February 25, 2014

On the agenda

Our relentlessly busy and monotonous schedules change enjoyable activities into bullet points to cross off.

Most nights of the week, I find myself walking back from one-of-a-thousand RSOs sometime between nine and midnight. In between avoiding the mud puddles and the ice slicks, my mind is busy contemplating either the latest reading that I know I won’t finish, suppressing my lingering and childish fear of the dark, or worrying that the tall stranger behind me might be a mugger or a werewolf. But if I can set my roster of worries aside in that brief time between one commitment and another, I have the rare moment to consider not just the transition from one activity to another, but my schedule as a whole.

At moments like these, I almost reflexively check the calendar on my phone—full of little blue boxes with little blue labels, overlapping on another night where I won’t get everything done. Merely getting through the endless, constant grind of busyness has become an end in itself, above and beyond the commitments that form it.

Some of this grind is habit. The days pass by and I do what I signed up for—I complain about it, put it off, avoid it if I can, and move on to the next impending semi-disaster which seems so big in my windshield, but so small in the rearview mirror. The weekly, monthly, and quarterly schedule is a merry-go-round where the music never stops, and after a while you can’t see the colors or enjoy the breeze because of the spinning.

This monotonous, dispassionate routine is such a given of winter quarter that we’ve long since stopped talking about it by the time eighth week rolls around, much less questioning its seemingly obvious origins. Yes, the parade of gray days, slush, and hopelessly plummeting temperatures is depressing, and the enormous course load doesn’t exactly help. But these are expected, and even anticipated. Rather, winter quarter feels so much darker than fall quarter because the never-ending effort of balancing everything has itself become routine.

I tell myself that I love being busy, and that’s not wrong. I find a certain pleasure in full days and late nights hunched over the seven-page paper due in six hours with five cups of super-caffeinated tea. And, generally speaking, I’m busy for good reasons—the Core requirement, self-improvement, sheer enjoyment, or even just a commitment I have to keep. The college student, and the UChicago student more than most, is constantly running from one thing to the next on far fewer hours of sleep than problems on your average P-set.

But the problem isn’t really the activities, classes, and commitments—it’s the schedule itself. Not the next choir concert, the next practice, the next set of proofs at two in the morning, but the nonstop push through these things, the endless roster, the to-do list with too many empty boxes. When simply moving through the schedule becomes something we do for its own sake, fulfillment and enjoyment are lost.

When doing everything robs the meaning from what we love, how do we decide what we still care about?

There are plenty of short, catchy, perfectly acceptable answers to this problem—mindfulness, time management, balance. But a bigger part of the solution is the realization that regardless of your commitment to the life of the mind, your discomfort with free time, or your type A personality, it is impossible to do everything. Not because of the commitments themselves or the collective time they require, but because of the mental strain the treadmill of constant activity puts you under.

Walking back from one-of-a-thousand RSOs, if I can hold off fretting over the latest P-set and convince myself that tall strangers probably aren’t muggers or werewolves, there is a certain calm that comes from an unavoidable few minutes of inactivity. Despite the race of the day, moments like this keep us sane. Struggling to maintain the things we care about against a schedule that reduces them to just one more time-sucking commitment, sometimes we need to leave space for emptiness to remember that being busy is not an end in itself.

Ellen Wiese is a first-year in the College.