How to Do Nothing – Effectively

Rain is streaming down the window panes. Less so than last night, but the morning sky remains an angry, bloated charcoal. The house sleeps, though I am awake. “It’s Saturday,” I remind myself, taking a deep breath. “I can do nothing.”

I sip my coffee. I listen to the quiet. I type an email to a friend; yesterday the storm knocked out my Internet connection. I have some catching up to do.

“No Internet yesterday,” I say, “but it’s Saturday, and I’m contemplating doing nothing all day.”  I look at the words on the screen and stop. I change the sentence to read: “I’m contemplating doing nothing for half the day.”

What’s up with that?

In fact, I was considering not writing for a day. If I took a day off from this discipline, would that be so terrible? So rebellious? Is doing “nothing” that difficult, and what do I consider doing nothing? No physical activity? No cooking? No writing? No thinking? For those of us who are always producing, care taking, facilitating, planning – is doing nothing actually a significant feat in and of itself?

The art of doing nothing

When you say you’re doing nothing, of course you’re doing something. But we toss that phrase out carelessly to indicate that we’re not actively working on something we notice or value. Whatever we may be doing – day dreaming, emptying our minds for a bit of relaxation, reading, watching television, soaking in a tub – even napping – it’s not nothing.

Here’s what we are not doing: exerting energy that drains us, chasing down items on our checklists, taking sustenance from accomplishment.

Doing nothing effectively is doing something

For me, doing nothing equates to unwinding. Doing nothing means not actively worrying about my children, about networking or researching, about writing or meeting commitments to others or myself.

And there are always commitments.

I’m quite skilled at doing nothing when I’m on vacation, preferably overseas where my surroundings are so different that the usual routine does not come into play. But I’m rarely on vacation, almost never overseas any longer, yet I recognize that if I could send my mind on a vacation somehow, some way – my nothing would be a very effective something.

A break. A serious break. A disconnect from what drives me, what pulls at me, what wears me down, what winds me up.

Your “nothing”

Do you throw the phrase “doing nothing” around?

  • How do you achieve a state of doing nothing that is something healthy?
  • What do you do when vacation is out of the question, but you need a mental break?
  • When you let things go, are you able to cut yourself some slack and not feel guilty?
  • How do you spend your Saturdays when you actually have a few hours to yourself?

Would that we could cease to equate a very human need for relaxation (and letting the mind wander) with all manner of pleasurable and productive pursuits – including much needed rest.


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  1. says

    It has been hard but I have been doing pretty close to nothing for almost 10 days now. My mother is in town. She lives in the desert Southwest so I see her once a year, generally. Since she has been here, I have written two blog posts (I think) and done precious little other than necessary (laundry and dishes) to keep my house running. The only thing I have not let go of is my training plan for the October marathon.

    I know it is often hard to do nothing but I am enjoying it. Unfortunately, I also think I have had enough!

  2. Angela says

    Enjoyable read, yes I do throw around “doing nothing”. I wake with all the intentions of doing nothing and sometimes, I may achieve that. Mostly my children will think that there is something wrong and keep checking in on me

    However, my doing nothing generally means that the main tasks such as cleaning, cooking definitely go out of the window. Although I have to confess that my internet addiction takes place everyday no matter what. On the other hand, I have learnt not to let feelings of guilt intrude into my ‘doing nothing’ world, because that’s the time I need just to be me.

  3. says

    My idea of doing nothing is catching up on all my DVR’d shows. Guilty pleasure. It is, however, hard for me to not feel guilty. I have difficulty relaxing and doing nothing in my own home. There is always so much to do.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Hmm. Notice how a mother’s “doing nothing” is never “nothing” – and any down time seems to engender guilt?

      I remember a time before children, when I worked 60 and 70-hour weeks routinely, but I did not feel guilty taking a day to walk, sit at a coffee shop, watch people, or flip through a fashion magazine – all of it – spontaneous. Since becoming a mother? As you say, Cathy – “There’s always so much to do.” Shouldn’t that mean that doing nothing/taking a break is even more important? Men take breaks. We think nothing of it. But we don’t. Why?

  4. says

    For me doing nothing is no housework or laundry. My kids are grown and no longer live with me, however, so that’s not so hard for me. I’ve gotten pretty good at requiring less of myself, although I still do get the guilts now and then.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Mine or older teens. Shouldn’t I be over this? :) Apparently not. Nice to have you here, Carol. (Enjoyed your site!)

  5. says

    It is so unbelievably hard to do nothing, huh?? When did this happen, and isn’t is almost exclusively a woman’s issue? I was a kid who loved to do nothing. Daydream. Read. Now I can’t sit by the pool w/o thinking I need to get up and pull those weeds, water those plants, sweep the rocks. I’m trying to let go but it’s hard. Good for you for not giving up!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And of course, yesterday, my “nothing” included some cleaning, bill paying, paperwork, cooking, and chaos-central in the Teen Zone. So, I think I was a “do nothing FAIL” yesterday, Maureen. (Do I get a “do over” today? Ha!)

      And good for you for being able to give yourself back a little of what so many women lose (for 20 years or so!) and hope to get back – at least fractionally.

  6. says

    I am having the same kind of day today. I have about two more hours of freedom before the kids arrive and I still can’t bring myself to do anything but read posts on doing nothing.
    I did go to hot yoga this morning.
    I did take a nice hot shower.
    I did make a yummy salad with fennel, tomato and tuna with a chili-lime dressing.
    I did do some work on a syllabus for next semester.
    Wow, maybe I did do a couple things.
    But I haven’t written. If I’m not inspired, I just may let it go.
    BTW- your post on long nights has really stuck with me. I may have to post a response on my blog.
    Take care-Molly

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I can empathize. (I haven’t even made it to the shower, but I’ve had coffee, coffee, and more coffee.)

      Shower? Reading posts? Next semester’s syllabus? Yes indeed, you violated the “do nothing” dictum. (I think it’s nearly impossible for mothers to do nothing.)

      As for the long nights post, I’ve been thinking about it, too. The perception that some must have of me, that I’m reclusive. And perhaps, it’s more than perception, though if that’s the case, it’s circumstance and not intention. I wonder how many other solo parents find themselves increasingly in this situation, as the years go on. And not by design. Perhaps by virtue of sheer fatigue.

  7. says

    Well, you’ve inspired me to write. I wrote an aticle called “Object to Nothing,” which despite the fact that it could be an interesting commentary on your post, it was really about an intention that I set for myself last week.
    Your Long nights post made me think about divorce and aloneness (is that even a word?). Solitude, maybe. A fifty-something divorcee friend of mine was riding her bike and a car hit her. She’s been in the hospital and won’t be able to go home for a while because she lives in a walk-up condo.
    Personally, your post and her accident made me realize how important it is to have good personal connections, people who will help you out in rough times. People who love you. Since my divorce I have definitely made it a goal to cultivate that. But unlike you, I have a co-parent who takes the kids three nights a week. Maybe your kids are old enough now to leave alone. Maybe you could even invite other girlfriends over to hang. I don’t want to think of you alone! xo

  8. says

    I think we all have our checklists because we are afraid of doing nothing. Doing nothing invites silence. And I think most people are afraid of silence. It is “more productive” to be in depths of doing, pushing off any chance of a more meditative relaxed state.

  9. says

    Back after two weeks of entertaining house guests. It went well — but now I’m playing catch-up and also experiencing that need to “do nothing” while also very much needing to get back to work! I’m shoving off real productivity for one more day and doing things like mending and emptying the dishwasher so the pile of dishes in the sink can go somewhere. Whew.

  10. says

    Before children I was VERY good at doing nothing. I’m one of those people who can sit on my porch and just sit, literally thinking and staring and doing nothing. But now, I try to fit in so many of my hobbies in the little free time I have and that means I’m usually racing and out of breath. I long for a rain Saturday, relaxing by the fire with a book with no responsibilities. The thing is, as long as they are there in the background, nagging at my subconscious it’s impossible to ignore them. I used to be able to do nothing because I was always on top of things. Unfortunately children changed all that. Loved this post Wolf!

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