For many of us, life is a series of commitments – whether that’s social events, family gatherings or work-related meetings. Lockdown has meant that our diaries are suddenly empty, and for those of us with busy lives, the stark change has been difficult to adjust to. But for others, it’s been a wake-up call.
Rather than lamenting the loss of a packed calendar, some people have found that the quieter, slower life imposed by the coronavirus lockdown offered a much-needed break.
Imthiaz Rehman always used to plan his life to the tiniest degree. The 30-year-old, who lives with a housemate in south-east London, filled every window on his calendar and was always thinking about the next project or event.
“I could be a really obsessive diary planner,” he says. “I would plan all of my work on Outlook and I had a really unhealthy habit of planning my whole life on Google calendar.
“So I’d be working long hours, then I’d be doing things like self-improvement courses in my own time, as well as bits of writing and seeing friends. I never had any free time – it was always one thing after another.”
Imthiaz’s background is in working in communications for charities, but he left his job before lockdown, with plans to go travelling. True to form, his travel plans were meticulously laid out in his Google calendar.
“I would obsess and think about where I’d go, how much things cost, and what was on my to-do list. It almost felt like work,” he says. Of course, when the nationwide lockdown was announced to slow the spread of Covid-19, Imthiaz’s travel plans were off – and he found himself surprised at how little disappointment he felt: “Not having anything in my calendar was a blessing in disguise.”
It wasn’t an easy transition, though. The first thing Imthiaz felt when lockdown was announced was “an overwhelming sense of panic and dread”, because of the gravity of the situation, and the uncertainty about what life would look like.
Panic was followed by boredom – something he hadn’t felt in a while.
“Being bored does strange things to you,” says Imthiaz. “I was doing things just to take up my time, like online yoga classes and running. I’ve never done them before. They really lifted my mood and made me feel less stressed, it was like all my self-inflicted pressure had been lifted.”
He’d become caught up in the “sense of urgency” he thinks comes with being a young professional in a big city. “I think a lot of people my age are in the mind-set of living in the rat race and always trying to push yourself,” he says. “But one of the unintended consequences of the pandemic is that we’ve had to develop a bit of self-awareness.”
A couple of weeks into the “new normal”, Imthiaz realised that taking a break was something he’d never done before – and that he didn’t miss his old way of life.
“The things I’ve been doing during lockdown have been better for me than had I been going on holiday. It’s made me think about what’s really important in life.”
Hayley Comber-Berry, 35, found the lockdown taught her the need for a work-life balance. The self-employed designer lives in Sussex with her wife and dog – but says it was often her laptop getting the most attention.
“When you work for yourself, you never really switch off, because there’s this guilt that if you’re not responding to messages or posting on social media, you’re missing out on work,” she says.
“It’s quite an emotional rollercoaster – you can get a big job and be really busy, then have two or three months where there’s nothing. It’s feast or famine. I guess by always keeping busy, I didn’t have to think too much about that. I literally tried to cram in as much as possible to get myself out there. But I had a lot of social fatigue because it was so constant.”
Hayley’s lifestyle didn’t seem so problematic, she says, because a lot of her friends are also self-employed. But the lockdown forced her to reassess, especially as her line of work is design and branding for the wedding industry, which took a big hit when coronavirus forced the cancellation of weddings nationwide.
Initially, like Imthiaz, she panicked, and spent “two weeks crying and having no idea what to do with my life”.
“The bottom fell out of that industry overnight,” she continues. “I suddenly had to cancel all my plans, and all around me events and networking meetings were being cancelled. Some companies I work with were getting all this emotion from brides because we don’t know what’s going to happen, there are no answers. People who were going to book me for jobs suddenly said they can’t.”
Hayley was able to receive financial help from the government when her last job ended, and is now taking her business in a different direction.
“I’ve had this feeling since last year that I was done doing design – I wasn’t enjoying it as much anymore,” she says.
“Being so busy, I didn’t have to face that feeling. But I’ve been forced to stop and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. What I’m doing now is setting up a membership community for wedding suppliers to teach them marketing and PR.”
She’s also going to prioritise days off and downtime as much as work. “I feel like I’ve got my work-life balance back. I’m taking days off to spend with my wife, which I wouldn’t have done before because I felt too guilty,” she says. “But it’s made me see that there’s more to life than work and business.
“This has been a life-changing experience. I’ve processed all of the negative things I’ve been hiding, and I feel so much happier and more content.”
For Liz Pusey, 37, who lives near Southampton with her husband and daughter, keeping busy all the time and having a full diary was a way of staving off anxiety.
“I’ve always been someone who naturally finds things to do,” she says. “I am very much a people pleaser, and I’m quite social.
Liz also struggled with negative feelings about the idea of doing nothing. “I always felt that was unproductive, so I had to fill the space,” she says.
“When lockdown hit, it was a really big shift. The schools closed, a lot of my work stopped, and we were home all the time. The first couple of weeks were a novelty, it was really nice to enjoy a bit of relaxation, but then I found myself really low and irritable and resenting the fact I didn’t have a minute to myself because there were always people in the house.”
Now, almost 12 weeks into lockdown, Liz is trying to retrain herself to enjoy downtime. “I’m trying to actively enjoy not doing as much,” she says. “If my daughter wants to play inside or we stay in our pyjamas playing board games, that’s fine. I’m even enjoying it.”
It helps that Liz’s husband has always found it easy to relax. “He’s the complete opposite of me, he’s very good at sitting down and saying, ‘I’m exhausted, I’m not going to do anything this evening,'” she says. “I’m trying to learn from him because he doesn’t feel guilty, and he hasn’t missed out on anything, so I shouldn’t feel like that.”
Psychotherapist and author of the The Phone Addiction Workbook, Hilda Burke, says she sees several clients who, like Liz, feel guilty about doing nothing.
“They’ve often received messages when they were younger, like hearing other people described as lazy, and that would have been the worst insult,” she explains.
“These messages are deeply ingrained. In the back of someone’s mind, laziness equals bad person. So being busy becomes something to strive for, because being busy means you’re important. That can lead to overscheduling not just with work, but it overlaps into their social life with cramming things in and never turning down an invitation.”
Hilda isn’t surprised that some people are finding lockdown “relaxing and therapeutic”.
“There’s a comfort in knowing you’re not missing out on anything, because nobody is really doing much,” she says. “Nobody can accuse you of not being productive.”
In terms of keeping a healthier balance as we transition back into “normal” life, Hilda advises identifying the things you learned in lockdown that you want to continue with.
“Maybe that’s saving one or two evenings, or a day at the weekend, to do nothing,” she says. “It could be ensuring you work your scheduled hours and finishing on time. It may require conversations with a boss, or with friends, about things you want to do less of.
“It’s about managing people’s expectations – share with your friends, family or colleagues what you learned in lockdown and what you want to continue with.”
For Imthiaz – and the others interviewed – there’s no question that things will be different. “I’ve got more freedom in my life,” he says. “I’m definitely going to slow down.”