I returned from a sabbatical this spring, and a friend asked me what the best part of it was. The adventure and sightseeing were amazing; skipping out on the Beast from the East came close.
But there was an unequivocal winner, and that was not feeling like I was about to throw up every time I thought about my social calendar.
This was mainly because I spent most of my time with friends and family in New Zealand and India, two countries that simply don’t do forward planning. You can try to pencil them in for a Tuesday four weeks from now, but they’ll either laugh, not reply or say they’ll be in touch nearer the time.
While the city girl in me was at first flabbergasted, and convinced we would never meet up, I actually ended up socialising far more often than I normally would have done.
Rewind back to my life in London before I left, and my calendar was displaying major symptoms of full-blown toxicity.
I couldn’t look at it in weekly view, let alone monthly, view because it was so packed out and overwhelming. I knew half of those engagements I’d end up cancelling, because I’d be so burned out and frazzled by the time the day arrived. And that’s not even factoring in the interminable WhatsApp groups that are like a Jenga of availability, trying to see who is free and when, waiting for people to RSVP, finally settling on a date and all of it eventually toppled by one person who’d send a “sorry guys, turns out I can’t make it after all” text.
I get it – when you’re caught in the spiralling arms of certain social galaxies, it can be hard not to go along with it. Everyone else plans their life four-to-six weeks in advance, so if you want to have friends, you’re going to have to do the same.
Except, no. Fast forward to today, and I would rather watch films on my own, periodically go out for walks and maybe create my own version of Wilson, like Tom Hanks did in Cast Away, than ever subject myself to that vom-inducing nightmare that was my pre-sabbatical social life.
In New Zealand, I hung out on my mate’s boat with two hour’s notice. A friend popped round for lunch that we only organised the night before. A big group of friends in India – all with kids – sorted out dinner in a restaurant with about 24-hours notice. I didn’t cancel on anyone. None of it felt overwhelming.
Back in London on my return, though, it was clear old habits had returned. That same sense of dread emerged, I had palpitations looking at my calendar and, when I realised I didn’t have a weekend free for five weeks, I knew it was time for radical measures.
When you’re caught in the spiralling arms of certain social galaxies, it can be hard not to go along with it
I enforced a sanction: barring special occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, or things that required advanced planning such as gigs or holidays, I was not going to book anything in that was more than two weeks in advance. The same applied for work meetings, if, for instance, it was meeting just for coffee and was non-urgent.
When I announced my idea on Twitter, the reaction was mixed. Some loved it, but others said if they did the same, they’d never meet up with certain friends, while others said things like booking babysitting needed more notice.
I can’t speak for everyone, but my parent friends have cancelled on me plenty of times despite the day being booked really far in advance, and, as for my other friends, if they really want to see me, an issue with scheduling is not going to be the thing that prevents them from doing that.
There’s also the matter of my own mental health. Other people may be turned on by a Monica Geller-style colour-coded calendar, planned out for the next three months, but I am not. It doesn’t just make me anxious, it means that I won’t remember to schedule that most nurturing of moments – time with myself.
The way that I have enforced it is to politely say: “I’m really sorry, I’m not currently booking things more than two weeks in advance but I’ll make sure I check in nearer the time.” I’ll then set a really quick calendar reminder, so it doesn’t drop off.
The result of this means not only am I not overwhelmed, but it has introduced an element of spontaneity that means I’m not bored shitless of my social life. Chunks of free time mean I can respond to last-minute invitations and, when I turn up to things, I’m doing it with a more real-time awareness of how I currently feel, meaning I’m less likely to cancel.
Because that’s the other thing with booking things so far in advance – it takes for granted that nothing is ever going to go wrong, when the reality is that things blow up all the time. You have no way of knowing how you’ll feel – physically or mentally – in four days, let alone four weeks time, FFS.
Continuously planning your life that far in advance means your mental wellbeing takes a huge whack, because you’re either going to social engagements you’re in no mood for or you have to pretend like everything is OK, which can be immensely stressful.
It may seem rude or even impossible to let people know how you’d like to run your social calendar, but don’t forget, by giving you dates that are weeks or months in advance, people are doing the exact same thing to you. And no one should want to vomit at the sight of something so firmly within their control. That should be reserved for really challenging things, like Donald Trump’s tweets or Christmas shopping.