Learning to be un-busy

I read something the other week about how 29 is the age at which people are busiest. I was definitely busy at 29; busy with work, and home renovations, and fitting in dinners with equally busy friends, and then a bit more work. And now I am 30, and I am not busy. I’m not really all that busy at all.

And it comes down mostly to the work. Because by 29, after six years in the workplace, I’d got really good at being busy. I’d taken maybe three lunch breaks in the space of a year, and felt incredibly guilty about all of them. My laptop keyboard was a disgusting mess of spilled lunches and catastrophic tea-spills that had all occurred while I tried very hard to get important tasks done while gaining nourishment.

I was used to getting to work in the morning and looking at the series of meetings in my calendar, trying to plan out how to fit the actual work in around them. I had plans, and plans for plans, and other people’s plans that ran almost a year into the future. It was all divided up, and it was all mapped out.

And then I went freelance. And suddenly, my time was my own again.

Admittedly, I came into the freelance thing by a slightly odd route. There was the total nervous breakdown that precipitated the change, and meant that I spent months being the very opposite of busy. And as I came out of it, I struggled to work out what the hell to do with myself.

Between all the meetings, and the desk lunches, and the midnight email responses, I’d convinced myself that I needed to be busy to be achieving things, and to be a worthwhile human. Because if I wasn’t busy all the time, then what the hell was I doing with my time? Surely I was just wasting it, faffing about doing totally unnecessary stuff?

For months, I was terrified by the fact that I’d wake up on a Monday morning with very little idea of what my week was going to look like. The pillars by which I’d judged time – the Monday editorial call, the Wednesday programme board, the Friday team call – had all disappeared. There was no structure. There was no certainty. There was just this huge expanse of time, and no indication of what was going to happen in it.

As I recovered and started picking up bits of work again, I struggled with my own brain in a whole new way. I was determined that I wasn’t going to get all over-excited and burn out after a few weeks of doing way too much stuff. So I promised myself that I would be purposefully un-busy, and would keep time in my day to do non-work things.

And my brain absolutely bloody hated it. It spent weeks telling me that I should be working at all available times. I felt guilty if I sat down to watch some TV with my lunch. I’d go out for walks and feel like I needed to justify them as “thinking time” (although I have since discovered that walking and thinking are excellent companions.) I had to force myself to step away from my laptop with the kind of willpower I haven’t used since I gave up smoking.

But eventually, after weeks of “sitting quietly” when I was really gripped with terror that I was ruining my own life and career because I wasn’t sending out emails all the bloody time, I got a bit more used to it. Slowly, it became less uncomfortable to do things that weren’t work on a Tuesday afternoon. I started to become OK with having a daily to-do list, rather than one which ran six months into the future. And I started to even like my new life.

The Monday mornings stopped being quite so terrifying and started being something to look forward to. I’d wake up, and I could do anything I felt like doing. I could fit my work around my life, rather than having to try and cram life into the tiny slivers of time I could claw back from my blackberry.

I could take myself out for a cup of tea, and sit and read. I could knit in front of BBC history documentaries. I could walk around the house reading out the dialogue from my novel, confusing my cats in the process.

And I realised something I should’ve worked out years ago. My impulse when incredibly stressed is to DO MORE STUFF. Take on more tasks. Be more busy. Squeeze out every moment of available time and fill it with THINGS so that I don’t have to think about whatever the hell it is that’s stressing me out. And it doesn’t work. I just keep barreling forwards at ever-increasing speed until I crash.

So now I’m making a conscious choice to opt for a quieter, more boring, less busy kind of life. A life where I can spend half an hour just looking out the window and it doesn’t matter. A life where I can let my phone battery die without panicking that my career and life are dying with it. A life where I actually let myself have a life.

It’s still a bit of a struggle at times, and I still have to fight the impulse to overcommit. But I’m working on it. And I’m sure I’ll get there, even if my cats would rather I spent more time doing Stuff and less time talking at them. It’s such a hard life when you’re feline.

2 thoughts on “Learning to be un-busy

  1. Oh man, having that…nothingness time is absolutely necessary for me at times. I lose sight of that once in a while and the negative build up within me becomes almost unbearable. Unfortunately, it usually takes me getting to a sort of low in order to remember that I need some “me” time. Just me and nothing else. Thanks for the reminder. I needed that.


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