Doing nothing is the secret to making the most of life
IT STARTS AT 4:00 PM A M one Saturday, a throbbing and incessant pain behind my left temple. I try to fall back to sleep but I can’t – the second clue missed – and around 6am I’m faced with another day of work on the weekend.
It’s fall 2020 and I’m at risk of losing my job at ESPN. Two decades of outdoing others – writing books and hosting a podcast, among other activities – and being proud to have friends by saying, “How do you do all of this?” convinced me that I need to do even more now. I should find solace in all the skills I have developed to support my wife, Sonya; our three children; and my mother-in-law, who moved in when she retired. I do not.
At noon I can’t concentrate and have to lie down. Soon I’m hyperventilating as a burning pain spreads to my stomach and then to my fingers and toes, suddenly inflamed and too sensitive to touch anything. In the ER, Sonya speaks for me as I undergo a CT scan which luckily rules out a brain aneurysm.
The bad news, says the neurologist, is that he’s seeing more guys like me, for whom the pandemic increases stress that is ignored until their anxiety levels rise so high that they double.
Seventy-seven percent of us say we’re a lot more stressed now, according to a Cleveland Clinic survey. Fifty-nine percent say the Covid quarantine has done more damage to our mental health than the 2008 economic crisis. Yet 66 percent of us live the old-fashioned mores of masculinity and rarely discuss the pain and the impact of the pandemic on our mental health.
“And so you end up here,” says the neurologist. His advice? Do not come back.
The stress I feel – I decide I need to do something.
Lesson 1: Identify when not to rush
I MUST DO NOTHING. This is what I decide with my therapist: to integrate idleness into my day. âRest will relax you,â he says. Then a few weeks later I get a call from my boss with an online HR executive and they fire me.
Now the crisis is real. I can feel the angst and fear of impending misery pushing me towards crazier productivity, fueled by the need – primal and real – to provide. My therapist recommends that I start with a walk.
It is not prescribed nothing– I always laugh at nothing– but the walk will separate me from the all On my laptop. I keep it brief, staying on the shady street of my quiet suburb, listening to a Douglas MacArthur biography because, come on, I’m not do not is going to be productive. But I actually feel calmer and more energetic upon my return, which makes me curious. Can doing nothing be a productivity hack?
It turns out that Thomas Edison and his employees spent hours doing nothing but thinking. This led to some of the team’s biggest ideas. Bill Gates has long taken what he calls a think week, during which he travels to a remote area on his own to just read and think. This has inspired many Microsoft victories. These days Stefan Sagmeister takes a whole year off once every seven years. This has made his New York-based design firm one of the most sought after in the world because, as he said in a TED talk, each âsabbaticalâ offers unparalleled vision and enthusiasm for future endeavors.
True to form, Sagmeister declined my request to speak to him, saying, “During this unusual time, I try to minimize my allotted time in front of screens and on the phone.” It’s baller.
I take inspiration from these entrepreneurs and literally plan the idleness using the calendar that I have filled with projects. Some days my therapist recommends the half hour walk. Other days it’s a block of daydreaming when I journal about projects that I might someday pursue. Sometimes he plays the role of physical education coach for my nine year old twins while they are distance learning. Like everyone else, downtime produces real results for me. During a daydream session, I got the idea of ââstarting a paid online community to help creatives learn from each other in a way they can’t use social media.
A small business was born.
Lesson 2: Trust the power of idleness
IN MY EMERGING DOWNTIME, I read books like Andrew Smart’s Autopilot: the art and science of doing nothing, which articulates a theory as to why disconnection is so important. When areas of the brain “don’t do anything,” Smart tells me, they “organize themselves for later use.”
This neural recovery has a name, the resting state network (RSN), and also a function: to promote creativity. That’s according to the neurologist who laid the groundwork for the RSN study, Marcus Raichle, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Colleagues believed Dr Raichle was mad in the early 2000s for hooking people up to MRI scans and observing what went on in the brain when subjects did nothing physically.
âThey would just stay there,â says Dr. Raichle. But he found that “there is continuous activity in your brain, all the time,” suggesting that neural rest is never rest. âProblems are resolved,â he said, even without our knowing it.
Whether it’s Isaac Newton under the apple tree or me out for a walk, Dr Raichle maintains that we are often at our best creative when we are most relaxed. This is true for me. I am happier, I think more clearly because of my scheduled downtime. Even though I have more work than ever, I am less stressed. I realize that I have been working the wrong way for 20 years. I don’t need to struggle and pin and rule the hours of each day. I can move with them, appreciate them for who they are. I find snippets of time for even more downtime.
Lesson 3: Do less to feel more
AT A CERTAIN POINT in the spring of 2021, I feel bad to say that I am using rest as a guide to optimize productivity. I am beyond the hacks of life. I develop a worldview now, with idleness – the one prescribed long ago nothing– as its fundamental principle.
As artist and author Jenny Odell says in her recent book, How to do nothing: resist the attention economy, “Such ‘nothing’ can be tolerated [by modern society] because they cannot be used or appropriated and do not provide any deliverables. Odell links the less-is-more ideology to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who created a garden and a school of thought on the premise that the good life comes from closely studying everyday life.
One day I called Tom Hodgkinson just before he left the office early so he could properly observe his bustling city on the bike ride to his apartment. Hodgkinson short The idle, which is as much a state of mind as it is a magazine published in London: its team hosts events and even a full-fledged academy to teach the art of simple pleasures, which some consider indolence but is in fact increased intelligence. âPeople feel …Men feel that they must act responsibly, that is, they must be slaves to the office to provide for their families. But then they turn 50 and their wives hate them and their kids are adults and don’t know them, âHodgkinson says. “This is irresponsible to me.
We’re talking about the Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal project that followed Harvard students of World War II from their sophomore year until the day they died. The main finding, across decades and strata of careers? Happiness is a by-product of the relationships you have, with your friends but even more with your family.
âHappiness is love. Complete shutdown, âwrote one of the lead researchers of the Harvard Grant Study.
âExactly,â Hodgkinson said.
Lesson 4: Nothing + Nothing = Everything
AS LONG AS WAR TIME, I gave up my job to teach my daughter to rollerblade. I’m trying to keep up with my twins as they play Just Dance 2021 on Nintendo Switch. My steps lengthen and I leave my phone behind me. I watch the sun rise along the treeline. I can make out the birdsong. Back home, I answer fewer emails and start praying, which I haven’t done since I was a child. It is both an act of faith and a communion with calm.
I haven’t had a headache in weeks, but I hope we can all be, as Hodgkinson puts it, “evolved and superior people.” We still have time, even as the world reopens, to remember where this world of activity will take us. âLook where it got you,â Hodgkinson says.
âExactly,â I say.
This ultimately led me to realize that idleness is not laziness. I still do a lot. But the nothings that I program every day, modify and streamline every Somethings I am continuing. the nothings focus not only on my work but also, as Epicurus would have had it, on the granular life outside: the multi-toned silence of dawn as I stand in my kitchen as I prepare the Coffee; the shrill cries of laughter at night when my kids and I play together.
Lately, every noon hour, I have walked the path that leads to a river that flows behind my house. One day I meet a photographer who points to a swan and tells me that it is rarely seen in our part of Connecticut. That’s why she brought her camera: to capture what seems prosaic, disposable, nothing, but to the discerning eye, it’s beautiful and even transcendent.
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