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Obsessed with being busy? A historical perspective may help you out

Addiction to being busy is popularly portrayed as a toxic feature of modernity. The acceleration of everyday life is nostalgically compared to the past, when life was supposedly simpler. Yet the question of how best to spend time has always been fiercely contested. The contemporary obsession with over-activity can be given some perspective by considering how humans have balanced periods of activity and repose over the course of history.

The Christmas season, of course, is an appropriate time of year to reflect on busyness. The time between Christmas and New Year should be a time for reflection and relaxation, but is often stressed. Rather than taking time out after the busyness of Christmas preparations, many of us find ourselves in a whirlwind of sales shopping, sporting activities, or visiting friends or family. One form of busyness is replaced by another. Being busy has become so ubiquitous it has come to mean everything and nothing. As more people identify with the problem of busyness, some of us seek advice from time management experts about how to manage our busy lives.

But data suggests that we are not as busy as we think we are. Social scientists who specialise in researching everyday time-use can compare trends in how we spend time from the 1960s onwards. The UK expert on time use, Jonathan Gershuny, claims that actual time spent in work has not increased since the 1960s – but what we mean by busyness has changed over time. In his view, busyness has become a badge of honour.

There are a number of reasons for this change in definition. More women in the workforce means that more households have to juggle both partners working with the demands of domestic routines. Meanwhile, social prestige is associated with being busy and, as we often experience at Christmas, leisure time has become more of an intensive experience.

Christmas shopping: often a stressful experience. Heide Pinkall/

Busyness in the past

Despite the fact that it’s not possible to set up an experiment to test how life-work balance has changed over time, we should not assume that tensions about how to spend time are only relevant in the modern era. The diverse ways in which societies of the past negotiated their use of time is something I am discovering as part of my research on the social life of “busyness”.

In his classic essay, Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism, the historian E P Thompson described how the victory of labour over leisure was one of the most significant achievements of industrialisation, yet one that was fiercely contested. It was a conflict, then, that existed before the industrial revolution.

Deliberations about how time should be spent are fundamental in philosophy and religion. The division between work and leisure is a key theme of both ancient Greek and early Judo-Christian philosophy. Aristotle, for example, argued that virtue was obtainable through contemplation, and not through endless activity.

The distinction between different paces of activity is also a key theme in the development of Western religious doctrine. In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, it is described how God turned the ground hard in order that Adam had to perform arduous labour to cultivate the Earth – as a punishment for original sin. And the Jewish commandment to keep the Sabbath is intended for religious observation unhindered by work.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, The Expulsion from Eden, 1900. Wikimedia Commons

The tension between activity and reflection is not one that can be easily resolved. It takes on different forms at different historical times. One of the most celebrated accounts of this is the German sociologist Max Weber’s explanation of the diligence of the Protestant work ethic and its importance in the development of capitalism. Weber describes the value of work as thought of by Calvinists as not a punishment for sin, but an expression of virtue and closeness to God.

But the dominance of capitalist modes of production did not do away with the idea that inactivity can be equally virtuous. E P Thompson explains that in the 19th century, moral debates about time recognised the value of hard work but also the necessity of marking time well. Historical debates about time and activity do not provide absolute clarity of how time should be spent, but highlight that different qualities of activity are equally valid.

Learning from the past

Returning to contemporary times, it is clear that our obsession with busyness is different from the Protestant work ethic: we find it difficult to balance hard work with our domestic chores and taxing social calendars. No longer do we counterpoise intensive work activity with time for repose – now “rest” is often just as hard work. This is particularly the case when the intensity of festive activities can overshadow the idea of the holiday period as a time of rest.

Busyness also points to another distinctive trait of modern everyday life: busyness is relational. Busy working and family lives involve juggling multiple responsibilities. Tensions about busyness are often to do with a lack of autonomy. We do not have time for ourselves as we rush around doing things for other people. We also use the excuse of being busy in order not to do things for each other, either at work or home.

The difference in how time is managed in the 21st compared to the 19th century, is that for many people, discipline around time is not imposed through organisational structures. The flexibility of contemporary work, including when and where we work, is unlike the imposition of clock-time discipline during the industrial revolution. Instead, we are expected to take control of our own lives, and managing this responsibility and our relationships with others is busy work.

If you do take time to reflect on your busy life, bear in mind that the solution may not necessarily be about how you manage your time, but rather how you manage your relationships with others. The biblical commandment to mark time well is a collective act, not an individual one. This is an important lesson about time we can take from the past.

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