Staying Busy

This is a COVID—19 sort of speculation. [1] The COVID pandemic and our plan to bend the curve of new infections downward has led to a lot of urging that people stay home. To help us stay home, the management of Holladay Park Plaza, the CCRC where Bette and I live, is offering residents lots of things to do, all of which can be done in the apartments. I don’t object at all. I think it’s really nice of them.

Except that when you think of it, “keeping busy” is a pretty thin way to live a life. It is a good way to buy compliance during a pandemic, but it is not, as it stands, a good rationale for choices. Keeping busy at what?” Keeping busy in what way?

junk foodWhen you come to the question of rationale, the urgency of the question “Why am I doing this?” comes immediately to mind. A famous experiment which I ran across in grad school, had students performing a meaningless task turning pegs on a board. Some are paid a little for doing it; others are not. When they are asked to come back to the lab and do it again, voluntarily this time and without pay, some said yes and some said no.

Oddly, it was the ones who had not been paid the first time who said yes. As the experimenters interpreted that response, every student when asked to come back had to provide some internally persuasive reason why they did it the first time. No problem for the ones who got paid. They knew why and knew to say no next time. But for the ones who did it for free the first time, they must have reasoned that they did it because they liked it and, given that, doing it again was perfectly reasonable. Hence, the power of the question, “Why am I doing this?”

I think the emphasis on “keeping busy,” as understandable as it is in the context of as Senior Center, is not very good advice as a rule. It is like telling a child to keep his stomach full all the time. “Full of what?” the child says. [2] Oh…whatever. Junk food is as good an nutritious food if the goal is keeping the stomach full and it is readily available. It is as readily available as junk TV. A balanced diet will not keep your stomach more full that junk food. Questions of how much fat, how much protein, how much fiber, and all that, recede into the background if the goal is to get full and stay full.

So I was thinking of a “time budget” as a kind of “diet.” [3] What do you want to fill your time with? [4] You could fill your budget with junk activities with no regard at all to the kind of effect they would have on you. We know that our diet ought to have, for instance, enough fiber. We have a rough idea of what the effects on our life will be if we do not get enough fiber. But what is a good analogy to “fiber” in our choice of activities?”

junk food 4When I first thought of this, I got as far as “junk activities” as analogous to “junk food.” But now that I am into it a little, I think it might be worthwhile to pursue further questions. What activities have the effect of providing energy, like proteins do? What activities help us dispose of waste products like fibers do? What activities have the effect of helping us build and maintain tissues? [5]

Fiber is a particularly good example because I am so dependent on routines. I will try to explain that connection. There is a good reason, at the time, for adding one routine or another, but it would take real vigilance to drop those parts of my routines that no longer serve me. The cost of that kind of vigilance is high. On the other hand, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic forces the end of a lot of routines all at once. It gives you a chance to ask the crucial question: how do these routines serve me? In that way, like fiber, they give me the chance to rid myself of waste products.

Carbohydrates give me energy as do a lot of the activities I choose to do. If I had a life in which most of the things I did drained energy from me, I would have to find some way to cope with it, but as it is, there are lots of things I could choose to do that (usually) energize me and I can think of them as the “carbohydrates” of my time budget.

So I like the idea of “keeping busy” as an aid to “maintaining social distance.” More generally, however, “keeping busy” doesn’t point to some really important distinctions, such as, what is it that the activities you are choosing are going to do for you? That is not a “how much” question like how nearly full are you. It is a “what value” question like what contribution will this choice make to your life.

I know that sounds spartan and severe. I don’t mean it that way. A certain amount of “wasting time” feels really good and is probably good for you. Still, as Ray Bradbury is known for saying, “Too much of anything isn’t good for anyone.”

[1] “Except not really.” That’s the kind of line Aaron Sorkin provides to his characters, one show after another. We’ve been watching The West Wing again because it is part of Holladay Park Plaza’s plan to keep the residents “busy” and in their apartments. Watching it all again, I see that Toby, Sam, and Josh all use that formula.
[2] I don’t know if that is what your child would have said, but three out of my three children would and did.
[3] Interestingly enough, the English word “diet,” (the noun, not the verb) derives from a Greek word diaitasthai, meaning “to lead one’s life,” That is exactly the meaning I stumbled into in this essay.  A “budget,” on the other hand is nothing but a bag.
[4] You could say, of course, that you don’t really want your schedule to be full so you program some “not doing anything time” into it. And then it is full again. You really do have to spend all the time there is. Spending less time is not a possibility
[5] I am taking “tissues” to be everything above and beyond the skeleton. That’s probably not wildly wrong, so far as physiology is concerned, and it fits nicely with my sense of what the “skeleton” of my daily life is.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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