Seven ways to do nothing
Nothing is the new something
I am so busy doing nothing… that the idea of doing anything — which as you know, always leads to something — cuts into the nothing and then forces me to have to drop everything. — Jerome Alan Seinfeld
When’s the last time you did nothing?
I mean, diddly, zip, zippo, zilch, bupkis?
I ask because of a recent conversation with a mom friend of mine.
She and her husband are managing three teens, running a fast-growing landscape design business with demanding clients, and redesigning and renovating their home.
She’s the classic frenzied multi-tasking mother juggler with barely the time for bodily functions, a Parvati, Hindu warrior goddess of many arms.
While not a parent myself, like Jane Goodall, the primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and U.N. Messenger of Peace did with apes, I’ve lived among parents and studied their social and family interactions enough to know that if this mother and I Freaky Friday’d, I’d have my bodily functions right in my pants.
But since I never had kids, I can do something she can’t: Nothing. I can do nothing in my sleep. And since her kids would soon leave for college, she really wanted to know how to do nothing.
Parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, commencement speakers and refrigerator magnets always tell us that “nothing is impossible.” I disagree. Nothing IS possible if you follow my guidance:
1. Commit a crime
Make it just bad enough — tax “mistake” — to go to prison. This is not my idea; one harried mom said she fantasizes about it. I don’t recommend except as a fallback if the next tips don’t work.
2. Ignore work guilt
For centuries we’ve been drilled that sloth is a deadly sin and idle hands are the devil’s playthings. (Though as an adolescent, I thought “devil’s playthings” were something else. But never mind that.)
The Old Testament proverbs are obsessed with sluggards. “The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work.” “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor.” “A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.” “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise.” (I like the reference to “her.”)
In the New Testament, Jesus wept but rarely slept. Yes, as a newborn he dozed away in a manger. But as an adolescent, He never slept in on weekends until 2 pm, or in his mid-20s stayed in bed until 11 a.m. and then stumbled to brunch and had seven beers and later napped them off. There was no college football or NFL to snooze the weekends away (though Texans will tell you Jesus would have been a Cowboys fan). But no way Jesus was a sluggard.
Americans are obsessed with toil and productivity, especially compared to the Europe we fled where work is practically illegal. The Puritan work ethic, our spirit of enterprise and roll-up-your sleeves industriousness, built this nation into the planet’s economic titan, powered us through the Industrial Age, the Great Depression, and two World Wars, and brought the Technology Age and Global Economy so we can get urgent emails on Christmas Eve that need immediate response.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is rich with stirring bromides from Great Men warning against being idle.
Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
George Bernard Shaw: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
Teddy Roosevelt: In any moment of decision … the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Billy Preston: “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’.”
Note: Burke died at a tender 68, Roosevelt at 60 and Preston at 61. A little nothing might have gone a longer way.
Shaw lived to 94, but he sat around a lot woolgathering. He also, incidentally, refused all state honors for his work including the legendary, exclusive Order of Merit, awarded by the Commonwealth Realms of the United Kingdom to only 24 living recipients for most distinguished service. Why? Shaw probably didn’t feel like doing anything that night.
My advice: If you can afford to work less, shake off the work guilt. You may die wishing you had spent more time at the office, but your bosses and colleagues — if they’re still alive — may only dimly remember you.
3. A body at rest remains at rest
And a body in motion — like a flywheel — can’t stop on a dime.
(By the way, Newton discovered his Laws of Motion while sitting under a tree doing nothing.)
To slow your flywheel, you have to pump the brakes.
Start with downloading iOS 11.1.1 on your iPhone — that’ll give you two hours free of emails, texts, calls, tweets or Russian trolling on Facebook.
Next, experiment with telling people, “Sorry — I’m busy,” even if you’re not terribly. If they say, “Yeah but…” say, “Sorry! Busy!” and hang up. Boundaries, people!
Or pretend you’re sick. If you really are sick, indulge it. You have the best possible moral and practical right to do absolutely nothing. Make the most of it. Learn there’s really nothing on 500 cable channels.
4. Beware the usual advice
Plenty of books, articles and lifestyle blogs offer guidance on the Art of Doing Nothing. They’re aimed at the over-calendared, back-to-back, kid-chaotic, stressed-out, hair-on-fire, wine-goblet-to-relax, up-at-1 a.m.-returning-273-emails-before-dawn types.
Guess what? The advice is written by those types. On deadline. At 1 a.m. With an editor bearing down and teens yelling in the background about how their uniforms for tomorrow morning’s game are still buried under the homework they need help with.
Take Veronique Vienne, author of The Art of Doing Nothing. Her bio on designersandbooks.com is exhausting just to read.
“A former magazine art director and editor with wide experience working in the U.S., Véronique Vienne has written extensively on lifestyle trends, design ethics, and business practices. In addition to lecturing and writing books on design, she has edited, art-directed, and written essays for a number of design publications in the United States and in Europe (House & Garden, Emigré, Communication Arts, Eye, Graphis, Aperture, Metropolis, Etapes, Print, and more).” She has 26 books on Amazon.
Advice from the busy about how to do nothing is inmates counseling the asylum. Ignore especially articles that mention “zen habits,” Thoreau at Walden, or “la Dolce Far Niente,” the Italian “sweetness of doing nothing” from Eat, Pray Love because this advice is hackneyed and irritating.
Most important: Reading about doing nothing is doing something productive, which is not what we’re working on here.
5. Practice, practice, practice
To do nothing, just do it. Over and over. Wear comfortable, stretchy Nike active wear. It’ll help you relax, plus, it’ll make it look like you’re active.
Learning to do nothing is like learning to play tennis. You have to keep at it. At first it’s frustrating and harder than it looks. Then you start to get the hang of it, and maybe even enjoy it. Then your expectations for your game fall short of reality. Then you curse at yourself and break rackets. Now you’re obsessing about tennis, which cuts into your nothing. So forget the tennis.
For the best practice at nothing, I recommend a trip to the DMV. Do not take a book, iPhone, iPad or any other senseless entertainment. Or watch the CNN or Fox crawl on the TV monitors. Nobody’s blood pressure needs that. Just sit there, waiting to be called. Look at the other bored people and wonder who they are, what they do, what their lives are like, and whether they’re really how they look.
Or inadvertently let a swarm of teen pre-women get ahead of you at Starbucks and wait while each takes forever ordering The Most Complicated Coffee Drinks on the Planet. While you’re waiting, ponder the existential questions like why God hates you so much.
One more idea: Waste six hours on the phone with Verizon to not find out why you pay $280 a month for Fios Triple Play AND YOUR INTERNET STILL DOESN’T WORK. But then — bonus! — the internet not working gives you more time to do nothing.
6. Relish boredom
This is toughest of all. We’ll do anything to avoid being bored. We equate boredom with our spirits slowly dying. “Boredom’s a pastime that once soon acquired/where you get to the stage where you’re not even tired,” the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song Holiday Inn warns. Pet Shop Boys celebrated “we were never being boring.”
Thanks to Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and their ilk, we have more ways to avoid boredom than ever. Like Parvati, goddess of many arms, juggling many things, we always have something to grab our time and attention.
But as Wired writer Clive Thompson noted, “Boredom might spark creativity because a restless mind hungers for stimulation. Maybe traversing an expanse of tedium creates a sort of cognitive forward motion.”
I’ve had time between work demands, life demands, and interest demands to experience boredom, the freedom from demands, with absolutely nothing that called my attention or needed to be done.
I felt guilty at first — why aren’t I using this time productively? There must be something that needs to be done. Maybe I could read the Great Novels? Start a book club to discuss the Great Novels? Help the less fortunate by donating the Great Novels?
But then I remembered this advice for dealing with boredom:
7. Walk without purpose
Whether or not golf is the proverbial “good walk spoiled,” I say, skip the expensive, time-consuming frustration of hitting a ball with a stick and go for a walk just for the hell of it.
If you can, walk around the neighborhood, around your city and other cities in neighborhoods you don’t know, in woods and along walking trails, to the bank, the store, the post office, Starbucks.
It never ceases to fascinate what you see, the people and details you miss while driving, hurrying with intent from place to place.
Like this doorjamb hardware I spied meandering on foot in an old town —
Whenever I see it, the picture reminds me: Nothing ain’t bupkis.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer