Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 11, 2009

Busy Work, Signifying Nothing

” Writing had filled the morning in satisfying ways, but in the harsh light of noon I saw what I’d done as busy work, signifying nothing, meaningless activity with a pretense to meaning.”

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (pg. 139)

I am pricked by my conscience when I read this: challenged to re-see what I do to spend my days.

First of all, I am challenged to willingly take up more self-discipline in my life– including my prayer life, where I might begin to use a published breviary/daily text, or some other 3x/day system to stay on track. I do not like structure, but that’s exactly why I need it.  Those monks and nuns really had something back then (and still today): talking to God should not be an interruption of one’s day, but a continuation of an ongoing habit. (no nun pun intended here…)

But most of all, reading the above passage, I become concerned –whether appropriately or out of guilt, in another narcisissistic act of self-flagellation — that I am addicted to “meaningless activity with a pretense to meaning”. Not necessarily by anxious writing or a  multiplication of unnecessary words, like Kathleen, but by other “busy work”… through errands and reading and blogging and gardening and music and emailing and facebooking and movies and all the ways that I try to fill up my mind with distraction from the work I really OUGHT to be doing FIRST.

Sometimes I put off unpleasant work that I’m actually being paid to do in the here and now, in order to prepare for or move toward something vague but much more pleasant in the future. Or I self-sabotage: I delay putting plans in place now that are necessary in order to have success in the near future (such as by registering for a writing & publishing conference this summer, or following through on some pro-bono consulting that might lead to an actual employment opportunity, or getting a less costly medical insurance package for myself and Graham… as the price for my wife’s mediocre plan from her job is rising by up to 15% next year. )

In the employee review that Mark the Manager is giving to Mark the Employee (and often in the grade I’m getting from my wife), I’m getting a passing grade, but just barely. Therefore, how can I get more good work done, while cutting down on the meaningless “busy work”?


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