Why Is It So Hard To Do Nothing?

Anything less than the most is the least.

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Photo by taylor hernandez on Unsplash

I get it from my mother, I will explain. Thanksgiving is the easiest way. On Thanksgiving — when we still celebrated it, we no longer do for reasons that will soon become clear—my mother wouldn’t sit down. Ever. She’d spend her entire day from sunup to bedtime cooking and cleaning. Cooking and cleaning are natural occurrences on Thanksgiving Day, it’s just that typically there’s a break in between to…you know, eat. My mother would cook and prepare for upwards of eight hours (not by herself, I helped where I was allowed), take three bites of food, and then, while we were all sitting around a table trying to have…Thanksgiving, she’d start to clean. While we were eating. Then we’d all feel guilty and stop eating, to help her clean. There was no sitting around the table, no enjoying each other’s company, not even for five minutes—there was no time for that. And she wouldn’t stop cleaning until the kitchen looked the pristine way it did the day before, as if Thanksgiving had never happened. All before 7pm. It’s horrible, I don’t participate in it anymore, it’s fine. My point is, I can’t do nothing, I wasn’t made that way.

Doing nothing is a skillset. It is, unfortunately, one that has historically been very difficult to me to master. You’ve seen the kind of family I come from. Doing nothing is wrong. Doing nothing means you’re lazy. And there’s nothing worse than doing nothing, there’s nothing worse than being lazy. Lazy is looked down upon. I don’t enjoy being looked down upon, do you?

I was raised to be a person in motion. I had to constantly be “doing” something. If I wasn’t occupying myself with some kind of meaningful employment, be it a chore or reading a book or actively playing in a way that didn’t require adult attention, I was doing something wrong, because I wasn’t doing enough. Imagine being tween and wanting nothing more than to watch Road Rules but anytime you park yourself in front of the television, you’re worried your family thinks less of you. (I still watched it—every second.)

Following this electrified upbringing, I equated being busy with being successful, and with making people proud of you. I was, unsurprisingly, far too busy to ask myself what would make me proud of me. A person taught that being busy is good and being un-busy is bad couldn’t have picked a better time to join the workforce, the fucking 2008 recession. When there are no jobs and you have an addiction to being busy, you’ll work yourself into absolute madness and take any job that will clear two feet of desk space for you. The first quarter of my professional life was rough, but educational.

Ten year’s later, in the summer of 2018, I became a full-time freelancer and I learned that you can work a lot less hard and still have just as much money, if not more. It’s a secret that no one, certainly nobody in the startup world, wants you to know. You don’t actually have to burn yourself out in order to earn a living. There are other ways. Some of them are even…easy. That was a very uncomfortable thing for me to learn, that making money can be easy. I’m still learning it all the time. As I write this, it’s not even 6AM. Some of my old ways persist.

Maybe “easy” isn’t the right word. Maybe I’m worried what you’ll think of me if I say my work is easy, as if that implies I don’t deserve the money I earn from it, because work is supposed to be hard. The things I’ve had to unlearn, my goodness. What I’ll say instead is that my work is enjoyable. That’s another thing that’s not allowed, enjoying work. Work is supposed to be something you don’t enjoy, but you do it because it makes you money. I wonder what would happen if we raised children to pursue professions they enjoy, no matter what. I wonder what would happen if I’d never been told not to be a writer, because writers don’t make money. I’d still be a writer, but maybe not without student loan debt from law school.

If I’m honest, I’m pretty angry about the whole “busy” thing. I’m angry that I formed so much of my understanding of professional life in startup culture that only values the first person in the door and the last person to leave and those people are often the same person and really, they’re not doing half as much actual work as the girl who’d really like to leave at 5PM since she arrived at 8AM and had been answering emails since six. But if she does, she’ll look lazy.

It would have been nice to begin my career in a space that valued actual work quality over office optics, but that’s not what happened. So I ground myself into dust trying to be the busiest person in the room. For ten years. I’ve spent the last two learning that you can earn a living without destroying yourself, you can love the work you do and simultaneously earn a strong living doing it, and sometimes, if you want, you can read a book at 2pm. People change.

Now we’re all learning it. Now we’re all learning how hard it is to do nothing. How hard it is to do less than all the things we used to do when we were allowed to leave the house. How many articles have come through your inbox lately with “ideas” for how to spend your quarantine? You know exactly how to spend your quarantine. You’re just terrified of it. You’re terrified of doing nothing. Because doing nothing somehow always feels like not doing enough.

We’re a culture bred to do the most, and anything less than the most is the least. A stay-home mandate is therefore one of the scariest things that could be imposed upon us. (To say nothing of…you know, a global pandemic that kills people, lungs-first.) I’ll just say it: doing nothing is incredibly uncomfortable. Because in our heads, we’re fucking up.

We should be doing more. We should be doing something. This can’t be it, this nothing. This clear calendar feels wrong. This time of sitting quietly feels misspent. What should we do? There must be something to do. There must be a way to occupy ourselves to the point of overwhelm, so that we feel productive again. Productive feels good. Productive feels responsible. If we’re productive, we’re doing things “right.” Figuring out what to “do” right now is very important. Time cannot be wasted. And we have a lot of time.

We have a lot of time. More time than we’re used to having, and thus more space to fill. More space that’s harder to fill, because the typical life things that fill it for us aren’t happening anymore. You just got your commute back. You got your school run back. You got your errands and classes back. We have no idea what the hell to do with this much time, all we know is that doing nothing with it feels like failure.

It’s not our fault. We live in a culture that celebrates productivity, busy-ness, and objects in motion. Couch time is pleasurable, but guiltily so. Relaxing feels like breaking the rules. That’s what we know of the world, that relaxing is only something you do after you’ve exhausted yourself, and even then it’s a sinister joy, and you can’t do too much of it, or you’ll look and feel lazy. We have absolutely no idea how to handle a life with this much abundant downtime. It is hard to do nothing because we’ve been taught not to our entire lives.

I think it takes practice. I think un-learning that doing less—even doing nothing—is bad, takes time, patience, and a little bit of proof. I think we have to prove to ourselves that we can take life easier than we’ve been taught to take it, and see that the world doesn’t end as a result. I mean…the world is kind of ending right now, but me watching Dracula on Netflix has very little to do with it.

It is more okay to do nothing than we’ve been programmed to believe. We will not lose everything we have if we aren’t constantly working, striving, producing, creating, and hustling. We will not be punished for breathing easily. None of this settles into the mind comfortably, but I like to think that it’s possible to at least get used to the idea. Busy worship is a very hard lesson un-learn, and maybe a global pandemic is an education we don’t want but are getting anyway. Let yourself do a little less. Let a little more go. See what happens after.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t written in a week. I’d been staring at headlines waiting for me to bring them to life and couldn’t summon any kind of motivation to touch a keyboard. And I fought that feeling, letting it force me to see myself as a failure, or somehow “behind” as if this quarantine has a productivity schedule assigned to it. Rather than just embracing that now is not the time to write and earn because my body isn’t driven to, now is instead the time for stillness and calm and maybe a bath or a some music, I let my body flood with guilt for not feeling feeling okay enough to work. It was, in a word, unpleasant. Once I got my swing back, it felt really good to write something. But it could have felt really good to do nothing in the meantime, too. Instead of teaching myself to be comfortable with the nothing, I let an old belief that not “doing something” was wrong claim an entire week of my life.

We’re going to have to learn to do nothing, and to like it. We’re going to have to prove to ourselves that we can do less than the most and still deserve our jobs and families and homes and lives. Everything we love won’t leave us just because we’ve reduced our output. Maybe our output was always too high. Taking it easy is uncomfortable, because we’ve been taught to believe that it’s wrong. We’ve been taught to equate ease with lack. And I can’t think of a better time to learn that ease and abundance belong together instead.

In all the times I’ve ever heard “life is hard,” I never once needed to hear it. That phrase has never not been stating the obvious. What I would have liked reiterated to me more often, or maybe just ever, is that not all of life is hard. Not all of life is any one thing. There is room, and need, for balance. And instead of viewing life as easy or hard, good or bad, maybe instead viewing life as opportunity for education and experience might help us fully live each moment, rather than always looking toward the next one.

For the last two years, I’ve spent Thanksgiving in a New York suburb, with friends. We cook, go on walks, watch parades, laugh recklessly, drink wine recklessly, the dishes get done in batches, and in turns. It is exactly how I want to spend my holidays, doing whatever we want, whenever we want, where the commodities produced at the highest volume are memories.

It is taking time for me to learn to do less, but I am always rewarded by having more. We’re in a time that tells us everything we cannot do, and everything we cannot have. We have a lot more nothing than we’re used to, and even now, I think we’ll find that really…we have everything we need.

If you’re having trouble doing nothing, put on this song and sit in a chair while you listen to it. It’s a good start.

Written by

NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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