Read an Excerpt
The Agony of a Rotary Phone
My family stayed at a lakeside cottage last summer where the only telephone was an old-fashioned rotary model. The cottage was so remote that there was no cell phone service, just the stolid black telephone sitting atop a tattered phone book on an end table next to a worn-out peach-colored couch.
I remember the first time I dialed that phone. It was morning. I’d gone out for a wake-me-up swim, poured myself a cup of coffee, and was sitting on the couch to call a friend to see if he and his kids might like to join my wife, my kids, and me that night at a minor league baseball game. There was no urgency to this call, no need for me to hurry.
Yet as I started to dial, got angry, and impatience flamed within me because on this phone I had to wait for the rotor to wind back to its starting point after each number. It was so slow! In addition, it made an irritating screeching sound as it retraced its cycle, like a rusty metal drawer stuck on its runners: 5 . . . 4 . . . 2 . . . 6 . . . I could have entered the entire number on a touch-tone phone in the time it took me to dial just one number on this obsolete contraption. Not to mention how much faster I could have done it with speed dial had I been able to use my cell phone.
By the time I had laboriously cranked out the entire number, I was in a total snit. How could anyone still own such a slow phone? I fumed. What a stupid phone! How backward! How dumb! But then I caught myself. This was absurd. When my friend finally answered, I spoke to him, hung up, and then redialed his number, timing how long it took me: eleven seconds exactly. As if putting my life in danger, those eleven slow seconds had annoyed me beyond reason. What a fool I had become. What a modern man. I felt embarrassed at my automatic impatience. I had become a man in a hurry even when I had no need to hurry.
As the vacation moved along, I changed. I made friends with that old rotary phone. I began to appreciate what it could teach me. The sound it made started to sound less like a stuck drawer and more like an old windmill still stoutly doing its work after all these years. I came to think of it as a wise counsel, ensconced on its end table like a Buddha cautioning me to take my time and enjoy, while they lasted, the summer, the childhood of my kids, the ripening of my marriage, and these best years of my life.
Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, many people now find that they live in a rush they don’t want and didn’t create, or at least didn’t mean to create. If you feel busier now than you’ve ever been before, and if you wonder if you can keep up this pace much longer, don’t feel alone. Most of us feel slightly bewildered, realizing we have more to do than ever—with less time to do it.
Look at what’s happened to the usual “how are you” exchange. It used to go like this: “How are you?” “Fine.” Now it often goes like this: “How are you?” “Busy.” Or, “Too busy.” Or even, “Crazy busy.”
If you’re busy doing what matters to you, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this fast life. At its best, modern life dazzles us, giving us a chance to get more done in a minute than used to get done in a month.
But if being busy keeps you from doing what matters most to you, or if it leads you to do things you deem unwise, like getting angry at a rotary telephone, then being busy is a problem. This book is about both the problem and the opportunity—where this peculiar life comes from and how to turn it to your advantage.
In order to make this crazy world work for you and not against you, you must decide what matters to you most and focus your attention on that. In days gone by, this was not nearly as difficult as it is today. That’s because the selection was not nearly as broad, and the thieves of time, attention, and mental energy were not nearly as common or as clever as they are today. Today, these thieves have never had it so good. If you’re not wise to their tricks, it is likely that they will run you faster and faster as they steal more and more of your time, attention, and energy, leaving you less and less for what you want to do.
Being too busy, which can seem necessary and unavoidable, can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but can’t escape. You can be so busy that you don’t even take the time to decide what actually does matter most to you, let alone make the time to do it.
Others created this lifestyle. It looked like the only way to go, the way of the future. What were you supposed to do, be a Luddite and refuse to buy a cell phone or a BlackBerry? Not go wireless? Refuse to enroll your kids in soccer, violin, and SAT tutoring? Refuse to take on the added debt of the extra week of vacation your spouse and kids were counting on? Have simple birthday parties the way they used to in the 1950s and 1960s? Figure out a way to live with just one car? Or just two? Say no to braces for your daughter? Let your yard go to seed? Refuse to give your time to the cancer foundation your friend is heading up? Refuse to do the extra work your boss asks you to do because half your staff got laid off? What if you’re next?
Unaware of the hidden consequences, and without making a conscious decision to do so, soon you found that you and your family had joined right in. It happened slowly, over the past five to ten years. Had you known then what you know now, you might have done things differently. It is like the story of frogs in water. If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will try to jump out. But if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and heat it up slowly, you will end up with a boiled frog.
Someone turned up the burner on us in the mid-1990s. We’re not boiled yet, but we’re definitely feeling the heat. Before the water boils, it might be a good idea to jump out. Not jump out of modern life and head off to Walden Pond (though even it swarms with busy tourists), but adjust the temperature yourself instead of letting some diabolical chef set it for you.
The greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents people from setting their own temperature, controlling their own lives. It does other harm as well, like increasing toxic stress, making people sick, causing accidents and errors, turning otherwise polite people rude, and reducing the general level of happiness in the population. But the greatest damage it does is that it keeps a person from what’s most important.
Being too busy is a persistent and pestering problem, one that is leading tens of millions of Americans to feel as if they were living in a swarm of gnats constantly taking bites out of their lives. All the screaming and swatting in the world does not make them go away. Being too busy plagues the best and brightest people in this country, if not the world. Legions of smart people everywhere feel overly busy; they rack their brains to find a better way, struggling to regain control of their lives. I want to explore this difficult problem, offer some solutions that can work for you, and most important, prompt you to create your own solutions.