That Busy, Huh? What Are You Avoiding?

While attending a conference this past September, I found myself increasingly preoccupied with my trio of electronic devices. I was constantly checking my iPhone, working on my laptop or iPad, and seeking WiFi hotspots to ensure I could stay connected. I was downright manic about it.

Funny how that always seems to happen when there's something I need to do that I desperately want to avoid.

When used correctly, tech gadgets can add a great deal of quality to our lives. The convenience of being connected to cyberspace is irrefutable. We can take care of many things without missing a beat: communicate with family, friends and colleagues; manage our household needs and wants by paying bills, ordering and scheduling products and services and managing shared schedules; seek out sources of entertainment and amusement; research and create; stay informed about local and international events; and get up-to-the-minute information on weather, sports, stocks, and any other statistic that might be meaningful to us.  

But maybe tech devices are hazardous enough to come with a warning label:

Did I need to be that "plugged in"? Not in the slightest. So why did I feel the need to make such heavy use of all of these tech marvels? To look at every notification? To refresh screens on a regular basis? To seek out anything of interest?

Because I was uncomfortable with being in the present.

I was uncomfortable with my unfamiliar surroundings, the number of people around me I did not know. I was uncomfortable with the responsibility of doing what it is that we go to conferences to do: meet people, in person.

Being head down, immersed in some activity that absolutely could wait or, worse, that was hardly relevant, was the ultimate avoidance tactic. How could I possibly make the leap and meet more people. I mean, I was busy, right? 

Because I was not owning up to the responsibility to do what I knew I was there to do.

I had come to the conference to meet and get to know people! It was an opportunity to not only meet people but to have the type of conversations and learning opportunities that don't usually happen online.

There's a different quality to face-to-face interaction. At the very least, you make new connections and, once in a while, you interact with someone in a way that leaves you both with great ideas, thoughts and potential for action that would not likely have happened without that exchange. What an opportunity!

Because I was confusing "busyness" with productivity.

Yup. I got "stuff" done, but not the right "stuff". Not the stuff that mattered. I know it through and through because I am experiencing regrets. Thinking back on it, my "should'ves" are numerous.

What would have been productive during that conference was to show up with nothing more than one of my notebooks and a pen. I would have felt naked, stripped of my electronic accoutrements, but it would have forced me to be in the moment and expand my comfort zone by sticking my neck out and meeting at least twice the number of great folks I managed to speak with. 

In the Middle Ages, the sin of sloth had two forms. One was paralysis, the inability to do anything—what we would see as lazy. But the other side was something called acedia—running about frantically. The sense that, ‘There’s no real place I’m going, but by God, I’m making great time getting there.’
— Ben Hunnicutt, a leisure scholar at the University of Iowa*
In the contemporary money culture, to be at leisure, to be idle, is to be irrelevant.
— Daniel Gross*

"Busyness" is the new drug of choice.

And, it's socially acceptable, even desirable.

Why do we consider "busyness" any different from drinking, using narcotics, watching gobs of mind-numbing TV, shopping, hoarding, gambling or other escapes? These are all used for the same purpose: avoidance.

We can avoid a whole lot of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings when we make sure we "don't have time" to breathe. Just as we confuse wants with needs, we conveniently confuse "want to's" with "have to's"

By perpetually inviting interruptions and tending to what is unnecessary busywork, we delude ourselves into believing that we don't have time to do what would make the biggest difference in our lives. That we don't have time to be responsible and take care of what matters most to us long term. It may feel better in the moment, but the long-term consequences can be as  devastating as those of any other type of addiction.

How do you handle technology? Is it a salve or do you put away the productivity gadgets on a regular basis when they seem to win over, or take away from, what's most important to you?

Epilogue: A little taste of redemption

The conference I mentioned in the opening paragraph took place 6 weeks ago. Luckily, 3 weeks ago, I had the opportunity to redeem myself a bit by meeting with a fellow writer at a local coffee shop. Despite a tendency toward introversion, I was not going to repeat the mistake I had recently made.

As soon as he arrived, I put my laptop and phone on silent mode and tucked them in my purse. Were the first few minutes a bit awkward? Of course. But we quickly shared an amazing interruption-and-distraction-free conversation. Though we only met for an hour, it felt as though time had slowed to a comfortable crawl. We exchanged interesting thoughts and ideas and we were clearly both enjoying and making the most out of the experience.

The next time I am confronted with the uncomfortable choice to be fully engaged, I'll remind myself of these two very different examples. I hope to choose more wisely in the future, remembering to leave all that chimes and glows out of sight and out of mind.

* Quotes were sourced from Brigid Schulte's book "Overwhelmed". For more on this topic and more quotes from this book, please read this post.