A disciple of hustle culture, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that Seyda Karimpour, 30, from north London, realised she needed to change her approach to life and work.
“Rise and grind… Good things come to those who work hard… Don’t stop until you’re proud.” Just reading these words today makes me shudder with memories of overwork and exhaustion, and yet, back in 2017, they were the pink-squared mantras I absorbed on social media on a daily basis.
I was working two jobs: one as a digital marketer, running my own small agency, and another as the founder of a co-working space in north London, organising a schedule of events to bring like-minded freelance women together.
My working day began at 8am, and my laptop was rarely snapped shut before 10pm. Weekends were an opportunity to catch up on work hanging around from the previous week, and any attempt I made to switch off invariably failed. I’d watch TV with one eye on my emails, always aware of how much was still on my to-do list.
A subscriber to the #GirlBoss mentality, I’d read Nasty Gal entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso’s book and, like her, I wanted to take risks, push hard and “write my own rules”. I saw parallels between her started-out-small business and mine, and I wanted to emulate her trajectory – complacency felt like failure. The fact that it cost me quality time with friends and family didn’t matter – I had tunnel vision when it came to being “a success”.
When other people commented on my work ethic, I felt proud – I was happy to be riding what I believed was a new wave of feminism; one that was shameless about hustling and striving for financial independence. Social media was my shop window – a place where I’d share my ever-expanding to-do lists, fuelling the narrative of the busy entrepreneur lifestyle.
And then the pandemic hit.
Suddenly, the co-working space had to close. My other work dried up and, for the first time in my 20s, I had time on my hands to take stock. At first, I felt lost. The thing that had defined me – work – had gone and I experienced a kind of grief. I missed not seeing the people I used to work alongside and gradually realised that I barely knew myself or my interests outside of work. But as spring stretched into summer, I felt my shoulders lower for the first time in a decade. Feeling more rested than ever before, my world and my thoughts opened up.
There was no sudden epiphany, but a gradual realisation that the lifestyle I’d bought into was neither sustainable nor real. What had looked like success to the outside world started to feel more like a race that I could never quite complete, let alone win. Social media was noisier than ever; Instagram was flooded with posts from other entrepreneurs sharing their tips on how to pivot and succeed in a crisis. Advice that was designed to encourage me to keep up my hustle began to seem ludicrous in a world that had been put on pause. What, I thought to myself, am I hustling for?
That question stayed with me while we all rode the various waves of the pandemic. Fortunately, I received a government self-employed grant to help me stay afloat financially, and when the opportunity to restart the co-working space came up, I decided to wait. Conversations with friends and other freelancers made me realise that I wasn’t alone in wondering whether I could face going back to my old, always-on ways.
Many of us, it seemed, were ready to take a slower and more intentional approach to work. I certainly didn’t want to return to the old version of me – the woman who flitted from task to task, managing several accounts at all times of the day and night, keeping clients happy but also feeling, at various points throughout the day, completely breathless.
I still wanted my work to revolve around bringing women together, but this time my ego didn’t need the busyness or the paycheques. I wanted to go into it with a gentler, more restful approach and a pace that I could sustain.
So, in 2021, I relaunched my business as Seasons of Work – a movement to help women avoid burnout and hustle culture by leaning into their own rhythms of work. I work one-to-one as a consultant and train others in running their own business; I’m starting to run pop-up co-working spaces again, but now I urge women to work around their hormones, their bodies and their environments – in other words, to treat themselves kindly. To lean in when they can, but to lean out when they can’t.
For me, that means prioritising rest: putting my phone on “do not disturb” in the evenings and refusing to let more than three things creep onto my daily to-do list. I switch off on weekends and intentionally say no to meetings and events that coincide with my PMS week.
At the beginning of January, I went through my calendar and marked out 45 days of rest and holiday to be taken throughout the year. Much of this, I realise, isn’t possible if you have an employer, but as someone who’s self-employed, I’ve decided that strict boundaries around my rest days are non-negotiable. I might use that time to spend a night in a cabin somewhere, be a tourist in my own city or simply binge on Netflix with zero regrets – the only rule is that my laptop must remain off.
The guilt I used to feel around doing “nothing” has vanished, and that’s because I genuinely feel more productive now that I get to regularly recharge. But more importantly, I’ve stopped judging myself on how much I get done. These days, I gauge my happiness on more than my productivity – what is my mood? How are my relationships? Am I feeling healthy? Success looks different to me now. A walk around the park at Alexandra Palace, listening to a podcast and not stressing over deadlines feels like a lifestyle to be proud of.
The other day, I was scrolling through pictures on my phone when I saw an old photo of me in Nando’s. I was eating lunch, laptop open, one hand on the keyboard as I tried to meet a client’s deadline. Seeing it made me feel sad that for such a long time I equated rest with laziness. I won’t make that mistake again – I’ve learned that I don’t need to earn my rest, and it’s my mission to make others feel the same. I deserve it – and so do you.
Images: Seyda Karimpour