I keep busy because if I didn’t, I’d feel like I was wasting my time on this temporarily hospitable rock we live on. (Miguel Á. Padriñán)

My default state is to work hard and be organised. Yet there’s never enough time in the day to get everything done.

My lack of time is my own fault, of course. I’ve chosen to study for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Southampton. I’ve chosen to be a student rep and a research assistant. I’ve chosen to work for a philosophy organisation called the Mind Association. I’ve chosen to be a scientist in London. I’ve chosen to write music reviews, philosophy articles, and sometimes poetry. I’ve chosen to learn Serbian. I’ve chosen to be someone who watches and plays football.

I want everything.

I like to keep myself busy; I rush and I cram; there’s always more to be done. This way I feel fulfilled. But can I really distinguish my state of mind from obsession?

But there are limits to how much any person can achieve in their days and across their lives. I have a partner and a pet, both of whom I love very much, and they deserve more of my attention. I must make compromises. Why spread myself so thin? Isn’t it better to love less more? Carpe diem, seize the day—in this article I argue I have taken this famous philosophy to a point of excess.

Three excuses

Let’s consider why I’m like this: basically, why I’m a workaholic. Maybe you’ll relate to the answers, in which there is some interesting philosophy.

Here are three ways I justify this life to myself:

  1. I work hard because I just am like this. I could deny myself and work less. But, since I cannot change my constitution (i.e., who I am), such a stance would only precipitate my unhappiness.
  2. I work hard because I want to make up for lost time—specifically, from my early youth, during which time I experienced sadness, alienation, and trauma that still linger.
  3. I work hard because I strive to lead a meaningful life. I always want to be in possession of life-affirming, void-filling purpose.

Let’s run through these hypotheses one by one.

I just am like this

Derek Parfit
In a thought experiment concocted by Derek Parfit a writer, Kate, acknowledges she may end up exhausted and depressed if she chooses to write a book. Yet she chooses to write it anyway. I relate to Kate. But this just makes us irrational people, depending on the theory of rationality to which we subscribe.

I am insatiably curious, competitive, and I hate the feeling of laziness. My equilibrium state is to probe: I ask too many questions and I find more to ask when I’m given answers. That is all to say, I’m greedy. In the words of perhaps my favourite philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir:

‘I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have solitude, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish … You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.’

However, to excuse myself for ‘just being like this’ feels cheap: a convenient escape clause from responsibility of my actions. I have control of my life, don’t I? I’m a rational agent who is not being coerced into doing anything. I should just improve my lifestyle. There must be other factors at play.

I’m making up for lost time

Ross children
That’s me, top-right. ‘From Working Class to Middle Class: My Story’—read here.

So let’s look at the second hypothesis: that I’m trying to make up for lost time.

My perception is that I faced adversity in my youth, not merely as a result of relative poverty but because of a myriad of factors: I was (and still am) mistreated by certain members of my family; I experienced traumas—not least, I had to ‘deal with’ certain events which occurred in the supposedly safe space of my home; I was emotionally and medically neglected; I watched people I care about take the ruinous road of addiction; I experienced unwelcome changes to my body (in terms of my health and dysphoria); I directly witnessed bad things happening to animals I cared deeply for; I had to live with nasty, selfish, and abusive men and watch others transiently enter and leave the home with no explanation for their disappearances.

Unsurprisingly, I withdrew into a shell containing my heavy emotions and protecting me from the consequences of unchangeable situations. However, in so doing, I inhibited myself from maturing and developing into an adult—an adult who had psychological tools with which to think, talk, and act. I stewed in my problems instead. I didn’t try new things. Therefore, in the present day I feel a deficit: as though I need to constantly fill myself up with fulfilling tasks to make up for the things I lost or was never given during childhood.

I ‘overcame’ many the struggles of my youth.

‘Burden’ by Opeth (excerpt)

I once upon a time
Carried a burden inside
I sung a last goodbye
A broken rhyme I had underlined

Yes, a burden in me was lifted and parts of me, which were previously stunted, now flourish. But I’m still a workaholic and I’m still making up for the lost time.

I’m striving to lead a meaningful life

The Sun
The Sun soars then it ungenerously retreats. We awaken each day to its lofty pressure: Finish your work before it’s time to rest again, sucker!

Now for my third hypothesis: that, by working hard, I aim to eventually impart something onto the world, however small, and therefore confirm that I did, indeed, exist.

Hard work, in the sense I mean here, has a life-affirming function. Life is mundane. Ultimately, it’s meaningless. But while we may bear great sadness with respect these ideas—ideas which I just can’t seem to shake off—we may still be able to encircle and smother the void with purpose. I thus show to myself that life—my own life and life more generally—can be about more than just living and surviving.

’"O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?' — John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society (1989)

We’re lucky if we get to experience 70 orbits each around the bastard Sun. Even then, we are collectively headed towards one destiny: the whole planet will be engulfed in flames and swallowed into the same nothingness from which it emerged.

Cheery, huh?

Actually, there’s a positive message to imbue into this story: that is, while we can’t stave off the promise of darkness, we can make a choice to make the most of our temporary illumination! We’re fortunate to exist at all. My existence, like yours, is one which was plucked from the void of infinite possibility and thrown into light. We’ll all be plunged into permanent darkness one day, yes; but for now we have opportunity!

To truly live is to suffer

Friedrich Nietzsche
‘Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering in itself: he wants it, he even seeks it out, provided one shows him a meaning for it, a to-this-end of suffering.' — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

There’s one more twist in the tale.

In connection with my previous hypothesis, there’s another explanation for my desire to keep busy: that, in line with some Nietzschean philosophy, my life is fulfilling because its origins are in suffering. While this explanation sounds bleak, there is also something very life-affirming about it.

Let’s start with Nietzsche himself (Why I Am So Wise):

‘It was during those years in which my vitality reached its lowest point that I ceased from being a pessimist: the instinct of self-recovery forbade me to entertain a philosophy of poverty and desperation.’

Dwelling in caverns of suffering, one can wrap themselves up in self-pity. But excuses become redundant in times of great distress. One misses the opportunity to triumph over themselves.

Excuses for not flourishing in my early life were plentiful. Yet I was able to abandon self-pity and spread my wings and soar. Suffering, however, was necessary. It gave me direction: something to fly from. I desired a better life for myself. I desired a better world. From suffering I was able to construct narratives along these lines: reasons to care; certain causes and groups of people to empathise with; things to fix … Basically, targets for my signification in the world … a role, a place within it … hunger … purpose! Whereas comfort makes us hollow, suffering sets us on specific paths on which to fulfil ourselves.

Suffering yielded my sovereign appreciation of life: of my life and every precious thing in it. Ironically, I owe this appreciation to suffering (ironic because no one appreciates suffering at the time it’s experienced). My will was fortified. Suffering was the beginning of my life as I know it because it provided the conditions in which I chose to triumph over myself, to defeat self-pity. (I think this is the basic premise of Jigsaw’s philosophy, too. Though I think I’m far less extreme and fucked-up about it.)

Every writer of fiction knows all of this. In the best stories the protagonist is fulfilled in the end because they are able to overcome certain tests. Their lives were in ruin. They lost someone. They became ill. Survival might have been at stake. There is no victory per se. But the protagonist manages to grow to gain a new perspective or otherwise attain a greater appreciation of life; and it was their suffering that necessarily brought about the challenge from which their new selves emerged.

So how does suffering connect to my overworking exactly? Well, thanks to who I am, I have an incessant drive to work hard (first hypothesis); because of prior hardship, I still feel that I have to make up for lost time, that I can’t waste anymore (second hypothesis); while adversity gave me specific directions and purpose—means to affirm life (third hypothesis).

There may be a problem with the current view on offer, though. Contra Nietzsche, life can’t be all about suffering, can it? Exactly because people already suffer a great deal it feels like they shouldn’t waste more of their precious time on this fragile planet, in their finite vehicles of bodies, thinking about suffering any more than is necessary. Experience of my pain reminds me not to return to the source. I only feel this acutely free and happy and empowered because I overcame suffering (whatever that means) and I’d quite like to keep it that way.

Still, following Nietzsche, what matters here is not seeking out suffering; rather, it’s to embrace whatever suffering came our way, interpret it, and reinterpret it. Suffering, therefore, is a condition upon which proper fulfilment is obtained.

What do I change?

Dying flowers
I feel brevity and finitude acutely and I have been shaken by losses. Do these points help to explain why I hate thinking about time’s passing, from which I try to distract myself by working hard? Probably, to a large degree, yes. (Kristy Dooley)

As much as I love to be brimming with enthusiasm and intention, my days are preciously finite in number. I’m not only inflicting tiredness upon myself during them, I’m depriving those who care about me of my attention. Even during days on which I complete my tasks—indefatigable though I may be—there’s always more to do. My lists grow; they don’t wane. There’s a lesson here.

My life until now has been positively fulfilling: tenaciously learning, creating, competing, loving, and being loved. I never feel as though I’m ‘overworking’ because I’m skilled in the art of keeping myself busy in ways which seem to matter. I’m incredibly busy precisely because I’m always able to find things to do and I’m fortunate enough to have them available to me. I won’t ungrasp my passions so easily.

However, it’s high time I make some changes to my life—primarily: by resting more and by spending more time with those I love. Upon reflection, I am obsessively keeping my cup full and I must learn to prioritise better for the sakes of others. I am thankful for my life as it is. But right now it calls for patience.

‘Almost too fiercely dost thou rush, for me, thou spring of joyfulness! And ofttimes dost thou empty the pitcher again in trying to fill it.

‘And yet must I learn to draw near thee more humbly. Far too eagerly doth my heart jump to meet thee.

‘My heart, whereon my summer burneth, my short, hot, melancholy, over-blessed summer: how my summer heart yearneth for thy coolness!

‘Farewell, the lingering affliction of my spring! Past is the wickedness of my snowflakes in June! Summer have I become entirely, and summer noontide!’

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Why Am I So Wise?

I’m interested in whether you are like this, too. Are you always busy? Are your reasons akin to mine? To what do you attribute your madness?