The Cult of Busy-ness

A call for calm in our overwhelmed lives

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As a lawyer, I measure my days in six minute intervals. The little timer at the corner of my screen currently tells me I’ve spent 18 minutes responding to emails, 36 minutes on a conference call discussing font size and the correct spelling of the word “colour”, 1 hour and 24 minutes writing a case summary, and 42 minutes on general ‘admin’.

My performance is based on “utilisation”. When I am busy, I am sufficiently “utilised”, otherwise I have plenty of “capacity”.

Because, you know, I’m a robot.

Deciding it’s time for a six minute coffee interval, I skip over to the ancient coffee machine (producing charred-ground goo since 1998) and smile blankly at a Trainee who I don’t have time to speak to.

Whhhiiiirrrr chhuuuuuggggg, the machine says for an inordinate amount of time, as we both stand awkwardly and I try to avoid eye contact for as long as possible.

“Busy?” He asks, proffering the inevitable catch-all.

“Mmmmm… Quite busy…” is my vague response. I continue to avoid eye contact.

This is a game I know well.

The halls of my building, and many other buildings in London, are littered with similarly caffeinated juniors comparing their statistics. How “utilised” are they? How many times they have been to the gym, bikram, or night-time Portugese classes that week?

“I’m just so busy at the moment!” Their smiles are plastered on their Laura Mecier complexions and their eyes have the desperate glint of souls fragmented into a million horcruxes. The implication is that busyness equals success and achievement, and anything less, or any admission that you’d really be watching Love Island and eating a pot noodle is an admission of weakness, an enormous departure from the norm.

Emma Bridgewater, whose brand sells an image of quiet Sunday mornings with toast and marmalade, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the early age of 42, caused by the crippling stress of shouldering the financial and logistical stress of a burgeoning business and young family.

Many of us were brought up on a diet of early noughties rom-coms, where an irrepressible and plucky young woman with shiny hair (Jennifer Anniston!) lives in a big city, works in advertising, has a fantastic wardrobe and love life, and a squad of sass-talking friends. This was impossibly glamorous to our 13 year-old selves.

And, for us, after years spent climbing through degrees, unpaid internships (in our H&M suits) and zone 4 flat shares into well paid jobs, we now finally live in zone 3 (with only ONE other person!) and we buy clothes from COS and Whistles. This is obviously not an astronomical step upwards, but by golly it was hard.

In a city that often feels like a treadmill of commute, work, the gym, and Friday night drinks, busyness is the mantra and the underling whiirrrrr chuugg of our caffeinated daily lives. I am reminded of a spinning top. It’s the momentum that keeps us going. Heaven knows what happens when we stop. Who would really dare to pause, and assess whether all these things would, contrary to what our our preteen selves believed, actually make us exhausted and unhappy?

I am definitely complicit. In the past four months, I bought a flat, studied for a master’s degree, worked several 60 hour weeks, trained for a marathon, and attended two hen dos (which, for some reason unknown to neither man nor beast, entailed as much organisation, conflict, and grief as the annexation of the Sudetenland). I relished telling people about all this, more than actually doing it.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this attitude can be damaging to our mental and physical health.

Emma Bridgewater, whose brand sells an image of quiet Sunday mornings with toast and marmalade, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the early age of 42, caused by the crippling stress of shouldering the financial and logistical stress of a burgeoning business and young family.

“Stress is one of those things you don’t believe in until it sneaks up on you,” she is quoted saying. “When people told me they were stressed I’d always think, ‘Bad luck, you’re a bit of a weed.’ You don’t realise how it makes you feel.”

Would the admission that I was stressed, tired, or would really rather not schedule anything productive in to my weekend or weekday evening somehow make me feel like a ‘a bit of a weed’?

During my last pre-marathon training run, I had a pretty spectacular fall.

I heard the crunch of my phone screen, felt the skin scrape off my knee, and, for what could have been anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, I was dry heaving, hyperventilating, and pacing in circles on a residential street in Tooting, sobbing over this delay, this unscheduled, unplanned, interval.

It takes quite a while for someone to approach me. I do, in fact, look pretty insane.

She is blonde and is carrying reusable shopping bags.

“Are you training?”

I manage a squeak and a nod.

“It can all become a bit too much, can’t it?”

There is something consoling and conspiring about her. She seems to recognise the forceful, violent sensation of being halted in your tracks when it all just catches up with you. She produces an orange juice from her bag.

Relishing the sugar and beginning to regulate my breathing again, I tell myself that something needs to change. I am done with trying to be more, have more, do more. I am not going to volunteer for anything, plan any parties, sign up for any more challenges or races. I am going to ‘be’, and not beat myself up for any unaccounted for six-minute intervals, or unproductive weekends. And when that gets boring, I may go to a bikram yoga class. And then I might leave half way through. And that’s the point.

I hobble along, quite calmly.

(Illustration by Lauren Gentry)


Books For Busy People

Readers, if you’re struggling to find balance and feeling far too busy, we highly recommend you find some time to read these books – most of them come in audiobook option too so you can listen with your eyes shut.

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  • Great article Gwen and definitely something so many of us are guilty of. When we were wedding planning we got to the point of scheduling a ‘do nothing weekend’ once a month. As we embark on house renovations I think we will probably do the same! Busy doesn’t mean happy. X

    • I love the idea of a ‘do nothing weekend’ when wedding planning or renovating or just making your way through life – we could definitely write a whole post about the benefits of that!

  • Absolutely brilliant article Gwen and you’re spot on – we wear our busyness as a badge of honour and yet it can be anything but. It’s hard to stop and call time on this but I do think the world would be a happier, kinder and much calmer place if we were all a little less busy xx

    • And THIS is why I don’t feel guilty for taking an hour out of my day yesterday to do some yoga with a teacher in the comfort of my own home – with my husband! It doesn’t come easy to me not to feel guilty about stuff like this -like I should be working instead. But, doesn’t investing in more self care make us all work much more productively and fruitfully anyway? And why shouldn’t we do that in the day time, when it is convenient, instead of feeling like we have to shoehorn exercise and yoga and reading in to the end of the day by which time we’re frazzled anyway.

  • I can really relate to this Gwen, especially this week! Good luck with being less busy, we should all try to hit the reset button on our busy lives every now & then I think!

  • Gwen this is a great piece – so relatable and absolutely beautiful written. I love Alison’s idea of a ‘do nothing weekend’ and have made a mental note to make sure I do that when we start getting into the thick of doing up our new house xx

    • Its hard though isn’t it? I always end up quite jittery when I have nothing to do… There’s a happy balance somewhere I guess?

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