I come from a long line of workaholics addicted to busyness. Behavior like clipping coupons in the car on the way to a restaurant while filing your nails and talking on the phone or picking up a mid-day shift that you squeeze in between bookkeeping over breakfast and an evening birthday party on your ‘day off’ or running multiple home businesses while also working a full time day job all seemed very natural to me. my mom was a notary public, real estate agent, ran a housecleaning business, worked weekend catering gigs and had her own jewelry line all at the same time. my dad simultaneously owned and ran two barber shops, cut hair at a different barber shop and was a mortgage broker. I learned early on that being busy meant you weren’t idle. being idle equaled being lazy and there were few things worse than laziness in my family. I always blamed my constant hectic schedule on the fact that I had to work while in college or later that I was running my own businesses and working 16 hours a day six or seven days a week was simply what all entrepreneurs had to do.
In my quest to be successful and feign off being called lazy, I’ve had more than my fair share of late nights sewing purses and t-shirts for a craft fair in the morning…a towel under my sewing machine on the table to dull the noise from waking my roommates as I wore out my vhs tape of steel magnolias. I’ve worked myself until I was literally sick with auto-immune diseases, migraines, stomach problems and a whole slew of other stress-related illnesses. I’ve regretfully declined invitations to birthday parties, drinks with friends and even weddings because I had to work or was simply too busy. Yet, I never seriously questioned my full schedule and stress level until this year. I held onto the notion that to be successful you had to work your fingers to the bone and you had to do it 23 hours a day.
Then, i was in orange county, floating on a raft in my parents pool, margarita in hand and talking to my dad. We were having one of those long talks about life that come too infrequently but when they do, you get that awesome feeling of lightness and heaviness at the same time like when you’re totally in the moment and simultaneously feeling the smallness and bigness of actually being a person on earth. Like when you’re driving in a car with a good song on the radio and really feeling the wind rush into the car and onto your skin and then looking at the car next you and seeing another person and imagining what their life might life.
“how lucky we are,” my dad said looking up at the blue cloudless sky and taking a sip of his margarita. I thought, I need more of this. More of these moments when my brain is not fluttering from one task to the next. More time with the people I love. more time to be present in the moment. i started thinking about an idea I’ve had for many years for a new business that always seemed impossible. It would cost too much money, require too much work and I didn’t know enough about the industry to make it happen so it always sat on the back burner of my mind as a someday thing, like winning the lottery or traveling the world. Then I thought about the other things I’d accomplished in the past few years, getting a master’s degree while working with my business partner, Delilah to start a conference for creatives (craftcation) and grow our patchwork shows to multiple cities which at one point also seemed unreachable. So why couldn’t I do this.
hey, this is it. just this one life. so make it what you want it to be, I told myself.
A few weeks later my friend paige sent me this article from the new york times called ‘the busy trap’. Author tim kreider writes about how people have become addicted to busyness. The roots of this busyness he states are self-imposed, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Pretty much every sentiment in the piece rang true especially when he tied busyness to the growing problem of anxiety, “They (people addicted to busyness) feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” Kreider paints a grimly frenetic picture of our modern world but luckily offers a way out commenting “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”
After I finished the article I immediately sent the link to my mother who is the only retired person I know that continues to work full-time and is perpetually ‘doing something’. I also sent it to my dad who always makes a conscious effort to give himself downtime and be present.
Then I took a deep breath and started to think about the roots of my busyness and anxiety. A lot of my busyness couldn’t be avoided (or so I thought). At the time I was a full-time graduate student getting a second master’s degree in creative writing, attempting to write a book, teaching craft classes at multiple studios (one which was a two-hour drive from my house), doing freelance graphic design work, trying to make art in my ‘spare-time’, leading craft workshops at private parties and corporate retreats, running one business on my own, operating two businesses and starting a magazine with my partner Delilah and to top it all off…planning my wedding and honeymoon.
A few months later Delilah was lucky enough to be gifted a week’s rental at a compound of lovely Spanish style houses in palm springs. She generously decided to use the time at the charles farrell compound as a retreat for our staff and us to talk about the current status and future goals of patchwork and craftcation. We brought an agenda for the weekend: topics to be covered and issues to be addressed. We also brought chef seth (my boyfriend at the time and now husband). he cooked beautiful meals for us as we all lounged by the pool, on the patio and in the houses. We worked through our agenda, swam in the unbelievable pool and drank margaritas. Some of the best ideas we came up with weren’t while we were working through our list of things to do but rather while we were just hanging out. I remembered kreider’s words in the new york times article, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” I began to once again see the virtue of downtime. I was so used to doing and lost track of being. The hanging out, the idle time, like kreider claimed is essential for creative thought. I thought about that day in the pool with my dad and the downtime that allowed my mind to drift back to my dream business idea.
It’s been over a year since I read that article and four months since palm springs. Yet, it wasn’t until a two months ago that I made any solid decisions to unbusy my life. I knew I needed help and sought the assistance of tiffany han (one of the most complemented presenters at craftcation) who I describe as a life coach for your business. Other clients have called her a “Professional Yoda, Ballistic Missile of Encouragement and even Glitterbomb of Glory.” The first thing I did was send her a list of the things I did-all the businesses, freelancing, teaching, writing etc… I looked at the list and right away realized that something or things had to go. Still, The thought of letting go of anything on this list made me almost as anxious as keeping everything on the list but, I was determined that focusing on the things that gave me the most pleasure, paid the bills in the least amount of time and fed my soul was what I needed to do. tiffany helped me take a long look at what I did every day and how each thing I did made me feel and then she made me start crossing things off the list.
It was hard at first, like putting your kid on a bus headed to summer camp but then once they get on the bus you know a world of possibility and experience awaits them. After much examining, journaling and coaxing from tiffany I decided to close my etsy shop, stop making things for my clothing line–random nicole, try to sell off the inventory I still had and take of leave of absence from grad school. After that, I decided to stop thinking that my dream business was out of reach and start doing research to make it happen. I also decided to truly experience and try to be present on my honeymoon in montreal and camping (luckily Delilah was more than willing to pick up any slack while I was away). Then I made a vow to never stop examining my life, be grateful for the things were good and make a plan to work on the things that needed improvement. All of these changes meant I would have to figure out how to utilize the bits of free time I’d created without getting or feeling lazy. I would now have more time for the things I truly enjoyed like floating in the pool with my dad or learning how to do the butterfly stroke in the pool with Delilah in palm springs. I would also have more time to dedicate towards ideas to grow patchwork and craftcation as well as come up with and work on new ideas. Unfortunately this also meant I would have less money. So I had to sit down and do the dreaded task of crossing more things off a list, this time…my budget.
Now, with the palm trees and warm nights of the desert as well as the clear blue water of my parents pool several months behind me, I’m in the midst of co-planning Delilah’s and my first two day event patchwork edible, next years craftcation, spring patchwork shows, developing our blog, working on our magazine and writing a business plan for my next venture and I’m trying very hard to keep in mind all that insight about the benefits of downtime. truth be told, i am still very busy but at least now i’m aware of it. I’m trying to learn that working smarter not harder is the badge of honor I want to wear. Oddly, within a few weeks of withdrawing from the creative writing program, I started writing again. Not the way I did in grad school but with the urgency and love for the craft that I hadn’t felt in a long long time.
I’m trying to give in to unbusyness while still pushing myself and using my time wisely (even if that only means spending an extra fifteen minutes in bed in the morning). This morning instead of jumping out of bed and getting on the computer to check emails and review spreadsheets. I got up, opened the window, closed the blinds and got back in bed. I laid there trying to be present in that very moment… trying to feel the light warmth of the blanket, to see the canals of light slipping through the blinds casting long slivers of brightness on the art on the wall and stacks of books on the dresser, to smell the scent of my husband–still sleeping next me and to listen to the water flow through my neighbors backyard fountain and into their pond, the sparrows chirping and leaves rubbing together in the breeze. I forced myself to hang out with myself and be idle. just as I was about to get out of bed, my mind drifted away from that room and flowed into creative thought. even though technically I was being lazy I couldn’t help but be productive. In that lazy moment, I came up with new a design concept for my dream business and then an idea for a children’s book. In that moment, I actively understood the point of what kreiger said. To be productive you have to be or at least try to be a bit lazy.
If you have a little lazy time in the near future make it count and shake up some of these awesome watermelon margaritas that are perfect by a pool in orange county or palm springs. If you can’t get to real pool feel free to fill up your bathtub with cold water, sip on this watermelon and tequila elixir and close your eyes, wait for the creative juices to start flowing and pretend you’re anywhere you want to be.
what are your thoughts on busyness? how do you carve out downtime? what’s your favorite way to spend your precious idle time?