If you ask people how they’re doing, you’ll often get some variation of “I’m so busy!”

I Am Very Busy

Many people make the mistake of confusing busyness with productivity; in fact, they’re not at all the same thing, and it’s important that we recognize the difference.

Busyness is essentially an emotion, an attitude, a face we put on for the world. It’s how we experience time, how we think about the things we have to do. And it’s easy to treat the feeling of rushing about, of always having no time, as a signal that we’re getting stuff done. But for a very long time, really smart people have been warning us that this is not the case. Indeed, it’s backwards.

For example, William James wrote more than a century ago (my emphasis):

We say that so many of our fellow-countrymen collapse, and have to be sent abroad to rest their nerves, because they work so hard. I suspect that this is an immense mistake. I suspect that neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns, but that their cause lies rather in those absurd feelings of hurry and having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results, that lack of inner harmony and ease, in short, by which with us the work is so apt to be accompanied, and from which a European who should do the same work would nine times out of ten be free. These perfectly wanton and unnecessary tricks of inner attitude and outer mariner in us, caught from the social atmosphere, kept up by tradition, and idealized by many as the admirable way of life, are the last straws that break the American camel’s back, the final overflowers of our measure of wear and tear and fatigue.

The voice, for example, in a surprisingly large number of us has a tired and plaintive sound. Some of us are really tired (for I do not mean absolutely to deny that our climate has a tiring quality); but far more of us are not tired at all, or would not be tired at all unless we had got into a wretched trick of feeling tired, by following the prevalent habits of vocalization and expression. And if talking high and tired, and living excitedly and hurriedly, would only enable us to do more by the way, even while breaking us down in the end, it would be different. There would be some compensation, some excuse, for going on so. But the exact reverse is the case. It is your relaxed and easy worker, who is in no hurry, and quite thoughtless most of the while of consequences, who is your efficient worker; and tension and anxiety, and present and future, all mixed up together in our mind at once, are the surest drags upon steady progress and hindrances to our success.

In his great book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper noted that medieval thinkers regarded overwork as a kind of idleness, as it took time and attention away from spiritual matters and contemplation.

Today, in an essay on his writings about idleness (Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark, “‘Hic Situs Est’: Seneca on the Deadliness of Idleness,” The Classical World 72:4 (December 1978), 207-215), I read this about Seneca’s attitude toward busyness:

In his philosophic writings Seneca seeks to distinguish sharply between otium (leisure) and ignavia (idleness or sloth). He vividly contrasts the life of leisure (vita otiosa) with the idle life (occupatio desidiosa), stressing the immense difference between the two. The vita ignava is detestable; it causes man to hate his life; it is a deadly punishment. The Philosopher urges his fellow-men to avoid indolent or idle inaction that is comparable to a living death.

Moreover, he likewise emphasizes the futility and absurdity of a life devoted to busy idleness. Those who are “out of breath for no purpose, always busy about nothing” do not have leisure but idle occupation– “Non habent isti otium, sed iners negotium.” Their way of life may be compared to the aimless meanderings of ants. They crawl about frantically with no fixed goal, consuming their time in meaningless diversions which weary them to no purpose. Seneca picturesquely portrays these human beings breathlessly absorbed in the manifold activities they happen to stumble upon. [210, my emphasis]

Seneca has always urged his readers not to descend into a life that is deadly, one that is moribund. With vehement zeal, the Philosopher claims that man can, either in his early years or late in life, revivify himself, study the art of living (i.e., philosophy), and practice it in the world of leisure.58 However, such withdrawal will never be wasted in fruitless vacuity and morbid idleness, but consecrated to a lively, contemplative leisure. Assuredly, the vita contemplativa is by no means devoid of action, for it continuously entails a strenuous, quickened commitment to studies, to meditation, and to thought. Through such leisure, man can benefit his fellow-men-more than in any other way. [214]

So the idea that busyness isn’t really productive, but is a form of distraction, turns out to be really old.