The virus of ‘being busy’

By Dhiru Soni Time of article published Jun 20, 2018

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Durban - Just the other day I attended a funeral service of a beloved relative. 

At the memorial, I followed an earlier speaker who delivered an inspiring eulogy.

His speech related to some of the selfless qualities of his late aunt and how she assisted his dad during his most trying times. 

In guilt, he regretted the fact that he was not able to spend more time with his aunt and the bereaved family.

He attributed this lack of contact between himself and the extended family to being busy and caught up with work and fulfilling other “important” duties.

It would seem that the greater part of the world is afflicted by this modern virus commonly referred to as “being busy”. 

I must confess that I am also a carrier of this new social virus. 

This new epidemic does not distinguish between young and old, or male and female, or rich and poor. 

It affects us all. It has become an urban way of life. 

A cultural trait of post-modernism.

How did we end up living through this “being busy” syndrome? 

When did we forget that we are mortal beings and that the procrastination of socialising with our dear family and friends will inevitably lead to a miserable state of being?

What happened to a world in which we could sit with the people we loved so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfolded, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we were in no rush to fill?

How did we create a world in which we have more and more to do, with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just be?

It would seem that we have arrived in a stage of human evolution where we think that in order to be in sync with the world, we have to be constantly busy. 

It has become the norm to think that “the more we do, the more we are worth”. 

This finds its origin in a materialistic society, where priority is given to the idea that “the more you have, the more you are”. 

Very few of us are aware of our inner self, the one that truly shows us who we are and why we are here. 

So are we faced with a social disease? The answer, according to various social studies that have been conducted, is yes.

You ask people about their emotional state and they tell you, “I am very tired and doing a thousand things I do not have time to think about it.” 

The complicated thing is not just realising this, but that our children and youth are starting from a very early age to have these habits as well. 

This is destroying our quality of life and it makes it difficult to spend time on personal growth.

We live under norms and deadlines that push us to demand organisational and mental perfection. 

The challenge that I present to you here is based on asking yourself the following questions: How did we end up living this way? 

When did we forget that we are human “beings” and not human “doings”?

This disease of “constantly being busy” is intrinsically destructive for our health and wellbeing. 

It weakens our ability to concentrate fully on those we love the most. It separates us from community. Being in a state of constant activity keeps us from becoming whole people.

Whether we are students, professionals or ordinary human beings, we find ourselves in a constant state of busyness. From the moment we wake up to the moment we lay down, our minds are occupied with plans, deadlines, submissions and other “important” things to be done. Even as we are winding down, our minds are never still. We’re planning for the next day or rewinding the day to make sure there’s nothing left to do. Our doings become heavy on the mind and heavy on the heart.

This perpetual state of preoccupation has corrupted our world to the point that we have chosen the screens on our computers or cellphones over our children begging to spend some quality time with them in play.

A great clip came across my mobile screen this week, titled “Back to the old days when we didn’t have the internet and ...” In the short clip, a mother was assessing essays written by her class. At one point she started tearing up, quite obviously taken aback by what she had read. In the meantime her husband, who was sitting opposite her, was busy nonchalantly scrolling through his smart phone.

Only when she said in a whimper “I am ashamed”, did he notice her. “Why are you tearing?” he asked. She replied that it was the last essay that she assessed that touched a really soft spot in her heart. “Oh,” said the husband, “What was the essay about?”

“What I would like to become,” she replied. The husband in a rather surprising response asks, “So what about the essay made you tear?” She said the pupil wrote about why he would like to become a mobile phone.

The husband, now even more surprised, asks, “Why would someone wish to become a mobile phone?” 

She explains that the child felt he was being neglected by his parents, who spent an inordinately long time on the mobile phone and to garner their attention and love, he would rather become the instrument. 

“What a shame,” says the husband. Then in the most poignant moment of the conversation between husband and wife, he asks, “Who was the child?”

She responds, “It’s our son.”

At that point the husband began to tear.

Is there a moral to this story? You decide. For some of us, “the privileged ones”, the lines between our work and personal lives disappear.

We always have a smartphone or tablet, never disconnecting and letting ourselves be present.

The recent memorial event and the clip about the little boy who wanted to become a mobile phone got me thinking about what it means to be busy, and why I hear from friends and relatives, and even children, that either they feel “so busy” or they see me as being “so busy”.

We seem to be culturally obsessed with always “doing” and never “being”.

We need to wind down as a way to create more space for ourselves. Our constant connectivity, paired with the constant onslaught of information and demands on our attention are major contributors.

Equally, I also sense a deeper causative dynamic, in which we have equated “being busy” with being productive and being effective contributors, when in reality, being overly busy can be anything but that.

As those who are also afflicted by this new social virus, I am reasonably certain that if we should reflect on our own rigours and schedules of being busy, we would find them to be simple myths.

In reality we need a different relationship, to work and to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster and smarter mobile phones. We want to be truly human with meaningful lives.

I am also sure that we do not want to be carriers of the virus of “busyness”, as much as we know that it is infectious. 

To stop the spread of this social virus, we need to re-frame our mindsets, challenge the assumptions that drive us, and “be” our life. We need a different relationship to work, to technology.

The new social virus is spiritually destructive to our health and well-being. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.

The cure for this social virus is within us. We need to act decisively. We need the kind of existence where we can pause and reflect on our own existence.

Let us insist on a type of human-to-human existence, where we can be there for each other. 

We have to remember those who have left us, be grateful for those who are still alive, because tomorrow is never promised and today is too short. 

The time is now. If you have not spent time or communicated with family or a dear one recently, now is as good a time as any to do so. For tomorrow we may not be.

* Professor Dhiru Soni is Director of Research and Innovation at REGENT Business School and writes in his personal capacity.


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