Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without one new book and several magazine articles informing us that life these days moves too fast, bombarding us with too much information, tempting us with too many electronic distractions from What Really Matters. (When it comes to warnings of "information overload", in fact, you might say we're overloaded with... oh, never mind.) We face a "coming dark age", cautions Maggie Jackson in Distracted, one of the better recent works on the topic. She fears an "attention-deficit future" in which we'll live shallow, fragmented, joyless lives, robbed of our powers of "deep focus".
It doesn't disprove this thesis to observe that people have been saying similar things at least since the invention of the telegraph. "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times," wrote the wise Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the 1960s, long before the web, or BlackBerrys, or the first use of the word "multitasking" as applied to human activity. "Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace." Were he alive today, he presumably wouldn't have a Twitter account.
There's something suspect, though, about the sheer number of experts clamouring to tell us how busy and distracted we are. We seem to enjoy hearing it. Books far inferior to Jackson's cram the business and self-help shelves, targeting "stressed executives", husbands and wives in "time-starved" marriages, "women who do too much". They promise a path to serenity, and some offer useful tips. But all subtly reaffirm the background assumption: you're insanely busy, and you'll be lucky to find five minutes for yourself.
It would smack of middle-class privilege to deny that some people really are that busy, and need to be just to survive. But what the gurus of overload only rarely acknowledge - though it's been recognised by psychologists for decades - is that, for the rest of us, busyness has payoffs. Telling ourselves we're hugely stressed makes us feel important, in demand, even energised; it also gives us permission to avoid confronting deeper issues. Distraction and overcommitment aren't simply outside forces to which we "surrender", in Merton's words; often, we welcome them in. "Being crazy-busy can contribute to a sense of self-worth," notes the psychiatrist Ed Hallowell, whose book CrazyBusy dissects the busyness addiction. "But it's a crazy way to do it."
Perhaps the biggest payoff of all, though, is that busyness is the perfect excuse: if you're convinced that you're overstretched and overwhelmed, you're spared the terrifying prospect of actually doing the things, and making the changes, that you want - or say that you want, since busyness spares you from examining that question, too. As for information overload, what if we're not as powerless to resist the draw of Facebook, 24-hour news and always-available email as we comfortably tell ourselves we are? Then, we might have to confront the possibility that there isn't an unstoppable force of technology or culture frustrating our plans and intentions. A "coming dark age" of overwhelming distraction is a scary prospect. But maybe the absence of one is even scarier.