personanxiety and the schedule

I alternate between two modes of living, right now, that I like to think of as About a Schedule and Personanxiety.

They both have their roots in this curiously constrained space that we're living, one where whole swathes of activity are locked away from us, and four walls are closing in. Neither is exactly… healthy. But they're good organising metaphors, and have helped me with a little bit of self-realisation, so I thought I'd share them.

About a Schedule

In the film of About a Boy, Hugh Grant's character Will lives a life of leisure, his father having written a one-hit-wonder Christmas song decades earlier. He inherited the royalty cheques, and doesn't need to work. But as he says, a life of leisure – particularly that curious mid-tier leisure when you don't need to work but aren't exactly jetting off on round-the-world trips every month – can be alarming. There's so much time. What do you do?

“Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It’s amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I’d ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?”

I don't have Will levels of time. I still have a job, after all, and thanks to the erasure of any distinction between the home and the office, that job is slowly metastasising to fill more and more available time.

But what I do have – what we all have – is that same vast unbroken expanse of future stretching ahead. The issue isn't the day-by-day, for me, but the week-by-week and month-by-month. How do I distinguish today from tomorrow, this week from the next, or May from October? What do I have in the future to look forward to? There's no holidays, birthday parties or big nights out ahead. My future has melted into a big grey mess.

And so, the Will method. The future isn't the future. It's not a vast unbroken stretch of months petering into the future, into a period when we might have a vaccine in, what, 18 months. It's a series of chunks of time, and those chunks are eminently fillable. And when you fill them, you can look forward to them.

Thursday I'm making tacos. Wednesday I'm playing an RPG. Saturday afternoon I'm calling Mum. Sunday morning I'm having an espresso martini. I can't wait for that espresso martini. It's a point in time in the future that isn't now. It's not quite a holiday to Japan, but it's something.


Except. There's another way of viewing life under lockdown which I occasionally flit to, which makes things all the more stressful. I didn't have a good way of thinking about it until I picked up my old PS Vita last week and began playing through Persona 4 Golden, a decade-old JRPG about teens in a small Japanese town battling a supernatural murderer.

P4G, like all the Persona games, is built off a lovely model reflecting the duality of its main character's lives. Almost all their time is spent doing normal teen things – hanging out with friends, studying, doing part time jobs – with occasional jaunts into the mysterious world of their tormentor to battle shadows and free would-be victims.

The choices you make in your daily life affect the rest of your life, of course – hang out with a friend and you can't study that evening; practice riding your scooter, and you'll be home too late to read a book – but they also feed into the dungeon-crawling. The better your relationships with your allies, the stronger the eponymous personas you use to fight get.

It's a neat game, known for its great writing, strong emotional core, and effortless sense of style. And it's also known for the constant low-grade anxiety that playing it induces in most people, because literally every single action you take in the game prevents you taking others. You simply cannot have it all.

What's curious, of course, is that that's true of everything, all the time. Opportunity costs are a cornerstone of economic thinking: when analysing a the cost of doing something, you have to take into account the losses from the others things you could be doing instead to get a true picture of the benefits. Spending three hours packaging up eBay sales doesn't just cost you the money in postage, it also costs you the time you could have been spending doing other things.

But what Personanxiety gets at is that opportunity costs are simply too massive and all encompassing to really affect most people most of the time. You could always be doing something else, and the list of "something elses" is as near to infinite as anything in the real world can be. 

But in Persona, it's not. It's very specifically a small number of very countable alternatives: you can hang out with Kenji or Chie, or read a book. Those are your options. And so you know exactly what you're not doing when you choose an action – and that brings on the anxiety.

I'm seeing the same in the real world. My possible actions are so limited that for the first time opportunity cost is a measurable thing. If I read a book this evening, I'm not painting my Warhammer or, well, playing Persona 4. That's it; those are my options. Have I picked right? Should I try and do them both? But how? And what about spending some time this week planning next week: that will get me more activities to do, but also limit the amount of time I have left to do everything else. Oh god. Oh god.

By this point, I've normally given up and spent an hour aimlessly clicking on my phone, which doesn't exactly help things.

Also, "Dominic Cummings" got blocked from trending on Twitter because his name sounds like a sex thing

Sometimes I love my job.