The other day I watched Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” for the third time. The film follows three semi-estranged brothers, Francis, Jack and Peter Whitman, who embark on a spiritual journey through India. Owen Wilson’s Francis assumes a paternal role as he plans a journey of self-discovery for his brothers and himself. Each day, Francis has his assistant deliver a laminated schedule to their private train compartment; he hopes that by having his brothers say “yes to everything,” they will become brothers like they “used to be.” Watching Francis’ obsessive attention to detail, I laughed. Anderson is known to be a control freak, and I understood his mocking as self-satire.
Though a tightly designed and controlled movie, an open and relaxed narrative unfolds — that is, until the camera captures Francis struggling to destroy one of his precious laminated itineraries. Centered in the frame, Francis attempts to tear the document with his fingers, and when that fails, he resorts to using his teeth. At this moment, I realized that Francis and I are frighteningly similar.
Over the course of my college career, I’ve spent endless hours obsessively crafting schedules: allotting time to eat my bowl of Cheerios, respond to e-mails and even when to write my schedule. No part of my day would go unplanned or unscheduled.
The only thing that got me to slow down was food poisoning from fried chicken. Or to be more specific, I devoured a large Styrofoam box’s worth of fried chicken, coleslaw, French fries and collard greens in a moving car and proceeded to throw up for the next two days. For the two weeks following the incident, I didn’t run from meeting to class to meeting and then back again. Instead, I watched movies in bed, let myself sleep in for the first time since school started and went for walks. For the first time in my life, I was proudly and comfortably channeling Dude of “The Big Lebowski.” And in that time, I began to understand what the writer Tim Kreider has said about the ubiquitous state of constant busyness: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
Being busy had become not only a way to define my self-worth, but also an excuse to avoid thinking. I did not have to think long-term or confront the fact that I am scared — and, yes, also excited — for life after college. I could avoid thinking about the other, bigger questions too.
Being busy becomes more than just filler: The chance for spontaneity gets lost along the way, too. You can’t decide to see a 4 p.m. showing of “In a World” at the Michigan Theater, or grab a last-minute train into Detroit to get BBQ at Slows. And, even more, when caught in the busy trap, we forget the importance of being idle.
In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young conducted an internal study of its employees. The firm found that “each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent.” Though seemingly counterintuitive, the study reveals the importance of rest and renewal in improving one’s productivity and job performance.
This study isn’t merely scientific justification for laziness. My own two-week stint served as a needed reminder that life is sometimes better when we slow down and take each moment as it comes. And though I know I won’t kick the scheduling habit any time soon, this time around I’ll be sure start to schedule in a few blanks.
Zoe Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.