Busyness Ethics

by Rachel Kelley, ’12


When you can’t fit one more thing into your schedule, somehow you find yourself reading articles your friends posted on Facebook – articles like this one, “The Busy Trap.” Several friends commented, “That’s so Stanford!”

Yes, we’re all busy. We love to complain and philosophize and gchat about it.

It’s summer, so I’ve had more space in my brain and time in my schedule to think about how I choose to spend my time. For the last several weeks, I’ve been living with activists who live in what some of them call a “non-intentional intentional community.” The man who started the community – Karl – used to drive around the country giving talks about nonviolence and the peace movement. After many years of this, he realized that consuming oil while remaining detached from responsibility to any particular community was not a peaceful, sustainable, nor ethical lifestyle. He decided to stop traveling, buy a small house in Nashville, and start growing his own food in the backyard. At 75 years old, Karl rides his bike, shuns AC, and reuses and repurposes with meticulous attention to detail. He does all he can to avoid supporting war, factory farms, consumerism, pollution, and waste. Needless to say, Karl’s lifestyle is not convenient. He spends hours growing food and repairing goods that he could buy in a few minutes. He forgoes convenience to live in accordance with his principles.

As I try to keep up with Karl’s near-fundamentalist moral code of anti-consumption and sustainability, I’m struck by how much time it requires, and I wonder if I would make the choice he did. Would I give up what I considered to be critically important activism to align my daily routine with my ideals? Honestly, I think I’d be too busy – too busy to ride my bike instead of driving, too busy to call my representative about such and such unrelated political issue, too busy to wash a reusable cup instead of throwing out the Styrofoam one.

Economically-minded people will remind us about opportunity cost and efficient divisions of labor, as well they should. Maybe Karl’s time is better spent traveling the country and speaking about nonviolence, something that he is uniquely suited to do. Perhaps the minutes saved by going to Starbucks instead of fixing coffee at home are well worth one more cardboard sleeve in the trash and two more dollars in corporate pockets. Maybe your time really is that valuable.

Personally, I think consumer culture’s preoccupation with convenience and busyness is just another form of acquisitiveness. We want more time in the day. We take on just one more commitment. We spend, save and manage (economize?) our time – all words that, incidentally, can also be applied to money. We multitask with the neuroticism of well-intentioned comparison shoppers and pack our Google calendars like rats. The currency of greed can be minutes as well as dollars.

Time is a privilege and a limited resource. It’s important to recognize that many people do not have the power or privilege to control their own schedules, but to the degree that we do make decisions about our time, we should consider whether the price of convenience and business of busyness is worth the cost.

Rachel Kelley (HumBio ’12) loves her coffee and overstuffed schedule as much as the rest of you. You can contact her at rkelley7 [at] stanford.edu.

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3 thoughts on “Busyness Ethics

  1. Anonymous says:

    so true.

  2. Anonymous says:

    this is an interesting take on time and business. thanks for sharing.

  3. esqg says:

    Nice article. I used to wonder how other people could stand not being busy all the time. Now I actually do see “busy” as a mindset that traps you. Go figure. 🙂

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