The Structure of “Quality”

It was eleven o’clock on a Sunday night when I found myself prompted to watch the next episode of Psych on Netflix. I blinked as I looked at the clock, wondering at what point “just one episode” turned into a television marathon. It was a school night and I hadn’t yet finished my reading for the next day’s class. With regret and a guilty conscience, I came to the conclusion that I had wasted my time.

The ironic thing about this situation was that the book I should’ve been reading was Busier Than Ever! Why American Families Can’t Slow Down. Yet there I was, displaying behavior quite opposite of a busy American. Laying around, wasting time, procrastinating on responsibilities…. At least, that’s what it seemed like at the time. But as I think about it now, I realize I’m not an abnormality. Everywhere I look I see varying degrees of “wasted time.” From Angry Birds to window shopping to the snooze button, my peers are just as likely to spend time doing non-productive things as I am. The real question is, why are we made to feel bad about it?

According to Busier Than Ever (which I eventually did read), I technically would be part of a busy family. The set-up for this book is a case study conducted over the span of about two years, following several middle-class American families and their daily lives in an attempt to figure out why our modern society has become “busier than ever.” In the second chapter, they give an overview of the “hows” of busyness, illustrating that despite the variance in the details of these families’ routines, they all fall into the category of being busy. So for my family and me, it doesn’t matter what we do to fill our time, just so long as we fill it.

It’s clear that the assumption the authors are making with this line of thinking is that quantity of time determines whether one is busy. Quantity, in this context, can refer to the amount of different things done in a day, or to the minutes/hours/etc spent on any given thing. Because the book’s families had many activities to do in a day and spent a significant amount of time on them, they were considered perfect subjects for a study on busyness. This reasoning of time is also in line with the dictionary definition of busy, which the authors provided at the beginning of the book: “having a great deal to do.”

I’m seeing something else, however, happening outside of such technical definitions. If busyness is really is all about quantities, then theoretically I should be able to get away with watching five episodes of a TV show in a row. Or I should be able to schedule “lay in bed for an extra half hour in the morning” and count it as part of my busy lifestyle. But in reality, it just doesn’t work like this. Instead, how I should spend my time is dictated by what is considered worthy or valuable to the culture around me. Thus, it’s a social structure of quality that is influencing what makes people busy or not.

No one likes the person who says they are too busy to help out because they need some “down time.” Bad things may be wished upon a person who claims to be too busy to do their share of a project but ends up just playing on Facebook instead. It’s engrained in our society that certain things just aren’t valid for constituting busyness. Rather, we classify them as “trivial” or “time wasters,” and make those who opt out of more important activities in favor of them to be lazy, irresponsible, or even selfish.

Not to say this is necessarily a bad structure to be influenced by, however. Certain activities are deemed more worthy of our time for a reason. Looking at examples of the Busier Than Ever families, we get an idea of what it means to be busy in our modern American society. One family was greatly involved with their church. Another family had a food truck. Several took on activities that would help their children succeed academically and professionally. This is just a snap-shot of the possibilities. The authors of the book do touch briefly on why some of these activities might be so valuable in the first chapter, suggesting that busyness “is also about creating ourselves as moral beings who live in communities with other people…” (pg. 5). So when it comes to things that contribute to the community, speak to our particular religious faith, or provide an opportunity to grow in academics, for example, it’s reasonable to spend time on them.

But what I think we should also realize is that we have reasons for doing those supposed “trivial” things, too; otherwise, why would we ever bother to do them? We know we’re wasting time when we choose to just sit around on the couch, take an extra long shower, or get sidetracked browsing the Internet. But we do them anyway, however guilty we may feel about it afterward. Why? Perhaps there are hidden values in these kinds of activities that we are simply failing to acknowledge. I know for myself when I choose to watch Netflix, I’m really choosing to give my brain a rest from thinking about other things. I’m choosing to be entertained, to get lost in someone else’s story, or to think about an aspect of life I may not have first-hand experience with. Video games allow me a certain element of control I can’t always manage in reality, so they can act as a coping mechanism. And sleeping a full eight hours a night, or taking a power nap during the day, contributes to my physical and emotional well-being. And when such activities are placed on their own like this and given justification, they don’t seem very trivial at all. It’s only in comparison to other activities do we start to de-value them.

I would like to challenge this practice; if not the perceptions we have of time and busyness, then at least of the language we use when referring to them. When we say that we are “busy,” we really mean we have lots of things to do that are also valuable to our culture.   When we say we’re “wasting time,” what we really mean is that we are choosing to do something that is not as culturally valuable as something else. Maybe such a change, or awareness of true meanings, could help shed light on the issues brought up in a book like Busier Than Ever.

by Selena Edin

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