Reader Chad submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I read the article “The Busy Trap” on the New York Times’ opinion page this week. While I was reading it, I immediately thought of Unclutterer and wondered what your opinions were of it. Do you think we should all head to “Undisclosed Locations” or be “unmolested by obligations” to be happy and have uncluttered lives, the way the reporter [Tim Kreider] suggests?
A good question, Chad. I certainly agree with Kreider that many of us could significantly benefit from more un-programmed time in our days and in our lives, but I see no need to abandon all responsibilities to find happiness or to pursue a simple, uncluttered life. In fact, I find some major problems — practically, philosophically — with Kreider’s suggestions.
He has chosen to go off, as you mention in your question, to an “Undisclosed Location” to avoid responsibilities as his primary way of life. But, he’s doing it fully at the expense of other people. He’s not growing, harvesting, and butchering his own food — he’s expecting farmers and grocers to go to work so that he can enjoy the fruits of their labor. I’m assuming his far-flung location has electricity and running water, which do not happen magically but through the hard work of linemen and engineers. The library he uses to submit his writing is staffed by employees, who if they weren’t logging hours, he wouldn’t have access to the internet. The gas he puts into his car so he can drive to the library has to be drilled and pumped out of the ground, refined, transported and sold to him by living, breathing people. Never mind the programmers and technicians who spent thousands of hours developing the computer and related technologies (cell phone, software, digital camera, etc.) he uses to perform his job. If it weren’t for people who put in 40-, 60-, 80-hour work weeks, he wouldn’t have the luxury of being “unmolested by obligations.”
Kreider’s musing that the world would be “ruin[ed] if everyone behaved as I do” is quite accurate, in my opinion. For society to function, there have to be people working diligently to make it happen. And, my guess is that the next time he needs emergency medical care that he’ll be glad the doctors treating him chose not to be defiantly indolent, but rather have pursued the “frenetic hustle” he claims is causing humans emptiness.
Busy-ness is neither good nor bad, and to assume anyone lacks meaning in his life because he has tasks on his to-do list is erroneous.
Major critiques aside, I do find value in some of his statements. I concur it is important to take a step back and dwell on the big picture, albeit occasionally. I start each morning with a cup of coffee and 15 minutes of silence. When I find myself anxious, stressed, or keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy, I pause what I’m doing and take a timeout to clear my head. An unplugged weekend or vacation help me to better focus on what matters most to me when I’m reconnected again. (But, as I’ve already mentioned, I see few benefits in Kreider’s advocation of a robustly slacker lifestyle rich with modern conveniences that is wholly reliant on industrious people to provide these conveniences.)
Kreider asks a poignant question in the sixth paragraph of his piece that speaks powerfully to me: “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” I have wondered the same thing, and this question more accurately addresses what I believe to be at the heart of this busy-ness conversation (and, Chad, I think this is where you were headed with your initial question).
I agree with Kreider, if you don’t know what you desire or if you don’t know what matters most to you, you will fall into the trap of “histrionic exhaustion.” Without direction, you will go nowhere.
We’ve all met people with no idea of what matters most to them. They save everything because they don’t know what is important. They’re paralyzed when making the simplest of decisions because they don’t know what they want. They’re rarely at home, and when they are, the television or radio or some form of audio stimulation is constantly blaring so they don’t have to be alone with their thoughts. I spent years living this way, and I kept trying to convince myself that because I had more stuff in my house, more action items on my to-do list, and more stuff coming into my life that I was important and happy. But I wasn’t. And, I don’t think most people who exist in a frenzied, chaotic state are genuinely happy. I’m not saying they don’t exist — because they do, I’ve encountered them — but most people without an understanding of what matters to them are frustrated and exhausted at their core.
Being busy, though, doesn’t disqualify people from living an uncluttered life. When you are clear and centered on what matters most to you, you may find you have more responsibilities than you did before you acknowledged what you wanted. The difference is that you’re only pursuing what is valuable and you’re discarding the clutter. You’re leading a meaningful and responsible life, which is likely bringing you great happiness. (The only caveat here is that I’m not recommending pursuing any activity that could land you in jail. The lawyers wanted me to state that outright.)
I keep a piece of paper on my desk that helps me to stay focused on what matters most to me. Initially, it wasn’t a list, it was simply a quote from my friend Laurell: “Drink coffee. Do good.” Over the years, I’ve added to the list, as my responsibilities (professional and personal) have grown. The two initial statements are now accompanied by things like “Help others. Cherish and prioritize my boys, my family, and my friends. Don’t carelessly or inconsiderately cause work for other people.” My list consists of 10 things that I value above everything else, and it’s my guide to help me stay focused on what is important to me. I recommend you create a list of what matters to you, and reference it often so you can answer the question “does this matter?” for yourself. (I also recommend keeping your list under 10 items, as more than that is pretty much impossible to achieve.)
In conclusion, I don’t believe living simply and pursuing an uncluttered life require removing yourself from society to an “Undisclosed Location.” Living simply and pursuing an uncluttered life don’t require you to be idle or bored or “unmolested by obligations.” (Although, taking time for reflection and retreat can be beneficial, especially when you’ve lost sight of what matters most to you.) Living simply and pursuing an uncluttered life only require that you clear the distractions, the clutter, and focus instead on what matters most to you. If you want to find a cure for cancer, find a cure for cancer even if it means a busy schedule and long hours in a lab. And, if you want to remove yourself from society like Kreider, do so — just don’t expect the rest of us to follow in your footsteps or think that your way is the only way. We each have different paths for achieving our uncluttered lives focused on what matters most to us.
Thank you, Chad, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I answered your question in my admittedly long-winded response.
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