Ask Unclutterer: Is busy-ness trapping us in cluttered, unhappy lives?

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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22 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Is busy-ness trapping us in cluttered, unhappy lives?”

  1. posted by Tiffany on

    THANK YOU for saying exactly what’s been bothering me about that awful piece. He takes some valid points- periods of idleness are good for us, much of our busy-ness is self-imposed, taking a step back to evaluate what we fill our lives with is important, etc… and then wraps them all in this package of narcissism, privilege, and judgment of other people’s choices. Meanwhile, a much better article had appeared in a Harvard Business Review blog about the importance of evaluating your busy-ness against your priorities to make sure you’re doing what matters to you:

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    Thanks for the link, Tiffany. I’ll check out the article. Based on your description, it sounds like one I’ll love!

  3. posted by toby on

    I think you and chad are taking the article a little too seriously and your response, however worded, seems defensive to the way in which you both live your life.

  4. posted by Mackenzie on

    I think anyone who’s seen Paris Hilton on “The Simple Life” would realize that simple living is not lazyness. I read a blog post by some very conservative Christians who live a lifestyle not unlike the Amish, on their own little homestead. They practice simple living…growing their own food (work), cooking it (work), canning it (work), sewing their own clothes (work), and making what else they need (work).

    I think the difference between team work and solo work is notable. If the work you need to do is team work, then it doubles as family time, social time, etc. Just think of old-fahioned quilting bees or knitting circles. It’s when your work is largely done between you and the computer with the occasional word to someone in another cubicle that it can lead to feelings of “I’d rather be hanging out with friends.”

  5. posted by Jay Cass on

    Great reaction to the op-ed that several of my friends independently posted on facebook. I agree that the op-ed was good up to the point where he became dismissive of being busy. Your response reminded me of a vice principle at my high school who gave all his students a wallet sized card; it read:

    Action without vision just passes the time
    Vision without action is merely a dream
    Action with vision can change the world


  6. posted by Rebecca on

    My takeaway from the article was that (1) we’re all running ourselves ragged and (2) this isn’t good. I think these are really good and valid points. To wit, I don’t know a single simple-life/uncluttering forum that doesn’t suggest that saying “No” responsibly is critical to finding space and peace in our lives. It’s hard. I personally daydream about “going all Thoreau” from time to time when I feel overwhelmed by my (largely self-imposed) social, personal, and work-obligations. Like Kreider, I recognize that running away is neither practical or a meaningful option for most people (including me), but our society has come to prize productivity and busyness at the expense of things like meaningful social interaction, peace, quiet, solitude, prayer, meditation, family, curiosity, etc., which all have value in that they create space and a counterpoint to our productive lives.

    This article made me think immediately of, of “Your Money or Your Life”, and of this post on Raptitude, all of which aim to help us celebrate what is meaningful to us and clear out the rest. Perhaps his message is extreme, but I think his point is still valid.

  7. posted by Ago on

    Just a thought about the “no obligations” thing: he’s a writer, and he’s still doing his job/fitting in the economy the same way he would if he wasn’t in an undisclosed location. If he was “in society” he wouldn’t be laying down power lines.

    I think that’s where the whole “does what I do matter?” question comes in, so each person with a “modern” job needs to find their own peace with that (I have a relative who works in the accounting dept of a bank and he’s responsible for compiling reports for various gov agencies –he often wonders what the worth of his job is in the face of firefighters, teachers, etc.) I think the article was more about bringing a sense of focus to your life and trimming away what’s not important.

    Also, I agree with your statement: “Living simply and pursuing an uncluttered life don’t require you to be idle or bored or ‘unmolested by obligations,'” but I don’t see anywhere in the article that he advocates boredom. I think he’s having fun, no? After all, one could be bored with their busy-work. 😉

  8. posted by ninakk on

    I’m beginning to find peace in the statement “Saying yes to too many things is saying no to your priorities”. There is simplicity in clarity, be it a busy one or not. Our current president, when an MP years ago, told some pestering journalist to bug off with his “Now I’m having a coffee”; classic.

  9. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Ago — My argument wasn’t with his personal choice (like you said, it’s not that much different than living in society). My argument was with his advocating _everyone_ do it along with him, which wouldn’t work. If everyone adopted his slacker lifestyle, none of the conveniences he experiences would continue to be available to him or anyone else. No library, no gas, no electricity, no computers, etc.

  10. posted by Genavieve on

    Erin, THANK YOU for so succinctly nailing my criticism of this article. I’m a SAHM and while my schedule is more flexible than the average working stiff, it’s not all bonbons and General Hospital either. My first thought reading Kreider’s piece was, “He clearly isn’t married and doesn’t have kids.” And I don’t say that to play the martyr card; it’s a simple fact that when one is in a relationship, to make it work requires attention, focus, planning, and getting stuff done (or, to paraphrase, “to be molested by obligations”). Factor kids into the mix and the idea of working from “an undisclosed location” goes straight out the window.

    Yes, I agree with the author that for some, busy-ness seems to have become a competitive sport, and yes, we all could do with a little more down-time. But I don’t think that busy-ness alone is causing feelings of emptiness. To me, those feelings are symptomatic of other things that aren’t running smoothly in both my life and in the culture I live in, and I have the power to address and change that situation. Checking out feels to me like being part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  11. posted by Anne on

    I think there’s a difference between the busyness of living a full life and the busyness that’s just to fill time or to seem important. I find that the busyness of living a full life runs in cycles – one isn’t that busy all of the time. There are seasons of busyness and they can seem overwhelming when in the midst of them but, if they are important to you, just remembering that it’s temporary and you would regret not doing it is enough to get through it.

    The other issue with the piece is the nature of work. His work requires contemplation and non-writing time. Other work is production based (food, utilities) and is not as cyclical. Yet other work is manufactured work and unfortunately most of this work is the basis of our economy.

    Living an uncluttered life means doing meaningful work, whatever that means to you. His busyness was leading to unmeaningful work, making his self-removal from his “life” necessary to do his meaningful work. Your method of a list of questions is your way of making sure your work is meaningful. We as a society are very bad at this balance. We can do it as individuals but many of us pay a high price for this. It would be nice if our society supported us.

  12. posted by Melissa on

    Erin, your post was incredibly insightful and really made me think. Thank you.

  13. posted by Janet on

    When I read Tim Kreider’s piece in the NYTimes last weekend, this is the line that jumped out at 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.”

    This idea has been a theme throughout my life and something that I have thought about since I was a kid. I was, admittedly, an odd child. When I was around 11 or 12 I was thinking about life and all of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks – everything we did here on earth was really just a type of ‘busywork’ – something to keep us occupied until we entered eternal life.

    Now, I didn’t believe what we did was meaningless, not at all. It was of the utmost importance to do what was right, to love others and to conduct a good and moral life – but it was just a warm-up act. Bottom line, this life in and of itself was not the whole point of existence. And that gives great meaning to the lives we live at the present moment.

    Yes, I was brought up and schooled in a strong religious faith atmosphere and these remarks are not being made to incite any ‘discussion’ about religion and its pros and cons or to proselytize for any particular sect. That is not the point I want to make.

    The point I want to make is this – I believe that when people have some type of faith based belief system in their lives, and REALLY believe and walk the talk, they don’t tend to to “clutter” up their lives with busywork to give their lives meaning.

    I think that ‘ The Busy Trap’ we are seeing today is directly the result of people putting aside religious faith. We all must believe that our lives have some kind of meaning so we fill in the blanks with whatever we decide is meaningful and the more we think we are doing, the more meaningful we think our lives become.

    Is it working? I personally don’t think so. But again, I am not even vaguely interested in telling anyone else what they should think or do. I have enough on my hands with myself.

  14. posted by Sky on

    So many of us are on a hamster wheel running and running but getting no where. We are caught up in mass consumerism which causes us to work too many hours to pay for it all. Our government tells us to go out and buy more to boost our economy. If that’s what it takes to run our country we are in trouble. And we are in deep trouble.

    Living within our means, no debt and saving something for a rainy day gives us the option to NOT work ourselves into oblivion but to have some free time to do what we enjoy. Or do nothing.

    Case in point, our current housing dilemma. Buying more than we need, living beyond our means and losing our homes in the end. Busy, busy, busy, living an unobtainable life we’ve been led to believe was what we want but in fact, is an unfulfilled,miserable life.

    Isn’t there something between the crazed busyness and Thoreau?

  15. posted by guest on

    your posts suggests that you haven’t understood the article. In the first or second paragraph, he explicitly talks about how this is not about the people who are working 3 shifts or three jobs or 60h a week. He also explicitly states that his lifestyle isn’t for everyone. But he is a writer, so off course a plummer will have a different life.
    So your criticism that his life wouldn’t work without the people who work hard is incorrect in my opinion. that’s not what the article is about. It’s about the busy-ness we create ourselves, outside of actual work. that we think being too busy is a virtue.

  16. posted by Michael Tannery on

    I’m a minimalist and I think what he’s advocating is simplifying life down to just the things that make you happy and fulfilled, and getting rid of the unnecessary. For me, my top 3 priorities are travel, our mountain home, and helping others. Anything that doesn’t fall in line with these priorities have no place in our life.

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @guest — I actually chose not to respond in this post to the first few paragraphs of his piece because they make my blood boil. The underlying message in his statements wreaks of elitism and classism, two ideas I try my best not to advocate. People are people. We (proverbially) all put our pants on one leg at a time.

  18. posted by hkw on

    I enjoyed the initial piece! I didn’t read it as lecturing us all to run away, but as using examples of people who have run away to show — in the over-the-top manner that is a perhaps unintentionally humorous hallmark of the New York Times — how bad busy-ness has become.

    What I took from it was that it is hard to be creative amidst clutter, whether “busy” clutter as in his op-ed, or physical/emotional clutter. Not a bad message, overall, and very consistent with yours.

  19. posted by Rachel on

    Wow, I think you took some of his comments in the NYT column far more seriously than I did. I read the “undisclosed location” bit to be tongue-in-cheek; he’s obviously not cut off from society. I kind of thought it meant he was hanging out at a friend’s cabin for a week or something. Should I have been offended? It seemed clear to me that he knows he occupies a position of privilege as a working writer, but that’s beside the main point – even as a writer who doesn’t have to sit at a particular desk 9-5, he could hustle and work all the time, but chooses not to. And I think the main point is, we choose our busyness, and the narrative we build around it, and these days that narrative is “busy=productive=good,” regardless of how true it is. I see nothing to disagree with there.

  20. posted by Mackenzie on

    I took his first few paragraphs as acknowledging classism issues, not being classist in and of themselves, particularly when he noted that “exhausted” is the right way to describe how you end up when you’re working constantly just to get by. Calling that acknowledgement classist strikes me the same as saying “you noticed something was racist, which means you noticed the people’s races, and that makes you the racist not me!”

  21. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mackenzie — I strongly disagree. If you read the first paragraphs in relation to the whole of his piece, you see he’s advocating for the truly exhausted to keep plugging along with their work (they’re not “busy!”). He doesn’t recommend they take time off or that working conditions should be changed to alleviate their burdens, he only wants the self-imposed “busy” professionals to change their ways. He expects laborers to keep working themselves to exhaustion so he and those who are self-imposed “busy” can feel less “busy.” It’s classism, plain and simple. He makes no statements advocating fair wages or workers rights or improved programs to help struggling families or anything that might possibly help the laborers improve their levels of exhaustion.

    I, too, am against being busy for the purpose of being busy, but not because I think there should be a labor class and a leisure class in this country. I also think he minimizes the lives of those who do work three jobs to being “exhausted!” Their lives are so much more than that and their situations much more nuanced.

    In short, his arguments against being busy for the sake of being busy would have been much more effective had he not suggested one segment of the population work while the other develop omphaloskepsis. Class has nothing to do with this conversation, but he inserted it without reason.

  22. posted by Reen on

    Erin, thank you for your thoughtful response to the piece, which I’d found grating for proffering a ‘solution’ only available to reasonably well-off, self-employed types without dependants.

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