Busyness is Back: Did We Learn Nothing from Lockdown?

Busyness is Back: Did We Learn Nothing from Lockdown?
Photo by Nicolai Berntsen / Unsplash

The return to “normal” life in the UK following seemingly endless months of lockdown is welcome, to say the least. Being able to see friends and family, to visit bars and restaurants and even returning to the office now and again, after months of diminishing concentration levels at home… it’s pretty great. I can’t, however, help noticing that many of us seem to have already forgotten one of the most important lessons of lockdown: that we don’t need to be busy all the time.

So many of us wear our busyness as a badge of honour, be that at work or in our social lives, as though not having enough time is indicative of our importance or worth. Why? Are we unable to say no? Are we scared of the prospect of having time to confront the feelings and questions that may emerge if we give ourselves the brain space for just a moment? Is it a question of trying to evade our own mortality? Or are we just making up for lost time?

Prior to the pandemic, like many people, I was rushing around from one place to another, scheduling my day to a ridiculous degree and never accounting for downtime. I worked a job that meant I travelled a lot, and often woke up in one country and went to bed in another, cramming in a gym session and socialising with my friends too. I was knackered. In fact, I was so perpetually knackered that I didn’t even know just how knackered I was – my sore eyes and slightly fuzzy head were the norm.

Then, Covid struck and suddenly, as for millions all over the world, nothing. The travelling stopped, as did much of my workload. My evenings were unaccounted for. A couple of weeks into the pandemic, I was put on furlough, initially for 3 months but working in the travel sector, this lasted for much longer. It was an adjustment, and for most of us, the first few weeks were deeply anxiety-producing: just how dangerous is this pandemic? And will I ever be able to buy loo roll?

Stay safe.  One of the many street signs that have appeared, to warn people, during the current pandemic.  This one was in the high street of Shaftesbury, which has now been pedestrianised.
Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

And then something fantastic happened: I just relaxed. I began to sleep more, getting my eight hours every night for the first time in years. I woke up and did exactly what I felt like doing that day – no obligations made weeks in advance, no time pressures. I read book after book, I put time and attention into what I cooked, and I enjoyed long evenings sat on the terrace with my partner, with nowhere else to be. When things started to ease up a little, I texted local friends on the day itself to see if they fancied a walk or chilling in the park – it felt almost like being a kid again and knocking on my friend’s door to see if they fancied playing out. The freedom!

Now, I’m aware that not everyone was fortunate enough to experience the pandemic in the same way I did. For key workers, like those working for the NHS or in supermarkets, I can’t even imagine how relentless this past year and a half must have been. As we’ve all come to realise, the burden of keeping the country going fell and continues to fall on an underpaid and overworked minority – something which needs to change. And of course, more than 100,000 people in the UK alone lost their lives to this virus. For these people and their loved ones, Covid must have represented little more than a nightmare.

This noted, there are many people like myself who were fortunate enough to use this past year as a time for some much-needed recuperation, relaxation and reflection. Personally, it provided me with the opportunity to think about what it is I want from life, both in the here and now (for instance, who I actually want to spend time with) and longer-term goals (such as what I want to be doing for a living and where). It also gave me the chance to process (or begin to process) some past trauma that for a long time lay simmering under the surface, beaten down by a relentless schedule where there was little time for actually experiencing those feelings. It certainly wasn’t always pleasant, getting to know the hidden parts of myself and learning to sit with them, but it was always illuminating. I feel I know myself better and I have a clearer idea of my likes and dislikes – they’re less distorted by the noise that happens when we’re constantly on the run, filling our time with anything but the opportunity to sit, reflect and just be.

It seemed, for a while, like many were on the same page, embracing the calm and the chance to slow down. Forgive me if this sounds trite, but in the initial months of lockdown it felt like we were almost part of a collective awakening to just how mad our lives have become, how ridiculous it is for us all to be running around manically, juggling everything, scheduling each second and never just stopping to take a breathe and enjoy. We spoke of a “new normal”, where the focus would be our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet, above all else. We spoke of mindfulness and slowing down. We focussed on the small things and, for the most part, took pleasure from them. We embraced the liberty of working from home, not having to battle through a busy tube station each morning, putting us in a bad mood before we’d even digested our breakfast. The joy of long walks, shamefacedly discovering somewhere that lay right on our doorsteps but until recently had been ignored.

I’m worried that we’ve forgotten all that we learnt about the joy, nay, the necessity of slowing down. As the world is slowly opening back up, it feels like we are jumping headfirst into doing things again, and constantly. Plans are being made left, right and centre; it can feel like a game of Tetris trying to “book in” some time with friends. Rush hour has returned, as people flock back to their offices. Workloads are increasing, calendars are filling up.

I totally get it – we want to see our loved ones, we want to have fun and we want to get out of the same four walls we’ve been trapped in for the past 18 months. I’m certainly not immune to it all. But this doesn’t feel like the conscious use of time we promised ourselves we’d stick to. This “new normal” feels a lot like… well, the old normal.

I wonder if this is just a phase – now that we’re finally allowed out, are we using this summer as one last fling with busyness, before we settle down in a new, more thoughtful way of life? Or was our dabble with a slower, more reflective pace just a momentary thing that will be banished to the history books now lockdown has come to an end?

Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.

Stillpoint is an organisation that aims to make psychology more publicly accessible, through events, online content and a virtual community for the psychologically curious.

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