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The profusion of things to do – on feeling ‘busier than ever’

I nearly didn’t write this as I felt too busy. And maybe writing short pieces such as blogs – information in little chunks – is part of the problem of why so many people describe themselves as ‘busier than ever’; or maybe it is a good response to the fact that we are so terribly busy and can only read short, easily digested pieces. Whichever, I am doing so because I thoroughly enjoyed Busier than Ever! Why American Families Can’t Slow Down, an ‘ethnography of busyness’ by three anthropology professors – Charles N.Darrah, James M.Freeman and J.A.English-Lueck – from San Jose State University, and wanted to think about its possible relevance for the Profusion theme.

Published in 2007, Busier than Ever! provides an in-depth exploration conducted over a year of fourteen middle-class dual-career families through whom they examine what they call ‘a society of busyness’. The book is an excellent advocate for the slow-food equivalent of long-term ethnography as a method, elegantly providing answers to those who worry about issues such as ‘generalizability’ – and, more importantly, demonstrating this through the richly flavoured result.

One major finding of the research is that ‘busyness’ is not something that intrudes into the rest of life but that it is much more integral to it. As such, metaphors such as ‘juggling’, which construct busyness as a time-management problem, are misleading. All of the families studied were busy ‘in their own ways’ – some with work, some with social lives and relatives, some with volunteering, and many with all of these. The issue was not just about ‘work’ getting into ‘private time’. Rather, not only did the reverse also happen, but also, and more significantly, participants took for granted the virtues of being busy, fearing ‘wasting time’ as lost opportunity for self-realisation or building up insurance against potential future insecurity. For in a society in which ‘lifestyles’ need to be assembled and ‘worked at’, busyness ‘is who we become’ (p.77).

This busyness causes problems, as the fine-grained ethnography showed. People did not complete some of the things that they really wanted to do because of all of the other things that they were doing; minor hiccups became major disruptions in schedules without slack; kids complained at being compelled to do numerous activities and at their parents’ lack of time for them; and so many expressed feeling frazzled and overwhelmed. Moreover, the sheer organizing of busyness itself takes up considerably more time than people realize. Yet seeking better ‘time-management’ can’t provide the answer, the authors argue, because this ‘distracts us from the sources of our busyness only to enable us to take on more’ (p.251).

This is not to say that the research is saying that it is ‘just people’s own fault’. The ethnography shows clearly the social connectedness of busyness – people are busy on behalf of others and as part of the tissue of their social relationships. Fears and realities of job insecurity – for themselves or their children – are major ‘drivers of busyness’. We see how children are socialized into busyness and ‘a craving for the new and dissatisfaction with the moment’ (p.178) through their time being chopped into little pieces of diverse activities from day-care on (as part of a wider ‘modularization of life’). New media also get attention for affording busyness, though without either reducing them to this or pursuing ideas about how they affect our brains through the ‘distraction’ that they cause, as Matthew Crawford has argued recently in The World Beyond your Head. How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (2015). Consumption too is given attention, the anthropologists finding that it takes up much more time than they had anticipated or than their participants seemed to realize. Not only was this part of lifestyle assembly, it also created further busyness in order to manage the resulting ‘clutter’.

In the Profusion theme we are looking at how people deal with the ‘stuff,’ or ‘clutter,’ of mass consumption, especially decisions about what to keep for the future. Profusion, and the ensuing struggle with it, we might suggest, is as integral to homes and museums as is busyness. Perhaps this also means that de-cluttering and even curating – a term that has escalated in use over the past decade, as David Balzer has shown in Curationism. How Curating took over the Art World and Everything Else  – are inherently doomed to be unable to reign in expanding clutter in the same way that time-managing busyness never really succeeds for long.

Busier than Ever! does not aim to offer solutions in the manner of a self-help book. Nevertheless, through its portraits and analysis, it offers up much to prompt reflection that could potentially enable us to stave off at least some of the adverse dimensions of feeling over-busy. Such reflections include that chopping up time into many different parts itself produces more busyness; that multi-tasking can lead us to feeling that we never quite accomplish anything; that the sense that ‘the race is always on’, as one participant put it (p.183), itself generates a sense of being harried; that allowing ‘give’ in schedules can help make things flow more smoothly; that acknowledging the value of ‘tacit work’, including that of maintaining relationships that could help us out when we need it, is worth doing; and that striving to just manage time better – or get more of it by sleeping less – is unlikely to solve senses of time-scarcity.

Can we translate these insights to dealing with the profusion of things? The following are some possibilities: that trying to save everything means that we might fail to collect some things ‘properly’, that is, with fuller information; that focusing on individual objects rather than whole contexts or sets of things means that our sense of what there is to save expands to make the task more elusive; that allowing ‘give’ in our storage facilities makes it easier to manage what there is; that maintaining relationships between people can help us find ways of collectively figuring out what to keep; and that striving for the impossible of total coverage feeds the harried feeling of succumbing to profusion.

Whether we can identify drivers of accumulation analogous to the drivers of busyness is a question for our research. So too is whether some of the coping-strategies for busyness might work for the expanding numbers of things in homes and museums. Or perhaps we will find still others. We look forward to making the time to find out.