There is a certain memory I reflect on often.
For me, it’s a perfect snapshot of time. Presenting for a group of mostly retirees, I showed photos depicting the Harlem Renaissance.
In that moment, I was completely engaged with the group. I wasn’t thinking about all the other things to do.
That was almost a decade ago, and it certainly wasn’t the last time I felt that way. The reason I regularly recall that moment is because one image encapsulated the way we used to cherish a bit of free time.
The photo, taken in the early 1940s, shows a group of black men attending a baseball game in a large Midwestern city. Each is decked out in his Sunday best.
We discussed how the picture illustrated the social, cultural and economic momentum of the Great Migration of blacks from the Deep South to northern cities. We also noted that for millions of Americans of many backgrounds, the era marked a time of greater access to free time and disposable income.
Perhaps each man earned a living wage by working 12-hour days, six days per week. Whatever limitations might have been imposed on access and schedules, the men pictured seemed to appreciate an afternoon at a ballgame. We remarked on their apparent excitement and ease.
Over the years, I think of this when I mark time. I do struggle not to feel too busy and rushed. I must remind myself to appreciate free time and time in general. I try not to admonish myself for “unproductive” chunks of the day.
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I could beg off; we’re all busy. We’re more casual than we used to be. We arrive when we’re able. We no longer don our best for outings, airline travel or even religious services. We do the best we can.
However, I know I’m not. It’s not that I have fewer events that rise to the level of special occasion; it’s that I don’t necessarily acknowledge all the things that are special.
Busyness, multitasking and creeping casualness are common. We outfit ourselves to roll through our days, cramming in as much as possible, arranging our lives around to-do lists.
In the United States, we work longer hours than at any time since statistics were kept, according to ABC News. We also work longer than anyone else in the industrialized world — at a time when other nations enact laws to prevent work from infringing on citizens’ private lives.
It doesn’t matter that we have access to copious evidence that we should slow down, take care of ourselves and appreciate the world around us.
Consider multitasking, which most popular wisdom cautions against. The mountain of research denouncing the practice includes a Stanford study that shows multitasking impairs focus on a single task and “allows goal-irrelevant information to compete with goal-relevant information.”
“I spent a lot of time being busy,” Julian Miller of Learnmetrics told Inc. magazine. “Some of that time was productive, but more was spent playing managerial Whack-a-Mole. The problem with Whack-a-Mole is that it kept me reactionary. To avoid this, I start every day by writing down my top three growth goals, and I deal only with tasks or interruptions that serve the top goal until it is completed. Then I move down to the next item on my list.”
In a busy culture that values multitasking and reveres people who can accomplish a superhuman work output, it’s tough to follow Miller’s example. I delude myself into believing I’m the one in 100 who’s great at multitasking. I promise myself I’ll check off “balanced life” on my to-do list — later.