The Importance of Doing Nothing

May 8, 2018 Sara 0 Comments

On Mondays, during my son’s second nap, I don’t work. It might seem counterintuitive, to take a break so early in the workweek. But this purposeful pause is anything but ineffective. It’s a really important habit, one that nourishes a truth that lots of us turn a blind eye to—the importance of doing nothing.

Nothing?

When I say “nothing,” I’m not talking about apathy or watching television or nihilism or letting the dishes pile up in the sink (ok, maybe I’m talking about that). I’m talking about taking a break. A true break. A real break. A break that does not involve a smartphone or social media or planning or scheming or crossing any of the myriad items off a to-do list. A break in which you begin to—get ready for it—hear yourself think.

Busy, Busy, Busy

Like most people, I’m busy. I’m a full-time mom. I’m lucky that I love the work I do, but my work hours are whenever I can fit stuff in—naps, evenings, when my mom babysits, weekends. I’m married. I’m close with my family and my in-laws. I have a good-sized group of friends who I try to keep up with. I like my house to be clean and my yard to be well tended and my bed to be made (only because it keeps the cat hair out, not because of the aesthetic).

Finding the time and space to do nothing is as important to me as all of the above. Without it, I get frustrated and grumpy and off-kilter. And you know what happens when that state of dysfunction brews in me? I can’t write.

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
—Gertrude Stein

Striking the Balance

aboard the spaceship
{aboard the spaceship}

One of the things about writing is that it requires a balance. A balance between socializing/seeing the world/experiencing new things and quiet time and space to process and create. Depending on whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, your balance will look different.

I’m what you might call a super-introvert. On the Myers-Briggs scale, I got 21 out of 24 possible introvert points. Don’t get me wrong—I love socializing, I’m pretty chatty when you get me going, and I have no problem getting up in front of an audience. But I need huge swaths of alone/quiet time to recharge. When I say huge, I mean HUGE.

My husband came up with a term for this need pretty early on in our relationship: spaceship time.

During spaceship time, I might read a (non-work) book, stare out a window, go for a walk, sip a cup of coffee or tea, cry, give myself a pedicure, do a few sun salutations, sketch, etc. The activity depends on my physical needs, but the imperative part is the quiet. I never watch tv during spaceship time. I never make a phone call or visit a café. It’s even pretty rare for me to write during these moments. Spaceship time is inward time, when I keep the outside world as much at bay as possible, and when I want my mind to be in a state of rest. If you’re an extrovert, and recharge by being around others, then you might choose to reset while in a small group, chatting, sharing coffee, walking in the woods. There’s no right or wrong way to recharge—it’s all about knowing what fills your tank.

When I encounter writers who are blocked, I often ask them: Are you getting enough alone time? When’s the last time you were bored? How often are you resting? When’s the last time you recharged your battery?

But Do I Really Want to Hear Myself Think?

I know, it’s crazy, right? You probably feel bombarded by your thoughts and wish they’d just shut up a minute. That’s part of why we humans seek distractions—alcohol, shopping, scrolling, tv, you name it, we’ll give it a shot if it’ll give us some reprieve from all those voices nattering away in our heads.

The thing is, though, for creative people, those voices need to be given their turn. They seek to be honored and engaged with, and the more you ignore them, the worse they’ll get. Then when you come a knocking for a little bit of inspiration or wisdom, they’ll fold their arms and spitefully refuse entrance. And can you blame them?

Forget the Agenda

Whether alone or with others, the important thing is to forget the agenda. Don’t have a place to be or a thing to accomplish. Just relax, and forget about everything in the world that needs doing for a little while. This is fertile ground for the imagination, and for the writing muscle that is primed by it.

Rest Isn’t a Dirty Word

I’m not sure if it’s cultural, or an inevitable aspect of adulthood, but somehow, being busy has become de rigeur among most of my peers. As if somehow our worth as a person is tied up in this endless cycle of Sorry, I’m busy. Technology is part of it—we’re bombarded by methods of communication and expected to be quick at all of them, we have access to any and every thing we want at the click of a button. (Remember when you had to wait 6+ months for a movie to come out on VHS? Remember thrifting for bell bottoms because you couldn’t just pop online and buy them? Remember not being reachable via phone every hour of every day?)

But as much as I want to scapegoat technology, I think the issue is more of mindset. One that’s always yelling nownownow and moremoremore and never taking a moment to pause and realize that a little downtime might do us all some good.

But How Do I Find Time to Do Nothing?

Like all good habits, doing nothing must be cultivated. Around the time my son turned 6 months old and grew more alert and more mobile, I noticed that I could easily go a whole day and not sit down until after he went to bed. That’s 12+ hours of being on. (To be fair, this was something I was often guilty of well before my son’s arrival in my life, but it took his appearance to really bring this home for me.) I was grumpy and depleted and couldn’t figure out why until I handed over the reins and took a day off.

Aha!

I started adding “Rest” to my to-do list. But it didn’t work quite as well as I hoped it would. I’d look at the puny word there among all the other stuff I needed/wanted to do, and I’d laugh a little. Rest! As if!

That’s when I started instituting the Monday nap “no work” rule.

Here are another few ways that I squish in time to do nothing:

  1. Social media detox. Every other weekend or so, I delete all the social media apps from my phone on Friday night. I also delete my email app, though I am allowed to check my email on my computer, especially if I’ve got some work-related thing going on, which I often do, though I try to limit this. So much time is spent scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And I LOVE social media. LOVE it. But it can be wearying. It’s all envy and anger and politics and selling and… Is it tough to be untethered from the machine for a weekend? Yes. BUT, I always return to it Monday morning feeling productive and relaxed and ready to appreciate what I’ve been away from for a few days.
  2. Go out, and leave your phone at home. You’ll be surprised at how little happens while you step away from the screen.
  3. Make your bedroom a quiet zone. This is one of the biggest helps for me. I’ve never had a tv in my bedroom. And I’ve begun leaving my phone out of there. I used to work in bed, but have stopped that habit too. A bedroom is a place to relax, read, rest, decompress. Our bedroom contains a bed, a dresser, two night-tables with lamps, books, and a chair by the window. That’s it. It’s a calm zone. It’s a spaceship.
  4. Simplify! Your life, your food prep, your to-do list, your mind. Do you need a spice cabinet jammed with options when you really only ever use salt and red pepper flakes? Is your closet full of clothes when all you wear are long black dresses? Will the world end if you say no to that party? Does your to-do list need to fill the whole page? I notice that when my life and space are cluttered, my mind is equally messy. I stopped making my to-do list into an epic novel just so I could feel important. I donate, Freecycle, compost. I make grocery lists (which include a meal plan for the week) and then I stick with them. Living in the Western world is more overwhelming than we realize. We’re inundated with options, choices, decisions, brands, ideas, etc. YES—access can be amazing! It can also be numbing or stressful or both. Having less stuff to wrangle means more time for the important things—like doing nothing.
  5. Go outside. And just sit. Watch the wildlife. Breathe. Soak up some Vitamin D. Feel the grass (or concrete) beneath your toes. The world is constantly moving, constantly changing, and how good does it feel, to just sit still and observe?
  6. Drop Expectations. This is the toughest, for me, but the most worthwhile. Allow yourself a break. Don’t expect to have a clean, beautiful house and cleared to-do list. Don’t expect to make everyone happy. It’s totally okay to eat a frozen dinner if you need a night off. The laundry won’t go anywhere. Take a deep breath. Look around. This is life, and it is messy and beautiful, and it will stay that way, even while you slip upstairs and stare at the wall for an evening.

Recharged, and Ready to Go!

If you’ve been suffering through writer’s block, feeling down about your creative output, or plain old grappling with lack or inspiration, take an hour, an afternoon, a day, a weekend, and give yourself permission to do nothing. Give your mind a rest!

You might be surprised at how a little nothing time can have a big impact on your creative life.

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Tell me: How do you recharge? What are your favorite ways to practice doing nothing? What’s your spaceship look like?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my Instagram or Facebook feeds.