It is curious that nowadays when asked “how are you?”, the fashionable answers are “good” and “busy”. Variants include “good but busy”. For the word good I think we can all blame Friends, but for busy we have to blame ourselves and, by extension, society at large. We have become a civilization of doers. We define ourselves by what we do and success is measured by activity. Conversely, inactivity is seen as bad. Apparently, the devil makes work for idle hands.
August is peak holiday season, providing a brief respite from the daily grind of being busy. Once three-week holidays were the norm. Now most seem to take a two-week break (unless, of course, you’re in one of those European countries where a four-week break is still socially acceptable). But by the time you’ve factored in travelling and recovering from travelling even a two-week break is never really more than ten days. And how do most people spend their holidays? By doing things. Walking, cycling, swimming, sight-seeing the 10 things not to miss and, of course, checking emails. Holidays are frequently little more than working by another name. Work itself is a constant battle of trying to do more with less. And it can be exhausting constantly trying to be the best you can be. Holidays are often merely a recovery phase, rebooting energy levels, before another burst of work.
I confess that I used to be dreadful at doing nothing. For me inactivity was an alien concept. I relaxed (or so I thought at the time) by doing things. In fact, all I was doing was finding ways to avoid being with myself. I considered inactivity as being the same as inertia, indolence, lethargy, idleness and laziness with a bit of ennui thrown in. There were too many exciting things to do, I felt, to be bored. As Chesterton said: “There are no uninteresting things, only uninteresting people.” It took me a long time to realise that boredom is not the same as doing nothing or of having nothing to do. Boredom comes from not being satisfied and of always wanting something else. FOMO, as it’s now described.
Doing nothing is a state all of its own. It is both an active and passive acceptance of non-judgemental inactivity. It is about being comfortable with oneself in one’s own surroundings. And oddly enough, things happen where you’re doing nothing. Ideas, thoughts, memories, and emotions float into view. New perspectives arrive casting a different light on seemingly intractable issues. Things that seemed highly important become ephemeral. Left alone, many issues heal themselves. In fact, wouldn’t it be so much better if more people stopped fiddling and left things alone. “Don’t just do something, stand there” should be a motto for our times.
As a coach, I often try and help clients to be less busy. I help them try to find time to think and, more importantly, to not think. Or, to use the mot du jour, chill. Of course, there’s a time to think and there’s a time to act, but without wishing to sound too like Ecclesiastes, there’s also a time not to think and a time not to act. Embracing the gentle art of not doing anything and not feeling guilty about it takes practice. We should all find time to channel our inner Oblamov. As Mark Twain nearly said, whenever I feel the need to do something I lie down until the feeling goes away.
And for a bonus track, here’s Bing Crosby singing Busy doing nothing