Being Busy

Dear L,

A few weeks after I moved to Germany, I started noticing a glaring difference compared to my life back in India. The difference was time. I didn’t have to calculate the extra time when going to places, the public transport worked reliably. No longer I would fall asleep waiting for stagnant traffic to move; mostly because I never had to ride a cab. Mundane things, from arranging few liters of drinking water every day to standing in long queues at ATMs or markets became a thing of the past. No longer I had to spend time arranging maintenance work for crucial domestic infrastructure, it was being done by dedicated institutions, like clockwork. Even paying rent suddenly became automated.

A twenty-minute commute became the new normal. In contrast, during college, my commute time was about one and half hours one way. Working extra hours were frowned upon. Grocery shopping became so efficient, I started finishing mine within 15 minutes. All of a sudden, I had so much free time every day in my hands, I started delving into hobbies and activities I never thought I would ever have time for. Theatres and record stores, bars and cafes, concerts and clubs, parks, and sunsets became a defining feature of my day-to-day. Gone were the life of constantly cluttered worries of the mundane. I became not-busy. I was free to worry about which concert to go to next, or where I could buy a very specific brand of audio equipment. First-world problems, as we tend to call them, became all too real.

Funny enough, the more I got integrated into this part of the world, I started to come across busy people. Being human, I followed the herd, and naturally latched on to the race; I ended up busy being busy. It was in its own morbid way liberating; I saw myself liberated from stagnation, from travel plans to social obligations, from productivity to doom scrolling, I was occupied. Last year, such familiarity collapsed. Most of the things that kept me busy didn’t exist anymore. I subconsciously started looking elsewhere to keep myself busy. The easiest thing I could do was to get better at getting personal chores done. Then came projects; forced projects that added value. Then came fitness, cooking, mindfulness. Calculated structures imposed upon my day-to-day; At any given moment, everything was in its place. The pantry stocked, floor clean, bills paid. From regular information intake to churning out an Instagram post every other day; The pressure was on. If I am being completely honest, it did feel good to be busy and productive. As Prof. Scott Gallaway would say it, “dopa hits” were dozen a day. Then, one morning I woke up in an apartment full of take-out bags; I had ordered food for a week straight. I didn’t leave the house for a few days. There were two weeks worth of unfolded laundry on the couch. The kitchen sink was full of unwashed dishes, and the bathroom sink was gunked up with dead skin mixed with waterborne salt deposits. The linen was crusty. Unopened mails made a stack centimeters high. I had no coffee left. For a moment, I had wondered if this was what depression felt like; But coffee was a higher priority. So I took a walk; three lattes from three different cafes and a small pack of cigarettes later I came home. It was a proverbial collapse.

Somewhere in history, there was an inflection point when doing-nothing changed from being a luxury to a sign of irresponsibility towards oneself. Drowning in hustle porn and exceptionalism, we forgot how to be mediocre. FOMO came into existence, so did global sleep deprivation. We are always running a gamut of activities, even if that means scrolling through social media. There is a case to be made about being in the know and being productive as a way to get forward in life & career; There’s no alternative to hard work. The same goes for calculated risk; The “Comfort zone” has the potential to be dangerous. But what we don’t notice is parts of it are also institutionalized stimuli. I am sure, you, like me, have heard of the modern productivity mantra, GET-SHIT-DONE or "carpe diem" in various forms countless times; Poster child of hustle porn. There’s an insurmountable amount of media on the internet dedicated to getting better at getting better, from lifestyle gurus to entrepreneurs. There are people advocating changing aspects of life that don’t bring them value or talking about how their life changed when they started making irreversible decisions in their life. I even remember a person describing a diagram to remind the audience how many weekends they have left in their lives as if we should all thrive to live life to the fullest no matter the cost. Like many others, I had fallen victim to a relentless barrage of such. After that downer of an episode, I learned how badly I had conditioned myself to be in an illusion of constant progress. Although I do not intend to undermine the importance of being busy, what I want to point out is the distinction between busyness and the fuzzy feeling of being busy. In retrospect, my need to feel busy was self-defeating. In my complete nonchalance to the progress humanity made for few thousand years to attain more leisure, I attained little more than a mild burnout. I could relate to what Tim Wu wrote...

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival.

When I managed to give up the need to be busy, I experienced the raw sustainability of mediocrity. I stopped following my Instagram targets, and neither did I feel the need to churn out my side projects. I could just let myself get bored, sometimes on the couch, sometimes on a park bench. That’s when my letters to you started to get longer, and my photographs slightly more refined; My cooking more palatable and my side projects more rewarding. Fortunately, none of that is rooted in anything other than leisure. This is not to say I am never busy doing anything, on the contrary. But when I am busy, I am driven by a purely internal impetus, rarely to get better or to achieve a personal goal. Sometimes, I take days off to work on something that I scrap the very next week. There are days when before brushing my teeth, I write bits of computer code; or spend caffeinated evenings editing videos for friends. Most of the time it’s pure excitement, amusement, joy, or a sense of purpose.

One of the most underrated beauties of adulthood is the freedom in hobbies & leisure. When I was in high school, one of my most prized evenings was the ones after finals. I would come home and take out all the comic books I had; Sprawl them out on the floor and read them, one by one, for the next few days before the grind of ironically-modern education system compelled me to get back to homework and sweaty classrooms. Now as a working professional, working in a 9-5, it would be a shame if I didn’t cherish the absence of relentless onslaught from standardized tests and performance-driven self-esteem; the same goes for the pointless war on mediocrity and leisure. At times, I do loathe myself for wasting away my own time, perhaps on a park bench with a bottle of beer or while slouching on the couch with a magazine, but when I do I take a moment to relish the fact that it took about seven thousand generations of humanity to reach this point; A point where we can read our favorite author with setting sun on our faces, all the while sipping red wine and nibbling on blueberries without a care in the world.

In the end, all I can write to you is what Kings of Leon mused about,

Oh, take the time to waste a moment

There's more to life than being happy

Opinion | In Praise of Mediocrity (Published 2018)

How to Quiet Your Mind Chatter - Issue 98: Mind - Nautilus

Why Making Our Brains Noisier Feels Good - Issue 96: Rewired - Nautilus

Best,
A

Arijit Dasgupta

Arijit Dasgupta