(Disclaimer: Noting that anyone with a bit of free time is pretty lucky, and that many people, from CEO banker wankers to security guards on night shifts, don’t usually find themselves unexpectedly back in the suburbs due to political crises in South America, with too much time and an excessively restful sleeping schedule)
Having cut short the Bolivia trip, I find myself back home with nothing to do. Well, not nothing to do. I’m here until I go to Lyon for around the 8th Jan, and my list so far consists of:
- Seeing my boyfriend, at his university during term time and in our home city during his vacation
- Visiting friends in Cambridge and London, and possibly going to other universities / going out into town when my friends are back
- Reading for and writing the Year Abroad Project – this counts for a part of my final mark, and is an 8000 word essay
- Finishing the two videos I was making in Bolivia
- Going running, cooking, reading, sleeping
But basically, not very much. Immediately I feel a familiar sense of guilt: years of doing the whole high achieving, A*, multiple extra-curriculars, active social life shebang, means I inevitably suffer a bit of identity loss whenever there’s a blank in my calendar. Both at school and at Cambridge I would get (over)involved in a huge number of activities, and it would be rare to find myself with absolutely nothing to do for half an hour or so. Usually I’m happy with this state of things – student journalism, politics, music, sport, friends, going out, theatre / comedy, charity or volunteering projects, are all great etc. etc. – but it only works on the basis that term ends & I can go home and stop. Unfortunately, I’ve been informed that adult life isn’t arranged in neat 8 week terms, and so I am trying to learn to live in a vaguely sustainable fashion.
I’m trying to not locate myself in the same circle on the Venn diagram of life as someone like Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, who sleeps for about 4 hours a night, in order to maximise his output. Happily, we have seen a backlash against the fetishisation of the valuable life as the productive life: for example, the viral essay by Jenny Odell, ‘how to do nothing‘. And yet still my various social media feeds are clogged up with ‘How to Get More Done: 22 Productivity Tips from an Entrepeneur!’ In real life too people spread the gospel, moaning about how ‘unproductive’ they’ve been, as if it is reasonable to compare yourself to a 1-person Ford’s Motorcar Factory, or doing the casual ‘Oh SOOOOO bUsy! humblebrag.
Much of the time, this busyness is also pointlessness. I recently heard the phrase ‘busywork’ for the first time:
- n.Activity, such as schoolwork or office work, meant to take up time but not necessarily yield productive results.
- n.active work of little value, performed merely to occupy time, avoid boredom, or to look busy.
But the person who used it to me (eyes gleaming) seemed to say it with pride.
Making yourself busy all the time means there is a lot of white noise in your brain, which often blocks good judgement. It’s hard to work out what you ‘really’ want to do when you are constantly distracted. I realise this may only get harder, especially for me as a woman, if I have children one day. (The Pram in the Hall stuff). The little dopamine kicks that come with ‘achieving’ lots of little daily activities get you hooked on being busybusybusy, while what you’re really interested in rests just beyond your reach. Here’s a list of things that you can’t do in a day (or very well in a day):
- Read a long book
- Learn a language
- Bring a child to gestation (because technically you can have a baby in a day)
- Write a novel
- Maintain a romantic relationship
- Develop a meaningful friendship
- Make a documentary
- Have some kind of scientific breakthrough
- Master French cookery techniques / set of phrases for when cookery goes wrong (hein! my poulet is burning)
Life in Bolivia was (for me) slower. Although I did a lot of travelling in South America, it was at nothing like the frantic pace of studying at Cambridge. I read 26 books in three months – not because I was rushing the reading, but because I had so much time. There’s not much that’s good about a country descending into proto-civil war, but it does give you a lot of time to read. Most weeks I would talk to my boyfriend for 90 minutes every day, or at least every other day, because of all the time – a happy relationship and reading, what more could you need? Adopting ‘la hora Boliviana’ has made me feel less enslaved to a timetable, more relaxed about the clock. If it’s important to meet someone on time – they’re a busy, or you’re catching a train – then I’ll keep making an effort, but I’ll be less frustrated with myself if I am five minutes late to a lecture, or to meet a group of friends. Nobody’s going to die!
Starting this blog has also been a surprisingly good antidote for Productivitis. I feel no sense of obligation in writing it, and have been careful to not set any particular goal or expectation for myself; I’m doing it because I write already for pleasure, so a bit of this might as well go somewhere. At some point I might look into monetising it, but I feel wary of this – will I then feel a duty towards professionalism? So far, it hasn’t been especially formal or well-researched, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. We’ll see. At least at the moment I have time to think about it.