It’s been a rough week. In my experience, the first week of November is always this way. It’s finally been chilly for more than two days in a row, there are barely any light filters into my apartment anymore and my cacti are slowly turning yellow, wasting away — did you know they could do that? I didn’t. I find myself, more often than not, staring at them from the couch for lengthy periods of time, feeling very sorry.

I wrote once about the value of doing less, of letting go of the inexorable impetus to always be (or at least seem) “busy.” Stick with what you like; stop doing what you don’t like; try to do absolutely nothing with your friends more often. Simple, right? But it’s easier said than done. All my previous semesters became busier and busier as they went on; I don’t remember ever having a period of respite longer than a day or so from the homework, meetings and rehearsals. 

But now that I’ve exited my most time-consuming extracurriculars and dropped a second major that I didn’t like so much in the first place, I find myself facing a startlingly open November. Sundry readings, here and there, and a couple of associated responses — other than that, I’m coasting until finals.

Back when I studied computer science, I would’ve found even half this amount of free time a blessing. However, it’s beginning to reveal a host of problems with my earlier approach. What do we do when we’re busy not being “busy”? I thought that, well, maybe we should spend our time developing and cherishing our connections with our fellow students — maybe that’s how we’ll really learn how to face the real world. But there’s so much time in a day, and we can’t spend all that time around others — after all, we all have separate timetables and separate lives, and it gets draining after a while.

What really ought to come first, I realized, is our connection with ourselves. Genuine interpersonal interaction is usually seen as the only way to subvert the cutthroat, every-man-for-himself culture that exists to some degree on all college campuses. It hasn’t stopped being a great way to do that — but when we reach the point of feeling like we absolutely have to speak with X other people to get through the day, our emphasis on this kind of interaction can turn against us. We should first learn how to be alone, a skill too-often neglected in the current discourse surrounding competitiveness.

I used to know how to do this better than I do now. It was easy in high school; there was little pressure to constantly be doing something with others, and I wrote and read and scrolled through Tumblr to my heart’s content. College is different, though; it surrounds us with people at all times. At the very beginning, of course, this is done for our benefit; it’s important to prevent students from feeling lonely during such a significant transition period. 

Because we’re so used to not being left alone, though, we eventually begin to feel like we have to be around people at all times, even once we’ve formed stable networks of supportive friends. It’s almost a competition — to constantly spend less time at home doing nothing and more time out with friends doing nothing. Homework? That’s acceptable. Lying in bed late on a Friday night dazedly watching various iterations of the “Shooting Stars” meme? Less acceptable.

And that’s why, I realized, I spend so much time watching the cacti. It’s an in-between kind of activity, one in which I don’t actually acknowledge that I am sitting, alone, for an extended period of time. If you saw me, you might think I was waiting for someone to come visit, or that I was about to head out myself. It’s hard for me to sit and watch a movie or play a game because it constantly feels like I have better things to do.

What I’ve found, though, is that the best way to escape the culture of busyness is to be by myself and enjoy it. We’re on a campus with thousands of other students, and because of this, the choice to spend time alone can seem like one that says, in an almost-conceited manner, “I’m not interested in any of you.” But it’s OK to feel like that, and in fact, it’s healthy. The only way you can truly learn how not to be constantly “busy” is to learn how to do nothing — by yourself.


SHILPA SARAVANAN is a College junior from College Station, Texas, studying linguistics. Her email address is shilpasa@sas.upenn.edu. “Phone Home” usually appears every Thursday.

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