For the first time in years, I haven’t been busy. I’m not taking any summer courses, I’m currently between lab research positions, and I don’t have a job or any other regular commitment. My greatest current responsibility is studying for the general GRE exam which I will take later this month.
On a typical day I wake at 9:30am, bus to campus and spend the afternoon in Mann library where I alternate between doing GRE practice sections and reading novels or otherwise killing time. In the evenings I might meet up with friends or go to the gym. I then curl up in bed with my laptop until I fall asleep.
Not a bad summer, really. I’ve had time to do everything from swimming, to hiking, to making leisurely rounds through the local farmers’ market. I’ve watched entire TV series, read my way through J.D. Salinger, and spent more hours shopping online than I care to admit.
However, throughout my lazy summer I’ve experienced a persistent and nagging guilt that I’ve been – well, lazy. That I should’ve made myself busy. I could have gotten a temporary library job just to make some money, or subscribed to some research publications, or even started my grad school apps. If I don’t get good GRE scores, I’ll have nothing to show for the entire summer – no paycheck, no grades, nothing.
I’ve found myself comparing my schedule to that of my brother who is working almost full-time in addition to taking a 4-credit summer course. Sometimes I envy the structure of his day, how he always has somewhere to be and something to do. Author Tim Kreider recently wrote in a NY Times column, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” I completely agree. And there is nothing more self-important than blowing off hanging out with a friend because you have somewhere “more important to be.” (And there are few things that make you feel as trivial as being blown off like that).
But at the same time, being busy doesn’t necessarily make me feel better. When I’m most busy I tend to stress more, sleep less, eat poorly, and generally be less composed. Granted, because I am doing more I may accomplish more, but not at peak performance. Yet, excluding my studies, much of what makes me busy is not mandatory, but activities that I choose (to a certain degree). “It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness…”
Additionally, Kreider asserts, “It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.” To a certain degree I also agree with this. The summer after my freshman year, I joined the research group of the first professor I could find who would accept the inexperienced sophomore I was. I accepted that undergrad research was essential to getting into a good graduate program. Last year, I pledged Alpha Chi Sigma due to a bit of peer pressure and the argument that it would show grad schools that despite my nerdy scientist-ness that I had a social life. I made both of those decisions with my academic interests dominating and purer motivations to explore and learn from the laboratory setting or to network and make friends with like-minded scientists. However, (luckily) I have learned so much from undergraduate research, gaining valuable lab experience and learning from doing. And I’ve made some friends in AXΣ that I can’t imagine living without.
I think it’s ok to be busy, but that we should choose to be busy for the right reasons. You only hurt you when you spread yourself too thin across a number of extracurriculars and other obligations. Although it’s easy to add resume-boosting or self-improvement activities to your schedule, I think that you can always choose activities that you will enjoy as well, that are worth your time. And if you’re feeling burned out, or even just because, take time to breathe and catch up with friends – maybe even for a whole summer.
Tim Kreider’s piece in the NY Times: