There's no denying the rush we get when scouring pages of TikTok hacks, Pinterest DIYs and bingeing reality shows like The Home Edit. Why? Well, these things have a way of making us feel like we're getting shit done before we even pick up a glue gun. Similar to the rush of buying new stationery at the beginning of the year, or applying for a gym membership. But while it was nice — fun, even, — to get to those tasks we always put off during lockdown, when does keeping busy spiral into busywork? Are we wasting time chasing the satisfaction of these practical endeavours that we never actually get around to?
Referring to activities that take up time and energy with little value — 'practical' TikTok scrolling included — busywork can feel productive but doesn't actually move the needle in achieving any worthwhile goals.
While these activities can be a fun way to kill time, and there's a beauty in doing absolutely nothing, getting swamped by made-up 'to-do's and second-hand productivity can prevent us from actually making the most of our days. In fact, once the task is complete, we're often left with the deflated 'what now' feeling.
As someone who is admittedly guilty of spending so much time finding a recipe, only to not have time to actually make said recipes, Ellen, 27 is all too familiar with the dopamine hit of a found 'hack'.
"I had to delete [TikTok]," she confesses.
"My algorithm was serving me endless cleaning, cooking and organisation hacks and I was a sucker for all of it. I can't tell you how many 'viral' products I bought, only to be disappointed and time-broke."
Just like many of us, Emily's obsession spurred from lockdowns. "At first, I took the time and cleaned out my makeup drawers — something I'd been wanting to do since forever. I binned all the expired stuff, gave a bunch away to friends, and put all the rest of the products into labelled containers. It was a great feeling as if it meant I had my shit together" she says. "I didn't stop at just my bathroom, and won't even divulge how much I spent on containers. I also, of course, bought a label maker and other accessories to sustain the organisation."
"It was like, I may have just been stood down from work and ghosted by my Hinge date, but at least the pasta in my pantry was easy to find."
What Ellen admits to realising is that these fleeting feelings of togetherness didn't last, and instead busywork often leaves us with a false sense of accomplishment, an illusion that we're being productive with our time when that's not really the case.
And she's certainly not alone in this experience.
As one study found, idleness aversion is a common modern-day phenomenon. As humans, we will tend to do whatever it takes and to use any justification to keep busy, even if the task is meaningless.
The study also found that people were more likely to report feeling happy when kept busy than idle. And while this may sound like a call to keep occupied, these feelings aren't necessarily genuine, but rather can be reflective of the core problem: that keeping busy distracts us from actually processing what we're going through.
In Brené Brown's cult novel Daring Greatly, the professor makes a case for why we don't enjoy staying idle. As she explains, people would rather fill the time with activities and busywork than risk finding themselves alone with their thoughts. And our hustle culture society tends to encourage this behaviour by associating free time and idleness with laziness and a lack of drive.
“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
It's been a pretty wild few years, filled with heartbreak and loss for many. While the moment of pause was very much needed for some of us, offering us the opportunity to reevaluate what we value, the forced introspection didn't always sit well with us. Left alone to our thoughts in such dire times, is it any wonder we looked for distraction in the form of busywork, DIY everything and housekeeping content?
For Kaylie, 26, procrastination manifested in trying to optimise her housework, which also devolved into a spending problem. "Everybody I know was saving a bundle during the pandemic because they weren't going out but I was spending more than ever," she tells us. "If it wasn't a TikTok-approved cleaning sponge or clay kit that I am still yet to open, it was plates and glassware for the perfect dinner party setup — because that was going to happen in a pandemic."
"I think what it really came down to was a need to be distracted, almost like I was planning for post-pandemic times despite it still carrying on three years later," she says.
"Even if I had nothing to do and was just sitting around, I wanted to be actively thinking about something else, using my brain for something that made me feel like it was important instead of looking at what really was important. But I mean, who really wanted to process the pandemic, right?"
"I mean, who really wanted to process the pandemic, right?"
There's no denying that TikTok and other social platforms are filled with creative ways to better our lives, and sped-up videos of people cleaning out their fridges in a way that cleanses our brains. But with infinite scroll and clever algorithms, we can easily fall into the trap of distraction that isn't so healthy.
Sitting with ourselves and our responsibilities isn't fun. Hell, it's pretty uncomfortable, at times. But accepting this accomplished feeling as merely an illusion of productivity is essential to pressing on, finding your groove and actually getting things done.
Remember, your time and energy are finite resources. When we sit around thinking about tasks and spend too much time watching strangers online perform them, instead of prioritising them in our own lives, the important stuff is left to the wayside, and often just stresses us out more. All the full Amazon carts and saved cleaning hacks on TikTok don't get rid of the problem, they just delay it.