of being human is to do the unexpected, and that every person carries the possibility of a changed world. 

Our doing, which translates into our actions, are often mindless. In 2019, people are expected to spend an average of 170.6 minutes each day on online activities like watching videos on YouTube, sharing photos on Facebook and doing online shopping. This is almost 3 hours per day. People are expected to spend slightly less time per day — 170.3 minutes —watching TV (Molla, 2018). Another almost 3 hours per day… 

Harvard Business Review (2018) asks what are we choosing not to spend time on to make room for the hours we all spend each week on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like? 

While numerous articles worried that such screen time might be coming at the expense of face-to-face, socialising, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests, that the leisure time we spend online comes at the expense of work and/or education. 

In the paper, Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute attempts to measure the offline activities that are crowded out by our online recreation throughout the day. Using data from The American Time Use Survey, a government survey that, since 2003, has been asking U.S. 

citizens how they spend their time? While there are several caveats to the research, it provides a quantitative view of what we do less of to make time for leisure activities online. For every additional minute the average American spends online recreationally, they spend roughly 16 fewer seconds working, nine fewer seconds watching TV, and seven fewer seconds sleeping. 

These numbers might sound small, with little impact. However, let us explore only two aspects: lack of sleep and downtime. 

Lack of sleep: 

Sleep time refreshes mind and body and consolidates memory. Sleep is a highly complex and vital process, essential for the biological balance of the mammalian organism (Benington, 2000). Sleep is critical for homeostatic restoration, thermo-regulation, tissue repair, immunity building, memory processing and emotional regulation. Rock et al (2013) found that sleep deprivation could be more lethal than food deprivation! 

Since Aristotle and until the middle of last century, sleep was considered passive (Payne, 2011). Now, researchers (e.g. Stickgold, 2005; Ibanez et al., 2008; Payne, 2011) agree that sleep not only allows us to rest and recuperate strength for the next day, but also that it is a highly active state, important for cognitive processes such as memory consolidation, semantic integration, learning and processing of emotions. Sleep also involves homeostatic restoration; restoring chemical and physiological processes that have become depleted during the day. REM sleep in particular has been associated with insight and creativity. During sleep, our brains integrate information in highly novel ways and make connections that we are simply not able to make or see during wakefulness (Payne, 2011). 

Andreasen discovered the peculiar patterns of electrical energy produced by the idling brain – later coined as default network. In the past decade, scientists have discovered additional structures that contribute to the default network. These discoveries found that the default network governs our interior mental life – the dialogue we have with ourselves (both consciously and subconsciously). Kicking into gear when we turn away from the barrage of sensory input in the outside world, it looks toward our inner selves where our neural networks can rummage through knowledge and memories and feelings stored in the brain. That is why resting, daydreaming, meditation and other quiet activities can be very powerful. 

Downtime: 

Downtime is quite counter intuitive, as it does not correspond to leisure time (which incidentally has become mostly online). Leisure time is a much broader concept and may include hobbies (“focused time”) or sports (“physical time”). Downtime refers to a very specific type of activity, namely inactivity. Doing absolutely nothing that has a predefined goal. Downtime is hanging out, being in your surroundings, having no goal or focus, having no 

plans, being spontaneous. This is about being in the moment with spontaneous emergence of whatever activity may or may not arise. Synonyms might include idling, hanging around, loafing…. 

These “negative” terms strongly indicate that downtime is not highly regarded. Yes, downtime means to intentionally have no intention to do something! Yes, this could translate into daydreaming, rest or “inactivity” – which activates the task-negative network. This brain mode aids insight and complex decision-making. Idle-time/downtime allows your brain to disconnect and unfocus from the task at hand, which in turn allows insight. Sternberg and Davidson (1995) define insight as a “sudden comprehension that can result in a new interpretation of a situation and that can point to the solution to a problem”. 

Thus, on the one hand we have less time available to sleep and less time available for downtime. Juxtaposed on the other end is a drive to always be busy. EXHAUSTION, even no LUST FOR LIFE seems inevitable. 

A relevant question seems to be what it is that we fear if we engage in downtime, or differently put, if we just are. What is the worst thing that will happen if we allow ourselves to take a step back, to observe and just be? In order to gain perspective, so that we can act differently or that we can generate fresh ideas? 

Next time when asked how you are, take a second before answering “I am so busy”. In that second, quickly consider the following: 

What am I busy with? 

What is the output of my busy-ness? 

Can I take a step back and answer freshly? 

Am I too exhausted to even read and consider the above? 

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