Busyness, boredom, and the meaning of life

Shiloh relaxing at home

Shiloh relaxing at home

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday.  I’m not at work and the days follow each other with nothing to distinguish them.  Which days are better?  The ones in which I get a lot done or the ones in which I relax and do not.  What does it mean to get something done?   Does it matter what I do each day?   The short answer is that is does matter to me.  In some parallel universe is another me watching what I am doing with my time, or more importantly, judging me for what I am not doing.  So, being busy becomes “good” and doing nothing is not.

What does it mean to be busy?  How come we say to each other, “I’m busy now” or “I had a busy day” or “I can’t help you with that now because I’m busy.”  Are we really busy or is it an excuse?  Can’t we drop what we’re doing and stop being busy for a minute?  Since when did being busy become a badge of honor?  Maybe we should try to avoid being busy.   How can we be productive without being busy?  What kind of things should we be filling our time with that isn’t busyness?   What does not being busy look like, feel like, sound like?  Does not being busy mean doing nothing?   And, how can doing nothing be a good thing?  I’m thinking now of Google’s concept of the “20% time”.  Google allowed its worker to spend up to 20% of their time, basically an entire working day, to not be productive.    Workers can do whatever they want as long as its not illegal or unethical.  For some this would be thinking time, strategic planning or innovation time.  It’s not really idleness, but since the time spent may not come to anything worthwhile for the company, it’s technically not productive.  Despite these potential drawbacks, companies that use this 20% time have found that it has many positive benefits.  For more on the Google concept, see this article about  Google’s 20 Percent Factor .

I experienced the busyness trap first hand during my years working for the government. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen elsewhere, but I can only speak to my own personal experience. I prided myself on being hardworking and on the high side of productivity. I was really good at squeezing every minute out of the day and accomplishing a lot. I was organized, efficient, and effective. And, I was rewarded for my productivity by promotions, being put on special projects, becoming a supervisor and manager, and gaining a reputation as a “can-do” person. All good things, right? At the same time I also spent time organizing offsites to think about the future and brainstorming sessions to come up with a strategic plan, along with other ways to save time and become even more effective. In short, I was using the down time to boost production. In that culture, being busy was synonymous with being hard-working and productive. By contrast, not having enough to do, having free time, made you appear in the eyes of others to be idle, lazy, and apathetic about the work.

I have had jobs where there was not that enough to do.  As someone who was really good at getting stuff done, I don’t like to be bored or idle.  The days didn’t go by as quickly and I couldn’t list my accomplishments as readily in these quiet jobs.  Looking back I think I learned as much in the quiet jobs as in the busy ones.  I had more time to be intentional about the way forward and to build relationships.  I could observe how things were done and consider improvements.  I wasn’t distracted by the details and could instead focus on the big picture.  We had a whole lifestyle around being busy.  We said things like “I am too busy to go out to lunch” and “I need to be at my desk to get that phone  call” and “I have so many emails that if I take vacation I will  have too much to catch up on when I return”.

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After thirty years in the working world being productive and completing big projects, I realized that I didn’t really like doing this kind of work.  What does that mean?  I am good at something and don’t like it?  I had been lured into believing that what I did was what I am.  I had bought into the myth that being a professional and earning a good salary and having a private office was equal to being successful, which was equal to being important, which was equal to being valued.   After a particularly stressful job with many long days I decided to start taking less busy jobs.  The promotions slowed as did the requests to take on bigger tasks.  I watched my colleagues move ahead of me.  Part of me said they had bigger jobs because they were better and smarter.  In a world where money and status becomes your measure of worth, how do you break out of this prison of expectations?  For me, it took a serious illness and a long recovery to finally break the cycle.  This was the beginning of the next part of my life.

This article by Lissa Rankin M.D. in Psychology Today talks about a busy addiction.   Are You Addicted to Being Busy?

So, I did something different and got out of synch with my career track.    I began to focus on talent development, coaching, and mentoring.  I became a leadership coach and spent some of my time supporting the development of others.  I didn’t get any promotions for this, or additional responsibility, nor was I asked to head up big projects.  I sometimes felt I had to explain why I wasn’t looking for “those” jobs, or wasn’t playing with the big boys.  Eventually I stopped coming up with reasons for my career decisions.  Mostly I had stopped caring what others thought about me.  I say mostly because there was still that germ of doubt.  This was the beginning of my road to retirement.  It took me a few years because in those deep places where your inner voice speaks to you, retiring still sounded like quitting.

When I turned fifty I had a liberating feeling of unburdening.  I was old, so who cared if I got a second look on the street? What mattered more was if I could dodge cancer and heart disease and hip replacement.  I traded in my pumps for Danskos, and stopped blow drying my hair, letting it revert to natural curls.  I began to think about what my legacy would be.  What would my children remember me for?  What would it all mean?  What had I done in this world that any one would find important?  I looked hard at my working self and knew that I had to take another stab at this thing called work.  I had spent most of my adult life at work, commuting to work, preparing for work, and recovering from work during those brief interludes called weekends or vacations.  What else was there?   What meaning did I take from my work?   What did I still have in me to give back and how did I want to do it?

So here I am pondering the meaning of life.  I have had my fill of busyness, of working, and of being productive.  I accomplished a lot.  We fill up resumes with what we have done.   Now I am grappling with the lack of busyness in my life, or actually, my lack of interest in being busy.  I am embracing my idleness and intentionally not filling up my days with tasks.  I try to limit myself to one task a day.  On Monday I paid bills, on Tuesday I went shopping and bought office organizers, on Wednesday I took my dog to the vet, on Thursday I’m going to finish this blog, and on Friday I have go to the local tax office and pay my bill.  Every day I pull weeds, but in a kind of rebellion from order, I leave them in dry little piles all over the yard.  When my husband sees them he chides me for not picking them up.  In a way I love that I have left that job unfinished, to finish another day, something as mundane as pulling weeds and putting them in the big brown paper bag.

What of my old life should I continue, and what should I shed?  I am letting go of routine and trying on spontaneity.   Some days I eat toast with cheese and jam, and other days cereal with fruit, and sometimes I eat a cookie for breakfast and sleep in with a book or a movie.   I may go back to bed after I get up with the dogs and feed them; they don’t let me sleep in with full bladders and empty bellies.   Barkley has his walk in the morning, so I can’t stray too far from that task.  He’s a dog and he isn’t good at going with the flow.  Now that my time is not spent at the office being productive and having something to show for my day, but is completely self-driven, what is my worth?  How do I measure my productivity when I’m not writing reports or memos or managing projects that have milestones and metrics?  Is it ok in the greater scheme of things to “do nothing”.

Barkley doing nothing otherwise, known as waiting for me to take him for his walk.

Barkley doing nothing, otherwise known as waiting for me to take him for his walk.

I have been officially retired for thirteen days.   I walked the dog every day, I went shopping three times, we had the kids over for the weekend (our grown up children), we went to my cousin’s 90th birthday party, I watched the entire last season of The Good Wife, I ate a bag of Dove chocolate candy (very bad, but in my defense, some of it was dark chocolate), I read no books, but looked at several catalogs and did some online shopping.  I did laundry and cooked and washed dishes.  I put gas in the car once and got cash from the ATM.  They have a store called Wawa up here that has has no fee withdrawals from their ATM.    I found a farmer’s market I like that is ten miles away.  They often have butter and sugar corn in the afternoons, which is my favorite kind of corn.   I also stock up on cantelopes and tomatoes, zucchini, and red potatoes.  If I’m feeling really daring, I’ll buy a locally made pie, but that’s bad for my diet, so I’ll think twice about that purchase.   It’s a hard decision:  chocolate or pie for my calorie allocation.  There is no traffic to speak of here, except in the middle of town where we make the turn off our street,  and no parking issues, and the bank never has a line, nor does the post office.  The postman takes lunch from 12:15 until 1:30.  If you go during that time you will find the post office closed.   Sometimes I imagine I’m in France where everyone closes up shop at lunchtime.  They go home to enjoy the mid-day meal with their families.

I already had my dinner today.  I ate it at 4:00.  It felt very daring, going outside the box. What will I do with the rest of my day?   What will I fill it with?  Will I be bored?  I doubt it.  After all, I can always do some reading, or a load of laundry, or sit on the deck with my dogs and watch the butterflies.  When will I be satisfied that my day is complete?  Those are all questions for later.  For now, I’ll leave you with another peaceful place where no activity is necessary.



2 thoughts on “Busyness, boredom, and the meaning of life

  1. Hi Marla! I love your blog. I think the journey from work into retirement is at once delightful and full of interesting questions and feelings. I have found it enormously fulfilling. I found after the first flush of retirement that it really helped me to establish a new routine, but one that could be broken without repercussions. You have so many wonderful talents so enjoy them all. As my brother told me I would, I have found myself wondering how I ever had time to go to a job. You will too. But let yourself play and have a lot of fun in this new life. I have made it a point to get outside every day, even it if is just to go out back and sit on my deck and talk to the birds. Cheers, and best wishes in this great new adventure for you. I will be looking forward to seeing new blog posts on your new life.


    • BJ, thank you for your kind thoughts. I agree about the routine and getting outdoors. With my two four footed guys, I get out a lot! One of my greatest pleasures is meeting new people and getting to know them, which is nearly a daily occurrence, and having the time to just stop and listen.


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