For a long time I’ve battled with the feeling that, no matter what I’m doing, there’s always something more important or more urgent I should be doing - something better aligned with my true path. I call this FONW: Fear Of Not Working. It began at university; “Why am I out having lunch with friends when I have an essay due in a month?” I thought. It was totally irrational. Making arrangements that didn’t involve something productive was somehow always a difficult commitment. “It would be fine once I leave uni and get out of the cycle of constant deadlines,” I thought. It wasn’t: my FONW has not stopped; it has evolved. (As it turns out, simply “leaving” stuff doesn’t automatically solve all your problems.)
I had no real idea what I wanted to do when I finished. So I tried to keep as many doors open as possible in the hope that when I finally realised, I could simply walk through one of them. For that to be possible I’d need to get the best grades possible for myself. I was most comfortable when I knew I would have the whole day ahead with my laptop and my books, no other plans. In actual fact, being at my desk with my laptop and some books only put me in charge of my ability to work; it did not mean I would actually work solidly for those hours. I procrastinated. Thinking critically about what I wanted to do became harder and harder and it felt like my true path was getting more and more buried in the inaccessible pits of my psyche. If I didn’t work out who I was, I’d be stuck in this condition forever.
I now find myself in a similar headspace to the one I was in. My primary concerns may be slightly different, but the basis is the same. It’s like my time doesn’t belong to me. I took a break from career-related work after handing in my dissertation and worked in hospitality, which helped me assess my working habits and figure out what I wanted to do. However, I am finding myself slipping into the same habits as those I had at university. The more I work, the more money I make. It’s simple. Being a freelance writer, I’m in kind of a unique position: I can largely control the amount of time I spend working. But this often means I work more. I’m not complaining. I love what I do. But as I’ve discovered some weeks, the 'time = money problem' can become quite toxic. Not least because you never switch off from working.
Things aren’t fantastic for me but they’re definitely way worse for others. The more I’ve thought about it and shared stories with friends entering the working world, the more the reality of the working world, particularly the changes within work structure over the last 10 years, have sunk in. In the world of business, efficiency seems to be everyone’s primary concern. Globalisation has made the world a competitive place. With the online revolution, companies have been required to innovate in order to survive. In a world where anything you want is available around the clock with a few clicks on a laptop, online sales are leading the way. Literally, time is money.
One of my friends in particular frequently has to work way more than he’s contracted to, simply because it’s his responsibility to make sure his projects are done on time. If they’re not, his company will easily be replaced by one that does it better, cheaper and quicker. That’s the brutal reality. WeWork, the workspace company that began in New York and has since obtained almost as much office space in London as the British government have just launched WeLive, which promises to totally merge work and life for its customers.
So while my FONW is maybe not so irrational after all, there must be a better way to handle the constant stress of life as a student or young professional. But I feel, with things as they are, my advice is going to be limp. In the old world, the pre-digital takeover world, my advice would have been to think not just about your approach to your work time but also how you approach your down time: when you’re not working, switch off from work properly and do completely different activities.
Perhaps an increasingly uncertain, increasingly 24/7, increasingly efficient landscape of work in the 21st century, calls for a type of solution that is unthinkable because it needs to be invented, or because it will require changes in aspects of our situation we didn’t know could change. I just hope that, whatever the solution is, it is drafted in the service of what is truly important.