In Praise of Being Idle
How not getting stuff done is actually good for you
Deep into New York’s COVID quarantine, a friend posted on Facebook that she had cleaned her garden shed. My first response was facetious: “How quaint! She has a garden shed.” My second response was not only remorse that I did not have a garden shed, but also chagrin that I had not cleaned, sorted, or rifled through anything at home during the shelter-in-place order. And “going through stuff at home” was one of my quarantine goals.
Now, my home state of New York and much of the US is “reopening,” kids are headed back to school in-person or remotely, and we’re past seasonal markers such as Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. And while COVID cases are surging in many states, I am learning that I’m not the only one who did not achieve my quarantine goals. Of course, my college-age kids were home for six months, having lost all ability to load the dishwasher or be quiet during a call, but kids have been at home everywhere. Power in numbers isn’t helping me stop the negative self-blaming that only makes things worse in the midst of this vaccine-free pandemic. Thus, I wanted to do some digging about why we are so hard on ourselves for doing “nothing.” After speaking with some coaches and psychologists, and listening to a few podcasts, I’ve learned that it is not only OK to be idle, but that it is actually essential for our well-being, creativity, and productivity.
When We Can No Longer Rely on Busy
The obsession with being busy is ingrained in American culture. In “The Courage to Rest” episode of her new Bewildered podcast with Rowan Magnan, Martha Beck explains that this behavior is rooted in Western European 17th-century enlightenment, when people became obsessed with earning wealth — which, surprise, surprise, requires working all the time. Flash forward a few hundred years to when labor-saving devices like vacuum cleaners and washing machines were invented and sold to housewives who thought the new gadgets would lead to “blissfully indolent existences,” Beck notes. Instead, the standard of home cleanliness went up and people found themselves doing MORE housework than before. Nowadays, people love to brag about being “crazy busy.” Society is addicted to productivity. “Lack thereof is considered shameful,” Beck explains.
COVID-19 is one of the biggest wrenches that has been thrown into the works of the productivity cycle. For my friends with full-time jobs, their work continues, albeit differently. They and their employers have had to adapt to remote work life. Some managers handled the change well, learning to be flexible with their team’s at-home needs, while others — missing the in-person control — became obsessed, and piled work on as a way to exercise their authority. But I’m a freelance writer and work from gig to gig. It’s up to me to get the jobs and do them. This spring, I was plowing ahead with articles, including some for this website, and then crashed into a wall at the end of May, right after George Floyd was killed. There was no grind-to-a-halt; it was a body slam. I’ve been feeling like hell and lost ever since.
What is going on?
“For some people, in this COVID time, [they] need to feel productive, because they see these memes on Facebook telling them to do so,” reinvention coach Wendy Perrotti observes. “Others feel demotivated by that because they are in a phase of fear or grief and the push to be productive feels wrong and they don’t understand why.”
I definitely fall into the latter category.
Start by Making the Bed
“The feeling of uncertainty is interfering with people’s sense of mastery,” explains Dr. Cecilia Dintino, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Columbia University who, with psychotherapist Hannah Murray Starobin, runs the Twisting the Plot consultancy, advising women 50 plus on their next steps. “The fastest way to get depressed is taking away the options of mastery.”
Mastery is the feeling we get when we accomplish something, and without it, it is hard to move forward, let alone get stuff done. Note that mastery can come from little things like making your bed, as advocated by the brilliant Admiral William McRaven (retired), the Navy Seal who led the raid on Bin Laden, in his 2014 Commencement speech at University of Texas Austin.
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another….” McRaven said. “And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
Set the Right Goals for You
So, in addition to making your bed, how do you recreate the feeling of mastery in your life, especially during the prolonged uncertainty created by COVID? There are a few ways, but bear with me, because some methods seem contradictory. A few experts say to set intelligent goals — ones that are actually achievable. Others advise to avoid goals altogether, so as not to get hung up on the outcome. But pretty much everyone I spoke with or listened to stressed the importance of taking deliberate breaks to do…nothing.
Goals can be tricky. Many of us have our lists, filled with the mundane and the grandiose. We love to check off tasks as they get done. But sometimes the ambitious magnitude of these lists works to the detriment of actually getting the important stuff done, and also to our well-being.
“If we’re not busy, we have to feel our feelings,” says Dintino, adding: “But sometimes we [become] busy to avoid looking at what we really want to do.”
“At the beginning of COVID, I was filling my day — but not filling myself,” says Starobin. “I had to switch gears.”
Dintino and Starobin embrace Martha Beck’s philosophy of dreaming big and taking small steps toward achieving the dream. The goal does not have to be attainable now but it has to be challenging in order to get the reward upon accomplishment. The goals should also be time-bound, which is hard during this COVID era because so much structure around time has disappeared. Thus, you need to set your own timeline.
Executive coach Tanya Ezekiel, founder of Conductive Coaching, has a different philosophy about goals that stresses the importance of a more immediate sense of accomplishment. This is to avoid that nauseous feeling of self-loathing we get when we don’t finish what we set out to do.
“Make yourself a crazy wish list — in one day I want to accomplish all these things — and then spread it out over three days,” Ezekiel explains in the Reinvent Yourself Podcast episode “From Wall Street to Uber-Coach.” “I did this for myself, and it was so powerful. Before this [exercise], at the end of every day, I [used to count] all the things I didn’t do, and it shifted to ‘wow, I did everything I wanted to do TWICE this week’.”
Ezekiel also says it’s key to have one nonnegotiable thing that needs to be done no matter what. At the beginning of this year, Ezekiel established a daily meditation practice as her nonnegotiable after never having regularly practiced any meditation at all in her life. She brings this nonnegotiable into a habit she calls “3-2-1: connect with three people, get two things done on the to-do list, and accomplish your one nonnegotiable. This builds momentum.”
“Identify who you want to be when we’re coming out of this, whenever [that may be]. What are the feelings you want to have, how do you want others to remember you,” says Ezekiel, elaborating her COVID living strategy. “It doesn’t matter if you stop; it does matter if you start again…Whatever it is for you, just start again, again, and again. Every day just start again…all of that will reinvent you.”
Perrotti has yet another approach to goals, whereby you detach yourself from the outcome and instead regard goals as a way to get to an internal personal ideal. This theory is often practiced by elite athletes who cannot afford to get fixated on outcomes — notably, losses — at particular games.
“We teach people to create a compass point, a state of being that you want to feel about yourself and your life,” she explains.
Once you establish that point, you need to examine the things you do every day and see if they inch you closer to that state. If your tasks get you closer to the compass point, then they are legitimate. If they distance you from the compass point, then they are not worthwhile.
Beck agrees. “It’s not about getting the end result anyway, it’s how you feel doing it,” she says in her podcast. “What if you looked back on every minute of DOING the things on your to-do list rather than checking them off?”
But Really, Just Do Nothing
Despite these varying approaches to goal setting, everyone agrees that it’s also important to do nothing. Because without doing nothing — without taking a break — you cannot move forward.
“Scientifically, for creativity to come, the frontal lobe has to be shut down,” observes Dintino.
This is why so many in the medical and health fields direct their patients to practice mindfulness, meditation, or just something where they can give their minds a break. But it is really hard to find time to do nothing in a society that demands you always be doing something.
“Time gives you more cognitive focus so that you CAN do more than your day job,” notes Harvard Business School Professor Ashley Whillans. “Time poverty makes you focus only on point A to point B.”
Whillans, author of the forthcoming book Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, was speaking with happiness guru, Yale Professor Laurie Santos in Santos’ “For Whom the Alarm Clock Tolls” episode in her Happiness Lab podcast. Santos’ course, The Science of Well-Being, is the university’s most popular course in its history, and it is currently offered for free on Coursera.
For most of us, our free time is like “confetti,” according to Whillans. Our downtime is broken up by emails, cell phones, and “our preposterous attempt to multitask.” She says we have to think of these pieces of free time more deliberately, to call a friend or practice gratitude — if we use them “like a gain [they are] more likely to increase our happiness.”
Some might argue that doing nothing, or specifically carving out time to do nothing, is elitist. But pretty much anyone can take a five-minute break to practice mindfulness, pray, or literally do absolutely nothing. Yale’s Santos interviewed British idling expert Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the bimonthly magazine The Idler and author of How to be Idle, for her podcast. Hodgkinson argues that mindfulness is like organized idling and he distinguishes idling from laziness.
“…Idling can be very useful to your life,” he wrote in an article for the travel website Belmond. “It is when we are relaxed that we get good ideas.”
So there you have it: permission to do nothing. Doing nothing will get you back on track to doing something.
P.S. I do make my bed every day.