I heard a report on NPR that said cereal consumption is on a decline and has been since 1996. The reason was particularly special: we are eating less cereal because it takes too much time. Instead we opt for alternatives like fast-food breakfast sandwiches or Go-Gurt® (for when you’re on the go with yogurt, Go-Gurt®!). Here is a quote from the report I found regrettably true:
This exhausting ritual — pouring cereal into the bowl, pouring milk into the bowl, eating it — takes too much time.
The report goes on to say that since cereal requires using a bowl and a spoon that you have to clean, it has become too much work. In other words: cereal is too time consuming and we don’t have that time to consume it. I would guess that eating cereal, including the dish washing, is a five minute task so this means we don’t have those five minutes anymore. Why not? Where did those five minutes go?
I am guilty of this. I admit now in front of the world wide web that for years I ate my cereal while driving to work since I did not “have the time” to eat at home. Yes, I ate cereal while driving a vehicle…on a freeway. Don’t worry, I drove with my knee so I could eat my cereal while gazing out the window at the Pacific Ocean. It was a win-win, minus the whole danger thing.
I have been thinking about being busy for a while. No matter what I’m doing, I’m busy and have been for years. We all have been. The default answer to the question: “How are you?” is always: “Well, I’ve been busy…” That’s what we all say. Listen for it and you’ll hear it everywhere, you’ll hear it coming from you. The conversation will go from there, both parties secretly comparing levels of busy.
We are all always busy, but the question I ask is: why are we so busy? Why is that our preferred mode? Why do we work so hard to keep it that way? Why do we think running from place to place without time to eat cereal means that we’ve made it?
In U.S. culture, being busy is something to be proud of, a symbol of success. If you aren’t busy you aren’t accomplishing. So we rush through our lives and abbreviate everything, even our experiences, into soundbites. We don’t linger anymore, we don’t savor. Our lives become as peripheral as a status post, outlines of real experience. But we can point to it, check it off of a list, and therefore we think it counts.
I watched a TED Talk by Carl Honoré discussing the glorification of busy and he struck a chord by saying:
Slow is a dirty word. It’s a word for lazy, slacker, for being somebody who gives up.
He’s right. If someone, when asked “how are you?”, actually said they hadn’t been up to much, had free time, and sat on grassy knolls a lot, that wouldn’t go over well. That person would be seen as wasting their time and ultimately their life. Multi-tasking, resume building, a full calendar; that makes a well-lived life.
Honoré thinks our obsession with busy lies in how our culture defines time as “a finite resource…always draining away, you either use it or lose it.” If we have that outlook on time, it makes sense that we race against something that is disappearing on us. Every minute is one and done, so we cram in as much as we can and call it carpe diem.
I argue we stop carpe-ing that diem, at least in the way we carpe today. I argue we do things that can’t be summed up because the entirety of sitting on a grassy knoll can’t be a soundbite. Unless you manage to phrase it how they did in this hilarious/super deep moment from the movie, I ♥ Huckabees:
Doing nothing can mean doing everything. How very New Age of me.
I think if we daydream, if we do nothing, if we do whatever makes our minds quiet, then we can really live our lives. In a study on the resting brain, neuroscientists found “when we are resting, the brain is anything but idle and…downtime is essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill a code of ethics.” Take that to your boss when you request a vacation.
Obviously there is a line between being slow and being lazy, but I’m not talking about lazy. I’m talking about the opposite of lazy. I think wasting time can be described as going through your day without being fully aware of what is happening around and in you. Your time is wasted by focusing only on to-do lists and juggling acts, forgetting that it’s a beautiful day and it’s beautiful you’re even alive. The fact is if we don’t have time for something, it means we value other things more than it. I think about that in my life, the things I choose to not do and what I replace them with. I wonder if the tradeoff is worth it…
I’m thinking about giving up being busy. I could find a different answer to the question: “How are you?” I want to describe my life with more detail. I also want to live with more detail. I want to highlight things other than how busy I am because that doesn’t describe me. I’m going to sit on a grassy knoll, eat a bowl of cereal, and tell you all about it.
Things They Forgot to Mention:
Being busy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve carpe-d my diem. Something as simple as having time for cereal can carpe much better.