You Made the Hamster Wheel, Now Run In It

Do you ever have a moment where you wake up in the morning and realise you’ve become that which you’ve always feared and vowed not to become? I’ve been having lots of little moments like that this year, tumbling on top of each other and forcing me to pick apart my life and decide how I really want to live and who I really want to be. Some of the choices I’ve had to make as a result are difficult, and others have been easy — a redirection onto the right path, as it were, a refocusing of my efforts and a reminder that I need to stay true to myself.

I’ve always been troubled by what my friend Anna refers to as the ‘cult of busy’ in US society, and much of Western society in general. The insistence that you always be working, or doing something, keeping busy, constantly in a state of action. The reminder that doing nothing is bad, that you’re lazy if you aren’t in a continuous state of demonstrating your social worth.

I mocked people who always had to ‘check their schedules’ before committing to anything, who canceled because they were tired or had something come up, who had rigid, fixed lives with limited time for anything, who scheduled things out to the very minute. But at some point in the last few years, I’ve become one of those people. I have a loose schedule mapped out months into the future, and every Monday morning I sit down and schedule out my week with a degree of precision that I would have found revolting just a few years ago, prescribing exactly what I am going to do and when, down to the siestas I have to take in the middle of the day because I’m so exhausted from being busy all the time that I can’t actually stay awake through a whole day without extreme effort.

I used to lie on the lawn in the sun, doing nothing in particular. I used to read more books. I used to go down to the beach and play in the surf. I used to just be, and I somehow managed to have a work/life balance that allowed me to work, and see people I love, and also get the valuable time I needed on my own to bring myself back to centre so I wouldn’t go spinning off — something I’ve learned through long and painful experience is critical for part of my mental health management.

Yet, now I’m the person who is constantly running from thing to thing. Who says with a straight face that I will have to check my schedule to see if it’s possible to visit with a friend, and who often has to cut visits short in order to move on to the next thing. I’m jittery, distracted, unfocused, constantly jerked from one thing to the next. I take note of something I need to do around the house instead of just doing it, and it sits undone for days because I somehow can’t muster the time, or the motivation, to complete a task that would only take a few minutes.

A few months ago I was talking to a friend about spending a Saturday afternoon together, which we often do, and I was driven to find something for us to Do, some sort of structured activity, before forcing myself to realise that we didn’t have to Do something. We could just hang out, and that would be okay. We ended up spending the day in Tilden Park, companionably reading and occasionally exchanging quotes from our books while we drank iced tea and ate snacks. I, of course, fell asleep, because it was the first time in days that I’d been still for more than half an hour, and I ended up being oddly fine with that, waking only after the speakers in the botanic garden started ordering us to leave in stentorian tones.

How do we struggle out of the fixation with being busy when we’re taught from such a young age that being busy is the only way of showing our worth, and that people who aren’t constantly doing something are somehow lesser? How do we retrain not just ourselves, but the structural thinking that reveres being busy and discards other ways of life? Numerous studies indicate that being constantly busy is actually unhealthy — there’s a reason European workers, who have more vacation time structured into their lives, are both healthier and more productive. We know that driving until we drop is bad for us, and yet we keep doing it anyway, driven by the brand of bootstrapping capitalism that is the hallmark of the United States, that tells us we’re worthless unless we go, go, go.

Perhaps life wouldn’t be so overwhelming if I didn’t map out every single hour of my day, if I instead focused on building a better life for myself. Yet, every time I do so, I’m confronted with frustrating and ugly realities — if I work less, I won’t be able to sustain myself financially, if I see my friends less, I won’t be enriched by being around people I enjoy. So I trap myself inside the cult of busyness I’ve built for myself, and then I wonder why I’m exhausted and rundown all the time, why I feel like even small, simple things are beyond my capacity because I can’t figure out how to fit them into my dreaded schedule.

When I was in New Zealand, my effective lack of a schedule was oddly, and critically, freeing, giving me a chance to simply exist in the world for three weeks heedless of date, of time, focusing instead on doing what I loved when I felt like doing it. Why have I thrown that away?

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Image: busy bee, John Bennett, Flickr.