Photo illustration by Zoe DeYoung
I had a conversation recently that baffled me. We were discussing our schedules, and a peer shared with me that, alongside their AP-filled class schedule, they were holding down a part-time job, participated in nearly 20 extracurricular activities and, among those activities, held a leadership position in at least five of them.
“When do you sleep?” I asked.
“I don’t,” they replied, smiling.
What surprised me the most from this exchange was not the astounding number of responsibilities this student was holding down— although it was something to marvel at—it was my reaction. I felt jealous.
This made me question my heart. Why is this something I envy? Am I not working hard enough? Am I getting too much sleep? These thoughts sprinted through my head, tearing apart all of the pride I built up over the past four years. I spent my high school career busy doing things that I love. In the meantime, did I miss out on impressing a college admissions officer with my multitude of extracurriculars?
I got swept up in the tornado of the “busy brag.”
Why brag about busyness?
In the past, the rich flaunted their ease of life, while the average English worker labored for 64 hours a week. In the 19th century, you could tell how poor somebody was by how long they worked.
Now, studies reveal a stark change in that data. The American Time Use Survey conducted by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 2019, those with an educational attainment of less than a high school diploma spent close to six hours a day on leisure and sports activities. In contrast, those with advanced degrees spent about an hour and a half less doing those same activities.
If you stopped looking there, you could come to the inaccurate conclusion that those with lower educational attainment are simply lazy. If we completely disregard the many reasons why those with less education were unable to pursue a higher education, such as lack of family support, fewer opportunities and inability to pay for costly secondary education, we still have many explanations for this contrast in leisure time, such as the substitution effect.
The substitution effect makes leisure time for those with higher wages, which are most commonly those with a higher educational attainment, more expensive. Adjusting for inflation, salaries since the 1980s have risen sharply for those at the top, while salaries below the median have fallen. We’ve created a labor system with built in incentives for taking less time off. But our labor system not only celebrates this overworked workforce, it makes it necessary. For some, locking in financial stability for themselves and their families is impossible without shortchanging their personal lives and mental and physical wellness.
While most of us haven’t entered the workforce yet, our daily lives are still infiltrated by the unhealthy values that busyness in the work culture uphold. If those who have a higher educational attainment and higher wages use less of their time on non-work activities, those of us who plan to have a similar career in the future will follow suit, causing the “image of success” to be busyness.
A new addiction
Busyness is an addiction. But unlike alcoholism or drug addictions, it is accepted and even praised. Busyness can imply that we are wanted and needed, making us feel more valuable, and sharing this with others lets them know just how hot of a commodity we are.
How does this put our relationships at risk, you may ask? How many times have you invited someone to lunch and heard, “I’m sorry, I’m slammed, maybe next week,” yet they never reach out again? Or when you’re telling someone a story, and when you look up, they’re answering emails, nodding every five seconds to feign their interest. These experiences are painful and devaluing.
There are, of course, times when our lives are truly non-stop, and we need to enter tunnel vision to reach our deadlines and finish our to-do lists, forgoing sleep, leisure time and relationships for work, work and more work. But if this perpetual filled-to-the-brim schedule is your daily life, and your relationships and mental and physical health are falling apart beyond repair, then it is vital to take a step back and prioritize differently.
Get your priorities straight.
Returning to my original anecdote, when this conversation occurred, I was deep in the throes of my need to be busy. I felt validated by what I could create and how much I was involved in because it made me feel needed, and I feared that not doing ‘enough’ would make colleges, friends and teachers lose all interest in me.
After speaking with this busy peer, I was jealous. I was jealous, and I was worried. Worried that the types of people being accepted into great colleges were people like this peer, not people like me. That schools and the workforce valued exhausted, exploited, overworked people that externally grinned their way through the pain that is busyness, while internally falling apart.
And that is true. Most of the systems that surround us are impersonal and numbers based, without true regard for their workers who grind day-in and day-out for the company’s higher ups.
But it doesn’t have to stay this way.
These problems are structural; If we never begin to understand the inherent problem with busy culture and our hand in it, we will never make the changes necessary to lessen busy cultures’ effects on us.
We must realize that we are worth more than our career status, more than what we can create, more than our labor, more than our AP classes and our grades and our future salaries.
Understanding that our need to be busy is just a response to the structures that surround us and their exploitation of workers frees us to slow down, take a moment and realize where our value actually comes from.