Time (observations of a busy life)

I’m going away on Friday. The trip is part leisure, part business. I’m 100% comfortable with that, because as has been written about so much of late, there is no leisure time. Personal and work now merge as one. Nevertheless, you know the way it goes in the lead up to going away. You can’t wait, but you also know how much stress it’s going to involve, trying in vain to tie up all those loose ends.

Yet since I last went away, quite a lot has changed. I’ve changed. And so has my life. I’ve been on a whole heap of workshops, talks and courses — from psychology to psychotherapy, rom philosophy to shamanism, from meditation to breath work — you name it; I’ve probably been doing it. I’m therefore in a slightly different space. Let’s call it more self-aware, because these things are so difficult to describe. And as a result, I’ve been watching myself these past few days and asking some questions in response to my pre-holiday behaviour. Is stress an inevitable part of the process, or do we go out of our way to purposely create it, create drama for ourselves? I wanted to share some of my observations with you, in case it resonates and helps you too, in some way.

It’s been 2.5 years since I last had a proper break and I wanted to be ready, prepared, organised. I also wanted the lead up to be stress-free, not like it’s been in previous years — always frantic. My partner and I were in full time employment in central London, leaving the house at 6am, returning at 7.30pm, if we were lucky. I’d have packed in social arrangements and god knows what else in the weeks and days leading up to each holiday, just to really push the boundaries, see how much I could pack in, test myself. Or perhaps I just never stopped to think about what I was doing, the internal chaos I was creating? More likely I was on the auto-pilot that busyness dictates.

Yet despite all the workshops and the heightened self-awareness, here I was, back in exactly the same space now as I had been back then. I’d created a scenario where not only did I face a massively busy week with work (unavoidable), but amongst other things, I’d also managed to book in a full 2 day workshop on Mental Health First Aid For The Workplace (avoidable), an evening yoga refresher across the other side of London (avoidable), as well as seeing a friend’s play and my parents staying.

So I looked at my diary and thought, WFT. Same patterns = same stress levels = dissatisfaction and unnecessary exhaustion. I’d caught myself out.

Yet with a bit of reorganising, I knew I could make this much, much easier on myself. So I cancelled. Loads of it. I changed dates around and I cleared my diary, leaving me with 4 free evenings and relatively easy days, mostly working from my home office. It was a revelation. So much so, it felt too easy.

Great, end of story. So you’d think, right?

It certainly started well. I’m leaving on Friday and yesterday I achieved a lot on my to-do list. Today is Wednesday and I’m pretty prepared — so much so, that this morning I had time on my hands.

And there you have it. Time.

Time during the week when you know everyone else is hard at it. Everyone else is out there writing a book, doing a talk, going to a big meeting that may change their life, striking a deal, changing the world, making important decisions about their child’s future. And me? I had time.

Time meant that little doubts started to creep into my head. What was I doing with my life? Why wasn’t I running around at 100mph like everyone else? What a loser, all this time on my hands. Why wasn’t I making more of a success of every project I had on the go? Why wasn’t I making 20 business calls to secure sales over the coming months. Why wasn’t I thinking of more ways to collaborate on fantastic projects that could make a difference to people’s lives? What a loser.

I considered turning on the radio on to drown them all out. All those thoughts.

Then, I caught myself again. I watched and observed what was happening, what I was doing to myself, just like I’d been taught in all those wonderful workshops.

You see, time is an awful thing for people like you and me who do too much. I include you in this as it’s undoubtedly most of the Western population at this moment in history. We’re all doing too much. Why? Because time on our hands means time with ourselves. Time for doubts, time for sabotage. Having time is a truly messy, uncomfortable business. On clearing my diary, the space I’d worked so hard to create, suddenly became sabotaged by fear, by the lack of structure. We’re not even talking about lots of time here, it was 30 mins at most. And it was only 8.30am.

Yet I began to feel lost without something I could define as meaningful (whatever that is) to fill that time with. What most of us tend to do in order to avoid experiencing these feelings, is we develop strategies to cope with these fears. The fears of being with ourselves. It’s called avoidance.

It’s not conscious, you understand. We’re just continually on auto-pilot. I should know, I’ve spent most of my life on it, immediately rushing to fill our time with projects and activities so that we can feel secure again. Feel needed. Feel important. Feel loved. Feel wanted. We don’t know how to ‘be’.

What are we afraid of?

Ourselves. Our all-consuming, negative thoughts. Of boredom — having nothing to do. Of being no one. Of being racked with our own insecurities. I see it everywhere. I see it with my partner, I see it with an old school friend, I see it with my mother. Do, do, do. Whatever you do, don’t dare have any time to spare, to be alone. To think. To be. It’s the path to madness.

It’s been said, many a time, that busyness is often a subtle form of procrastination. It’s what keeps us away from what we really need to be doing. And what do we need to be doing? Well, it’s not for me to tell you, the most effective way is to discover this yourself, but here’s my advice to you. Next time you catch yourself, as I have, with precious time on your hands, and before filling it with being busy for busy’s sake, stop. Ask yourself:

What do I really need?

And if you find the answer is ‘being with myself’, don’t be afraid. Work out a way to master this time alone and it will be the greatest gift you ever gave yourself. And if you don’t find that’s the answer — ignore everything else, because it should be!! So pull up a chair, sit in an upright position with your arms by your side, close your eyes and breathe. Be light, be humorous, don’t be too serious, even try a smile. Focus on your breath, allow yourself to slow down and calm the manic/fearful/crazy/insecure thoughts. Whilst this may sound strange at first, it isn’t. It will take time. We’re programmed to make it difficult on ourselves, so it’s natural to feel like this. Simply focus on being there, where nothing else matters. At first you’ll find it unsettling, or boring. You’ll think up a million reasons not to do it. That’s normal too. This will take practice like anything in life. Start small, with 2 minutes and build up and after a while you’ll find this time alone is both incredibly soothing as well as energising. I can say with 100% conviction that it’s possibly the most important thing I’ve ever learnt.

And after taking the time this morning to do this, I feel 100 times better than I did before. All those thoughts of ‘right, where’s that suitcase, washing to do, podcast to listen to, blog to write, client to call, workshop to create, taxi to book?’ have not gone away. I’m now just looking at things, and myself, with an altogether better, clearer, more sorted space. I feel calmer, the insecurity has shifted. I am myself, I am settled, I am easier on myself. And when I feel enough, the world feels enough.

So embrace that time. And good luck to you.