CM Magazine Cover
From Vol. 1, Issue 9, September 2019

Beyond ‘busyness’: Embracing the present


View PDF Back to Latest Issue

Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. 

Seneca,  On the Shortness of Life 

We’re living in an epidemic of busyness. I experience this personally. At times, I look at my schedule and wonder how I will stay alert enough to get to it all. 

Busyness as a badge of honor 

For some, busyness is a badge of honor. Not me. I refused a new form of busyness at my office: Colleagues asked if I would join Slack, a workplace messaging app where short texts are shared all day. I said no, I can’t add another form of communication—and distraction—to my full plate. (As Seneca writes, “The distracted mind takes in nothing deeply.”) 

Doing what is meaningful 

There are times when this busyness feels productive, and other times when it simply feels overwhelming. I agree with Seneca’s idea that we should ideally spend our time on our own needs and plan to do what is most meaningful. And yet… I do need to care for my children. And I do live in California, which means a high cost of living. And I do like the work I trained for, which requires coworkers and deliverables. 

Being present 

I think there’s another interpretation of Seneca. In order to feel less “crazy-busy” and stressed, we can focus on fully experiencing the present moment, and enjoying the process of whatever we are doing. (The translation by Gareth D. Williams says people have “a loathing of the present”—even more extreme than the quote above.) 

It’s something we can strive for daily. For example, when I was starting my career, I found meetings stressful. I could feel my face growing hot. My throat tightened as I rehearsed in my mind what I would say. I worried, “Will my coworkers think I’m stupid, or naive?” 

Now, I’ve let go of much of that fear, and I try to enjoy even the least stimulating meetings. I take a step back and ask, how can I contribute? Not to appear “smart,” but to share what knowledge I already have? How can I provide a fresh perspective of my own? 

Following the Stoic insight that we can’t control what others think of us, I’m no longer so fearful about impressing people, nor do I spend hours over-preparing. It’s enough to be fully present and devoted to examining the issue at hand with my full attention. That can be intellectually stimulating in itself. 

Living every day as your last 

To Seneca’s point about planning our days as if they were our last: Each person has to determine what that looks like for herself or himself. Despite the craziness of my days, I live, for the most part, with the habits and activities—and people—I have chosen. In that sense, I would do much of it in the same way (minus just a few of those meetings). 

Meredith Kunz is a Silicon Valley-based writer. 

@thestoicwoman on Twitter