Seán Moncrieff: After a lifetime of it, I am addicted to busyness

There’s an undeniable dopamine hit from having a list of things to do, and getting them done

Just before Christmas, myself and Herself celebrated our wedding anniversary. Except that it wasn’t — the anniversary was six months previously. But at that time, I’d fallen through some decking and wrecked my leg. And it turned out that me being able to walk properly was an unexpectedly crucial factor in the enjoyability of the night.

So, we waited until December, which gave us plenty of time to calibrate the various school pickups, transportation to aunt’s houses and dog-minding, all of which involved the assistance of various daughters. But the arrangements went well, so we were able to book into a nice hotel in the centre of town and go for a fabulous dinner.

It seems terribly wanton to pay for a hotel that’s only a half-hour away from our house: which is part of the point. It’s also the internationalism of such places. When we were inside it, it felt a little like we’d travelled to another country: which in turn had an effect on our perception of time. We were only away for a night, but, in a good way, it felt much longer. And only afterwards did we think that marking our anniversary six months late had no effect on our enjoyment of it. We might do it in December every year.

When we arrived home, Daughter Number One, who had been minding the dog, felt like we’d been gone five minutes. She and Granddaughter Number One and the boyfriend went back to their place, and Herself went off to her sister’s house to collect Daughter Number Four.


So, while everyone scattered off to do stuff, I — suddenly, and highly unusually — had the house to myself. I gave the place a hoover. There was a little bit of ironing. But after that, I realised that I had nothing to do.

I never have nothing to do.

In theory, I’m all in favour of doing nothing. It’s good for your mental health to come to a slow, gentle halt. To let the mind wonder, to defy the relentless onward motion of modern life. In practice, it made me feel agitated, even slightly guilty: I was plagued with that sense there was something terribly important that I’d forgotten to do. This was only for a few hours, but time slowed down to a torturous crawl.

There’s an undeniable dopamine hit from having a list of things to do, and getting them done

Now I don’t think that this is because I have an abiding horror of being alone with my own thoughts. I quite like my own thoughts. Nor am I a particularly anxious person. But after a lifetime of it, I have become addicted to busyness. There’s an undeniable dopamine hit from having a list of things to do, and getting them done; and an ingrained sense of what speed certain parts of the day are supposed to move at, largely based on what things will need doing. When that is upset, it feels wrong.

And no: this isn’t the bit where I declare that my new year’s resolution is to rush off and do a mindfulness course. Because I don’t feel the need for it. Everyone has their own psychic balance; and if it doesn’t feel particularly broken, if it’s not making you unhappy or damaging your relationships, then don’t try and fix it. Trying to fix it can actually make it worse: an American study of anxious people who were led through relaxation exercises found that they came out of them more anxious than when they started.

Most of the time, I like being busy. If there’s too much to do, it can feel a little overwhelming. But there’s a busyness sweet spot, where you have just the right amount of time to carry out a certain amount of tasks. It was just on that particular afternoon when there was nothing to do, it felt disconcerting. Still, I got a column out of it. So, not a total waste.