Today is the first time in a long while that I feel I’ve almost caught up with myself: no longer rushing from one seemingly urgent task to the next in a process of perpetual triage.
I don’t know why I should have this sudden sense of breathing space, because I still have the usual stacked-up pile of things to do. The relief of pressure is clearly internal rather than external, and as such, I can’t help but wonder if it will soon melt away in a fresh bout of witless over-activity.
Coincidentally enough, this week I saw this brief story about the psychological rewards of busyness as an end in itself, and our desire to maintain it:
Experiments have shown that the desire for activity is quite strong; people will go to a lot of trouble to maintain their desired level of activity, which can include unhealthy behaviors. Many psychologists have “the idea that people have these highly specific goals,” [author Dolores] Albarracin says. “But quite often some significant proportion of our time is engaged in this global level – we want to do something, but what we do ends up not mattering much. You could end up with productive behavior, like work, or impulsive behavior, like drug use.” [My emphasis]
I often talk about drivenness – here and here, for example – and perhaps what I mean by drivenness is the unhealthy state that can result from the collision of a strong desire for tangible productivity and an equally strong impulse to keep busy. The two, in conjunction, make it very difficult to take a break, even when actual productivity is diminishing rapidly and having a rest might be a thoroughly good idea.
I’m reminded again about doing without doing, that paradoxical Taoist way of getting things done. The self-reinforcing busyness described by Albarracin seems to epitomise “doing” in the Taoist’s pejorative sense of the word. What would it be like to be richly productive without being busy, to simply allow all of those tasks to get done rather than wrestling, scheduling, procrastinating and otherwise “making a meal” of them? On days like today I get just a hint of that, like the faint scent of jasmine wafting in from the garden next door.