The American Busy Trap, as Explained by a 4-Year-Old


I suppose Americans aren’t as busy as they think they are because, in droves, they took the time to wildly email (and presumably read) Tim Kreider’s op-ed “The 'Busy' Trap” in the Saturday New York Times.

In case you really “didn’t have time” to read the article, or were holed up in an air-conditioned movie theatre seeing Ted five times in a row because you had no power, Kreider’s point is essentially that working Americans are quick to complain about being “crazy busy” yet their need to stay scheduled is a largely self-created chaos designed to make them feel important, indispensable, and worthy of being.

I agree with most of Kreider’s eloquently written points but he is missing an important distinction between being “busy” and being “over-scheduled”. If we overscheduled ourselves to the brim, we strategically leave no time to face head on how empty and unfulfilled our mundane tasks may leave us feeling. Idol time becomes our enemy. This may explain why 60 million “dead on their feet” Americans suffer from sleep disorders. But the fact is busyness done the right way can be a delight.

Kreider comments, “If your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book, I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.” I am a nanny to a bright-eyed four-year-old boy, Jackson. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a cartoon animal babysitter in Scarry’s books but perhaps I get a pass in Kreider’s eyes because I essentially read  “What Do People Do All Day?” ALL DAY. In not infrequent moments of childhood amnesia paired with legitimate panic, Jackson will turn to me after we have finished reading and ask, “What do I do all day?!”

In these cases I gently remind him that he picked out his own mismatched socks, “bounced” on his bed exactly three times because he isn’t allowed to jump, ate cereal from the green bowl with the spoon that doubles as a straw, then went to camp where he shaved balloons and made an abstract watercolor which he titled “Rhino on the Rocks” (bartenders take note: this sounds refreshing.)

On one particularly hot afternoon this week, Jackson and I sat on the chairs at the town pool where he sprawled out and announced that he was “lounging.” This is the child who, in one of my first weeks working with him shocked me by picking up a calculator, putting it to his ear and shouting, “I’m working! I said, I’m working! I’ll email you.”

He deserved to lounge, if relaxation is something we do indeed believe we earn. “I’ve had a busy day,” he said pulling his towel over him. And the truth is, he had had a busy day; as busy as the rest of us. But Jackson had spent his day unstructured, doing the things he loved to do and moving on to the next thing when he felt fulfilled and ready.

Of course we can’t all have the luxury of laying lazily unpaid in the shade. But we are all given the same gift of 24  hours a day and the same task of filling these hours up. In this culture we have created, where being over-scheduled means being indispensable, it is our one job to notice our limited hours and busy ourselves enjoying them.