.08 Two arguments on being busy

Is busyness a trap or an engine?

It has been a very busy week - in fact the last few weeks have been packed. Since Christmas, I have built up momentum at The New York Times to the extent that I’ve been juggling five different videos of different shapes and sizes, all at different stages of production. Meanwhile the screenplay and this newsletter want attention, my body is screaming “dude, exercise!” and there’s a plethora of all the other life stuff - friends and family that need seeing, books that need reading, weekend breaks that need booking…

The thing that’s surprising me is that I’m managing it all really quite well - I’m not stressed, I’m mostly organised. In fact, I might even be thriving.

It’s surprising because I haven’t been busy for a long time. I can tell you almost exactly when, in fact: since the summer of 2012.

This was when I read this now famous piece in the Times called The ‘Busy’ Trap.

Argument One: don’t be busy

Tim Kreider makes a convincing argument against being busy. He says busyness had become a point of pride, a way of boasting about success through the act of complaining about it.

Tim goes on to argue that by fetishising busyness, we neglect the importance of idleness.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole,” he writes, “for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

(If, by the way, you want idleness given its full credit in the creative process, I highly recommend If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.)

I realised I had spent a long time being busy without getting anything meaningful done, and this made me sad. So I started saying “no” to work that didn’t help me grow as an artist and cut my costs right back so I could focus more on doing one thing.

My goal was to find that one thing I loved to do and somehow get paid to do it.

Meanwhile my logic was that in order to be truly creative, I must have the space and time to do so. Creative energy is finite and should be used up carefully. To be good at something requires focusing on it singularly.

And for a while back there - boy, was I idle! Four years passed in a flash where I was just making videos and the rest of the time sauntering quite happily along the Seine. I would only work on one video at a time, never starting a new one until the last was finished.

But rather than feeling more creative, I was left feeling more stuck than ever. I seemed to have less energy and fewer ideas.

That all changed early in 2017, thanks to an artist I admire a lot: Musa Okwonga.

Argument Two: be busy

Musa is all sorts of things at once: a poet, a journalist, a musician and football writer; he’s had books published, released an album - you get the idea.

He wrote a post on Facebook a couple of years ago where he pledged to embrace being busy. Now I quit Facebook last year so sadly I can’t refer back to it, but the overview of Musa’s Patreon page gives you a good idea of what this man means when he says busy.

It had a big effect on me because Musa takes a completely different attitude to being busy. Instead of seeing busyness as a distraction from doing creative work, it seemed he was choosing to see it as fuel for the creative process.

And I thought that maybe creative energy isn’t a finite resource to be allocated wisely; instead perhaps it is abundant - or maybe even sustainable: it increases the more you use it!

But there’s more. If you look at the variety of different fields that Musa works in - poetry, fiction, journalism, music - you see that maybe the goal isn’t to find the one thing you love doing and somehow get paid for it; maybe it is to try all sort of things!

This is borne out in the stories of others. Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park and ER) also published non-fiction books about computer programming not to mention being an actual doctor. Albert Einstein wrote four groundbreaking papers about four different topics in a single year. And, as Tim Harford points out, if you study the published work of some of the top scientists of the last century, you discover they all changed subject 43 times in their first 100 articles.

Variety, he concludes, is the secret to a long career.

All of which makes me glad to be busy at the moment and happy to be juggling lots of different projects, genres and mediums. I have realised that they interact with each other, feed each other and feed off each other.

Busyness needn’t be a trap, it can be an engine.

But! There still needs to be room for creative idleness, right? For a long hour staring out of the window or taking a long stroll around the park, where that “wild summer lightening” can strike?

There is of course no right way to be creative, so as I look back at what I have just written I guess my only sensible advice is this: if you are feeling busy and uncreative, busy-down; if you’re feeling idle and uncreative, busy-up!


Oscars night tonight. C and I will make predictions for each category (and inevitably not get many right) but it’s an event I find I’m less interested in each year. The Oscars are many things, but a celebration of the craft of filmmaking they are not.

I mention it though because I discovered an interesting fact in the comments of the trailer for Roma YouTube recently, that I ended up turning into a whole video. Ideas can come from anywhere!

Until next Sunday,