Busy with Business

I’m so busy people sometimes accuse me of being organized. They assume doing as much as I do requires an ordered life, when really I might accomplish more if only I knew what should happen next…and why what’s happening now…is.

The secret of my productivity is the American secret—working all the time. In my job, few moments are immune from work’s intrusion, and I’m always worrying about how many minutes I have to accomplish a necessary task, what I meant to accomplish and haven’t yet, and what I might have forgotten but must accomplish right away.

I can’t find time to be organized. Often, rushing to the next obligation means throwing material on my desk like costumes shed after the latest scene in some chaotic, psychotic, and endless pageant.

I’ll find time for filing later, I tell myself, because, right now, I have to figure out where the hell I put that you-name-it, and immediately.

Many of my coworkers share my state, and some blame our workplace for giving us too much to do. Maybe they have too much to do, but that’s not my problem.

My habits are faulty. If something needs doing, I stay up later or get up earlier or eat lunch at my desk or get to work earlier or get home from work a little later or find some other way to create time. Added time allows me to do more yet also necessitates more added time. As fatigue overcomes me, I get less and less done, and I’m more prone to feel put-upon and resistant to new demands. I whine. I sigh. I talk to my neighbors. I get distracted by what I think I’d rather be doing—only it turns out isn’t what I’d rather be doing—and I procrastinate.

Every day, I resolve to get off this treadmill but never find the time… or I put it off in favor of fitful sleep.

Immanuel Kant said “Wisdom is organized life,” and he was right. Granted, he was also an 18th century philosopher whose life was legendarily circumscribed. He’d get up at 5:00, awakened by a loyal servant ordered not to let him linger in bed. Then he’d drink his two cups of watery tea and smoke his one pipe. Until 7am, he’d work on ongoing projects (his books) or prepare upcoming lectures. He’d lecture from 7 to 11 and then return to writing until lunch. After lunch, he took a walk—the people of Königsberg set their watches by his walks—and visited with a friend. Then, returning home, he’d read and jot down thoughts for the next day’s work.

He never traveled more than 100 miles from Königsberg. He didn’t watch television, catch movies reviewed at the water-cooler, follow sports, or answer e-mail. He did not have hobbies, pets, a family, or a facebook page.

Sometimes, I envy him.

Lamenting the evolution of work in his own age, Thoreau described humanity as having St. Vitus’ Dance, our heads palsied by the call of obligations and necessities we only imagined. “Men say that a stitch in time saves nine,” he said in the second chapter of Walden, “and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.”

I make regular plans to limit my stitches, to organize my life, to keep binders for each class I teach, to use iCal regularly, to compile lists I can cross out with confident accomplishment, and to establish my own finite inventory of Kantian invariables.

Those items, however, stay at the bottom of my to-dos. I mean to reach them but don’t because what’s absent in my life isn’t Kant’s ordered life or Thoreau’s good sense or even their industry or self-discipline. What’s missing is their purposefulness.

They had direction. I have compulsion to get things done. The poet John Ashbery wrote:

One idea is enough to organize a life and project it
Into unusual but viable forms, but many ideas merely
Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions.

The modern mind is diffuse, and mine suffers all its myriad delusions:

  • more is more, and we can still add a little something
  • standing still is tantamount to death
  • there will be time later
  • every act needs a record
  • every request deserves a response
  • progress and relentless growth are sustainable
  • we can never return to once was
  • time unspent is wasted
  • keeping busy keeps us happy
  • every invention saves time
  • sooner is always better than later
  • life means seizing every moment’s throat and throttling it until the last gasp.

What I’d like is Ashbery’s idea. The most organic means of organization—the most compelling means—is knowing what you are trying to accomplish and caring how.

I’m tired of thinking about what’s next… uh, when I actually KNOW what’s next.

To Nietzche, the Übermensch was someone who, “Has organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative.” In his view, a truly purposeful person, “Aware of life’s terrors… affirms life without resentment.”

In contrast, my coworkers and I love to grouse about all we have to do. We seem to see our burdens as emblems of self-worth. We certainly don’t affirm life or accept its terrors. Too often, we examine ourselves according to how much we are obliged to do, and not often enough according to what we want to do or love doing.

And who has time to ask why?


Filed under Education, Essays, Laments, life, Teaching, Urban Life, Work, Writing

2 responses to “Busy with Business

  1. A good work ethic is a useful and admirable thing, and it is true that if ones wants something done, giving it to a busy person usually accomplishes the task. However, life is not all about achieving tangibly measurable results.

    A wise woman once suggested to me that, in every instance, I replace the phrase “I have to…” with “I want to…” When I catch myself and remember to do it, I experience an immediate attitude adjustment. You might want to try it.

    Good advice. What’s been hard for me is saying “I’ll change my ways tomorrow, when…” There’s always a reason why now is not the moment, and it becomes like trying to stand on a stool—once you start to lose your balance, you move much more dramatically side to side and back to front to steady yourself again. Soon you’re out of control altogether and feel small adjustments won’t work. You have no choice but to jump off. Anyway, that’s how I explain this hand-wringing post.

    I have some time off for spring break and will really think about ways to incorporate “I want” into my work life more. It’s tough to tell yourself how to think or feel, but you have to believe it can be done.

    Thanks for reading.

  2. Ah, see…the point is not to tell yourself how to think or feel, just to change the verbal statement.
    I found, when it came down to it, all the things I was saying I was required to do, had to do…were things that I was choosing to do. After a while, it sank in that I did, in fact, have choices.

    Changing one’s whole work/lifestyle seems impossible when one looks at the whole mountain of it. Changing one word in a spoken or thought statement is easy. I expect it’s hard for you to think of starting small, but today, try saying, “I want to….” instead of “I have to…” and see what happens.

    I will. Thanks.

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