The Busy Trap: Why the Viral Article Does Not Apply to Young People

A recent viral article by the New York Times insists that we stop insisting on being busy. 

In the “busy trap," Tim Kreidler says, we boast about our hectic lives to feel important, feel guilty if we aren’t being productive, and occupy ourselves to avoid confronting the meaninglessness of most of our work. Kreidler embraces idleness and advocates a more balanced lifestyle as healthier and more fulfilling, in the end. 

His audience is the privileged, upper-middle class, not the “people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U.” What’s left unmentioned, however, is that he speaks as an adult, not a millennial. While many of his points still apply, he gives us no way to understand uncertainty as making young people so busy. 

His overall message matters to college students. I often tell people I’m too busy to go to dinner and “complain” about my self-imposed stress. As one friend put it, we invent “imaginary problems” such as too-much-work because we fear confronting real problems, enjoying contentment, or discovering the emptiness of most of our lives. We should not occupy ourselves to repress everything else, since with idleness we realize we are ripe for creativity, deep thought, and appreciation for what we already have.

But Kleider speaks as an adult addressing other adults. Quotes like “most of what we do doesn’t matter,” and people are “not busy, but tired” sound like old people. He refers vaguely, almost simplistically, to childhood; he laments how even children have micromanaged schedules and aren’t left to enjoy the sweet improvisation of free afternoons. But the majority of his intended readers have taken up responsibilities -- related to work or family -- and are already “doing” what we have committed to. Most of what adults have chosen to do is excessive, he says. 

The busy schedules of young people, on the other hand, feel like more than distractions. We are young -- we are fledgling. We don’t have careers or families, those universally understood anchors of adulthood that the Great Recession has now delayed. We are still figuring out where we’re from, what we believe, and where we’re going next. While Kreidler advises that we not be busy out of fear, he gives young people no way to understand our impulse to “do things” to discover what meaning is in the first place. To be sure, we are guilty of the same avoider-mentality as adults. But unlike adults, we haven’t made the big decisions that come to define us. So we keep ourselves busy as self-discovery. It’s not insecurity about who we are, but uncertainty about who we will grow up to become.

Kleider misses that our busy habits are not only self-preservation -- they're about identity, too. To be sure, both adults and young people may be acting in fear about who we are already. The more relevant questions for young people, however, is why uncertainty preoccupies us so much and why we rely on adult benchmarks to define ourselves in the first place.