Why We Need Enforced Constraints

by Stephanie Stern

One of my happiest memories, a memory of when I was totally content, was a long airplane ride. It was the summer before college, and I was flying to Hong Kong with my parents. We had been upgraded to business class, which provided an actually comfortable seat that reclined with a footrest. I snuggled in under a blanket with a Harry Potter book and read, engrossed, while the flight attendant occasionally came by with snacks and my parents slept across the aisle. It’s crazy to think that an airplane, of all things, could yield such contentment. It was my first taste of the pleasure of whitespace, that expanse when nothing demands your time or attention.

An enforced constraint, in that case being on an airplane, can create a boundary that is actually quite freeing. A couple of years ago I had another memorable experience with enjoying whitespace when volunteering at a crisis hotline. Once I got comfortable with taking calls, my favorite part of each shift at the hotline became the time in-between calls. I needed to stay near the phone and computer and be ready for the next incoming call, yet I felt otherwise totally free to do whatever I wanted. I was already “doing” something by volunteering and being ready to answer the phone, so in the downtime, instead of wringing out the time by being “productive,” I could just let myself do whatever I most wanted. Sometimes, it was bumbling around the internet and shopping online, sometimes it was writing or doodling, or chatting with other volunteers.

This might sound absurd, but in my day-to-day my life I struggle with a driving need to “do” and “accomplish” in every spare moment. If I have a Sunday without anything scheduled, I am bad at relaxing and doing nothing. After about 20 minutes of lying around, I start thinking about errands I could run, cooking that needs to happen, or other activities to occupy my time in “worthwhile” ways.

This desire to accomplish can even follow me on vacation. Last December, my boyfriend and I took a trip to a beach in Mexico. It was beautiful, and we only had a few days to enjoy it. I wanted to swim, snorkle, take trips to the nearby wildlife preserve and swimming holes, and explore town. A day in, having accomplished few of my goals, my boyfriend got sick. He was confined to our hotel and slept in a hammock on the beach for most of the day. I felt tethered to him, wanting to make sure that he was ok and getting everything he needed. So I too spent the whole day at our hotel: I ordered lunch to my chair on the beach, read, swam, and checked in with my sick patient every so often. If he had been well, I would have made us go snorkeling or see ruins, but a day of nothing at the beach was perfect when I was forced to just be there.

I’m now trying to schedule time for the unscheduled in my real, day-to-day life. I recently cut back to a four-day workweek, and now have Mondays off. Sometimes, it feels overwhelming knowing I can do anything with that time. So I take a lesson from my hotline whitespace experience and leave time that I need to be at my desk, but otherwise have no constraints. Sometimes, I create collages or draw, sometimes I write, sometimes I watch silly videos online. The value comes not in accomplishing any of these individual tasks per se. The value is in asking myself what I want to do in moment, and being able to do it. The only goal is to be responsive to what is pulling me in that instant. Ironically, the constraint helps me open up possibilities and get rid of the idea that I should be doing more.

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).