I wouldn’t say I’m a very busy person. On a weekday, the ideal schedule might be:
5.30am: head to the yoga studio. Quickly shower and avoid small talk to make it into work for 9am, with a coffee. Work through lunch, grabbing a sandwich. Leave work early (at 6.30pm) to catch-up with a friend. She’s training for a triathalon, interviewing for law firms, sponsored by a protein company to post gym photos, things with her boyfriend are getting serious. A sociable bottle later, home to flatmate lying on the sofa. He says he’s waiting up for a work email. It’s 1am, and the look in his eyes isn’t maniacal – it’s smug. I feel a pang of guilt for going to bed – a creeping sense that it’s not enough (or, I’m not enough). I’m exhausted. Should I be doing a triathalon?
Perhaps it was there at university too, but muddling through the lonely swarm that is corporate London, I’ve never felt more keenly a pressure to be ‘busy’. From the mad race to get employed to assembling a social life in London – the messages of “oh I’m sooooo sorry, I’ve been too busy to answer [for three months]”, and posts of “BRB, working on my #boss goals” somehow started to translate as a form of social status: I’m too busy being successful 24/7 to spend time with anyone (who isn’t a part of that success). The question “so, what are you doing now you’ve graduated?” became internalised as a crushing reminder of my failure as a human being.
“Muddling through the lonely swarm that is corporate London, I’ve never felt more keenly a pressure to be ‘busy’”
I don’t want to sound resentful. For one, being busy for stretches of time enhances productivity for many people; though the side effects are typically devastating – the fatigue from the intensity of exam period requires weeks of recovery. I think we all thought our working lives would be different – less intense, more controlled, measured comfortably within the 9-5.
But there are no such obvious goalposts as exams and term time in the competitive workplace: as a more senior colleague once wryly pointed out, if you want a promotion more than the graduate next to you, you might stay in the office that extra hour. It’s not about relative efficiency, or working hours based around your needs – it’s about being seen as ‘busier’ than those around you, it’s putting in face-time for your goals. Perception, regardless of its accuracy, forms the greater part of reality. And if everyone on your Instagram is complaining of no sleep, smashing deadlines, too much socialising, it’s understandable that we feel that – in order to be valuable – we have to be doing the same. All of the time.
As our downtime diminishes, there soon emerges a choice to be made between self-care and what society constitutes as ‘success’ – which has very little to do with talent. We can’t be exhausted, when, after all, we’re only doing what everyone else is doing.
I’d suck this up and accept it as a Reality of Adult Life, alongside water bills and unplanned overdraft charges. That is, if it weren’t for the sheer amount of time we spend mindlessly scrolling through feeds, timelines, posts, witnessing how busy everyone is – in a sad paradox which simultaneously defeats and preserves the status quo of ‘busy’ as the ideal way of being. It’s this something of the absurd which gets to me – why would destroying ourselves with constant activity (and notifying everyone else of the constant stuff we’re doing) make us worth any more than anyone else?
“Why would destroying ourselves with constant activity (and notifying everyone else of the constant stuff we’re doing) make us worth any more than anyone else?”
In the midst of all this clutter, living with space can meet resistance – and all the baggage and guilt of an industry which has emerged to convince us that every second not bettering ourselves is a second wasted (wellbeing, self-improvement, yoga, synthesised audiobooks). Somewhere along the line, taking care of ourselves became a private, shameful process, and our selves became occupied by the pressure to be preoccupied. Not to be governed by our schedules is an underrated freedom, and a luxury where we find it – restructuring the expectations of ourselves, slowing down and reclaiming the empty, hanging time between gives us the space to plot the path ahead. It is our own time, after all.
I created the Word document for this article seven months ago – I was just too busy to finish it.