I explore new cities by wandering aimlessly, making discoveries by accident, trusting myselfEmma Turner

It’s 10am in Chile and I’m catching up with a friend from college. It’s 2pm for her and, as is often the case within the bubble when I ask how she’s doing, the subject inevitably tends towards how she’s studying. “I’m doing okay but I’m not very productive. I haven’t even started studying today yet,” she sighs.

It’s a familiar self-admonishing response which has become foreign to me over the past year of living and working abroad. The need to be productive at all times to achieve certain goals, the constant conversations around achievement, around revision timetables, the consequent disregard for aimlessness. I still fully understand this mindset, but I don’t miss it.

I like to think of myself as a pretty organised, hard-working person. I keep a bullet journal (the messy functional kind, not the Instagrammable type), have a penchant for colourful sticky notes, and at times make heavy use of Google calendar to schedule my day.

During term-time, in the busiest weeks, I often have my entire day planned out on my calendar. It might read something like this:

  • 9-12am: Go to library, work on X.
  • 12-1pm: Blank space for lunch.
  • 1-3pm: Lectures.
  • 3-6pm: Go back to library and work on Y.
  • 6-7pm: Dinner.
  • 7-9pm: Work a bit more if required on Z.
  • 9-11pm: Socialise, yoga, read, or watch Netflix.

This is not just ‘being organised’, but a product of Cambridge’s intensely goal-driven atmosphere. Most of us have identified with the ‘high-achiever’ label for most of our academic lives and there is certainly a pressure to continue to do so, even when the goalposts have moved. From the moment we apply, we have a series of goals to achieve just to be admitted and so when we finally arrive, we feel we must make our dream university live up to our expectations. Or at the very least, we must live up the expectations of our dream university. Imposter syndrome is very real and for some of us, meeting goals is a way of combating it.

We spend so much time chasing these many metrics of success that we leave no time for refuelling

I feel the need to plan every single minute of my day in order to have used my time purposefully, to achieve specific goals, to avoid supposedly aimless time-wasting. Even my free time is often structured, neatly slotted into a box on the calendar. In theory, there is no time to just do nothing.

Of course, this means that when I inevitably do nothing I don’t feel relaxed, but intensely guilty. I have goals and I want to meet them. My brain insists that time spent ignoring them is time wasted.

Then of course there are the non-academic activities: sports, societies, volunteering, working. Even including a hobby in a hectic timetable is a substantial goal in itself for many students, while for others, extracurriculars are another opportunity to excel. We spend so much time chasing these many metrics of success that we leave no time for refuelling or enjoying the journey. It’s worse, too, that many of our goals come from unhealthy comparisons with others, and don’t take into account that everyone’s path to success will look different.

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The fabled ‘Year Abroad’ has physically and mentally taken me away from this space, and I’ve found myself appreciating aimlessness much more. Some days, I wake up naturally without an alarm. I explore new cities by wandering, making discoveries by accident, trusting myself. I’ve gone on trips without a detailed plan, and in turn learnt to enjoy only completing half of the ‘must see’ list. I have days where I don’t really know what I’m going to do until I do it — I say yes to things without knowing where they’ll go, and allow myself to collapse on my bed after a long day and just scroll through social media for an indeterminate duration.

I still get things done: aimlessness is not abandoning responsibility. On the contrary, I think of it as akin to play, which has been proven to improve creativity and well-being. It is simply about allowing more space for doing less. It is a way of not burning out, of taking a step back. And I have been happier as a result.

Of course, old habits die hard, and a part of my goal-oriented habits comes from being a perfectionist who enjoys being very busy. Even now, I haven’t yet learnt how to say no to things (I’m writing this article on a plane as I travel to Patagonia for the weekend, with about five other looming deadlines next week).

So it is with trepidation that I think about my returning to Cambridge in October. It’s all well and good defending aimlessness while I’m abroad, with fewer hard deadlines and a lot more freedom, but the real challenge will be continuing to embrace it back in the hectic eight-week sprint of term.


Mountain View

Double lives and difficult questions

I hope that I will be able to hang onto to some of my aimless habits all the same, waking up when my body is ready at weekends, going for walks in the college gardens for no reason but to stretch my legs, and perhaps even ditching the habit trackers in favour of a short diary entry. I will allow myself longer time slots in my calendar for making spontaneous decisions and responding to whatever my body needs instead of what my brain believes I should want.

However, whatever I do, I won’t be adding “be aimless” to my list of to-dos next year. I imagine the list will be long enough as it is and besides, aimless isn’t something you are, it’s something you practice being. The good news is that really, as long as you keep trying, this is one goal you can’t fail.