“Busyness” as Usual

We’ve been in lockdown now for over a month. Some of us, like myself, have been laid-off, some have been furloughed, and others continue to work from home. However, contract status aside, we all do share something in common. The majority of us have had plenty more time to ourselves than our usual routines allow, and almost certainly all of us have spent more time confined within the walls of our homes than ever before. Which can, and has, proved to be quite challenging in many ways. 

The way I reacted to the suddenly imposed situation was to find ways of keeping busy. I wrote to-do lists. Lots of to-do lists. Different types of to-do lists. Yes, I’m a little bit nuts. For example, I started with a general housekeeping to do list. The next list was more about my daily routine, for example, eating more fruit and doing more exercise. Then finally, the last list was about projects for lockdown. Like learning how to do a handstand press-up – yup, that’s a genuine project (maybe i can find a way to post you all the videos of my progress). So anyway, as you can see, my reaction was to create busyness and avoid having nothing to do. 

Now after completing all my to do’s, just one month later I find myself yet again at a loose-end. I’ve bleached all the bathrooms, organised the ‘stuff draw’, re-arranged the spice rack, vacuumed under the beds, done yoga with Adriene, worked out with Joe Wicks, and I’ve even dusted off and re-strung my old guitar! Somehow, amongst all of these things, I feel that I’ve still had plenty of time on my hands (quite literally plenty of time on my hands when I’m learning to do that handstand press-up!). At the moment, the biggest decision I’m having to make on a daily basis is which kind of tea I would like. Builders or peppermint? 

It sounds like the ideal life doesn’t it? But strangely enough, I’ve found it bizarrely stressful at times. It seems no matter how many things I cross off my to do lists each day, I’m constantly teetering on that edge of boredom which then creates this frantic restlessness where I’m looking for things to keep me busy. This in turn creates stress because I’m running out of things to do! What a ridiculous cycle, eh? 

Like many of us millennial’s, I turned to Dr Google for an answer. Straight away I found an article in the Guardian. It started with a quote by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I was struck with the boldness of this statement. He reckons not just some, but “all” of humanity’s problems come from this. That’s a statement. Especially considering that he said that back in the 17th century, way before Netflix and all the other weapons of mass distraction that we are armed with today. The article goes on to describe a study at a university where they found that some people given the choice between doing nothing and giving themselves electric shocks, opted for the electric shocks. Interestingly, two thirds of all the men went for the shocks! 

What is it that frightens us about doing nothing? Why do we get anxious when we are not busy, and what is behind it? We work in busy environments, in busy places, with busy social lives. Is it possible that the bi-product of our fast-paced society is mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, panic and depression? I think it’s a quite a clear correlation really. Ironically, our busyness is usually coming from a striving to have more time to spend doing less! What a contradiction.

Now for once in our lives we actually have the time to do nothing – and in fact we are being encouraged by our government to do exactly that – we can find out what it is to face this seemingly critically important part of ourselves. So why don’t we give it a go? Allow ourselves to have time on our hands, but this time don’t wash it off. (Please do continue to wash your hands in the physical sense though, I don’t want any confusion there!).
If we do actually learn how to sit with ourselves quietly then according to the words of Blaise Pascal, this could actually be a vital opportunity for the whole of humanity. Which is much more than I think we expected from this pandemic. The question is, will we actually drop the to-do lists and switch off Netflix to face this? 

If you do find yourself beginning to get restless and it’s causing you some discomfort, then maybe look into some simple ways of dealing with it. Personally, I use mindfulness. It’s an excellent tool to use for mental health. For example, I started by simply noticing when I was feeling stressed or restless. Just simply noticed it. When I noticed it, I gently named it. So I would say “restlessness” – when I noticed I was frantically cleaning the toilet for the third time in a week. Another example was when I noticed I’d been lethargic and generally down-in-the-dumps for a whole day last week. When I tuned in I realised that there was an undercurrent of nervousness and feeling disheartened about my current financial situation. Noticing this and naming it “nervousness” helped slowly move myself away from stewing about the situation, and putting things into perspective. Really, things were nowhere near as bad as my mind was fantasising.

After spending some time becoming aware of these actions and naming them, I then began to notice how I felt in the midst of these actions. Most of the time I was tense, and there was a jumpy-franticness to me. It may be different for you. I found the best way to notice how I was feeling was by tuning into my breath. Long, deep breaths suggest feeling more relaxed, and short breaths tend to suggest stress and agitation. I began to realise that I was spending a lot of time in a state of agitation, which is mad because I’m under absolutely no pressure to do anything at all but I’m still needlessly getting myself stressed! So if you also notice similar feelings, my advice would be to just stop yourself and ask why. “Why am I busy? I’ve got more time on my hands than I’ve ever had in my life – this is madness!” It really is. It’s good to have a sense of humour about it. 

The more awareness I’ve brought to myself, the more madness I have noticed in my everyday life. Then by just simply recognising this madness, it has definitely helped to relax the undercurrents of anxiety I’ve recently experienced throughout lockdown. I really hope that this will inspire you to look into your own madness too, so that it may make the forthcoming weeks easier to manage. It’s probably best that we all do this sooner or later, as after all, we don’t know how long we will be stuck in this bizarre situation! 

In addition, if you really would like to look into this, I find meditation an excellent practice and I’d recommend to try 15 minutes each day. You can find plenty of sources online. Thich Nhat Hanh, of Plum Village in France, is easy to follow and genuinely a lovely bloke. He’d be my recommendation. Good luck!

Written by George Evans (Accredited Mindfulness Teacher and Mental Health Advocate)

Guardian article

If you think that you’d like to pursue Mindfulness further, there are many 8-week courses currently available through webcam services such as Zoom and Skype – so you can learn whilst in lockdown directly from your living room! There are many teachers out there available through this format. Mindsfirst offer packages as well as free weekly sessions, which you can check out through Instagram @mindsfirst_kerry or by simply visiting the web page