“KaeLyn does everything fast.”
That’s what my mom said about me when I was a little kid. For literally as long as I can remember, I’ve been on the go-go-go. Having two teachers as parents meant high standards and lots of support for constant learning. Paired with my natural tendency to hold myself to ridiculously high standards and to commit to slightly more things than I can actually accomplish because of the annoying limitations of being a non-super human, I’m well… I’m always doing everything fast.
I had the enormous blessing of having a week off from my day job this week. We closed the whole virtual office so everyone on staff could get some time away from the grind. We all needed it, for sure. I felt like I was doing a decent job of taking time off. After getting Remi to summer camp on Monday and Tuesday, I had actual alone time during daylight hours! I took most of Monday afternoon to go on a shopping trip semi-date with Waffle. I went to the gym every day. I enjoyed a slow coffee every morning. However, two days in, Waffle looked at me and said, “So are you going to work every day of your vacation?”
I was behind the deadline on submitting my course reader for a new course I’m applying to teach in the fall. Because I’d taken Monday to spend time with Waffle, I had stayed up late the night before working on it and was still working on it on Tuesday. Waffle asked me what I had planned for the rest of the week and I rattled off a laundry list of tasks and chores. I had some writing deadlines. I planned to read and submit feedback about a book chapter for a former colleague. I had to outline work course plans for two summer writing workshops that I’m teaching or co-teaching in the next month. I had scheduled a couple of phone meetings for speaking gigs. I had some work to do and meetings to schedule for the nonprofit board I recently stepped into leadership on as chair. I wanted to finally get the fridge fixed, get artwork framed and hung, and some other things.
As I reflected on it, I realized I had scheduled a bunch of things during my “week off” because I saw it as a great opportunity to catch up on my various commitments and jobs outside of my capital “j” Job. Because I, like a lot of people and especially my fellow Capricorns, am addicted to productivity. In other words, Waffle wasn’t wrong. I was kind of working every day of my vacation. I decided I needed to do something big to disrupt and stop the productivity train. I needed to do less.
Between being a parent in the pandemic with a kid at home for pretty much the past four years, always working a full-time job and several side jobs, and just being the person I naturally am, I wasn’t sure that I even knew how to stop trying to “produce.” Capitalism is bullshit and it also absolutely encourages and rewards my ridiculous personal ambition. Capitalism culture (which is also white supremacy culture) demands that we keep working to prove our value–the more we produce, the more we’re worth.
What an interesting idea, I thought, to actually do nothing at all. I had one day on my calendar for the week during which I had no meetings or appointments scheduled – Wednesday – and I decided I was going to commit to a “do nothing productive day.”
I made some basic rules: no running errands, no phone calls, no email, no volunteer or paid work, no cleaning the house, no anything for any purpose other than survival or feeling good. Whew. OK. I shared on social media both to force myself to hold myself accountable and to share the idea in case it spoke to anyone else who was also feeling swept up in the nonstop productivity grind.
Doing nothing as a form of self-care or mindfulness is not a new concept. On some level, I was surely subconsciously informed by the general wellness discourse that exists around mindfulness and self-care. It was also just a personal challenge which, unlike most of my pursuits, wouldn’t be rewarded by achieving anything immediately tangible. It was a challenge and I love a challenge!
I did some prep work to set myself up for success. I had one writing deadline on Wednesday, so I finished that piece and submitted it the night before. I did the dishes in the sink and did a basic picking up of the living room and dining room. I downloaded the never-stop feed of reminders and information from my brain into a long to-do list which I then saved and put away until Thursday, to try to clear the noise from my head. Then, finally, I went to bed fully committed to my “do nothing productive” day.
Wednesday, I woke up, turned off my alarm, and without thinking, opened my email on my phone. Oops! I realized what I was doing and quickly shut it down. Soon after, I heard my toddler pulling herself up onto my bed. This morning, she sat down next to me and said, “Mom? Can I sit with you? My pants are dry.” This woke me right up. Why… why would the pants not be dry? Long story short, Remi had a small accident on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but put her wet pants back on and went back to bed instead of waking me up to help her. She loves doing things all by herself. Like parent, like child!
So I started the day by cleaning Remi up and stripping her bed. As I went to get myself dressed – we still needed to get out the door to drop her off at summer camp – I stepped directly in cold cat puke. Fun. By the time I dropped off Remi, I was not feeling particularly mindful and I definitely wasn’t feeling grounded. Oh, and I unexpectedly got my period a week early in the middle of all of this. What a day to try to do nothing and practice mindfulness!
I decided to do some retail therapy on the way home, something I rarely get to do by myself and haven’t done since pre-pandemic. I love shopping alone, taking my time thumbing through clearance racks. While buying consumer goods doesn’t exactly improve my relationship to Capitalism, it’s what I needed at the moment and helped me get back to a place of focusing on myself. I bought a bunch of new shirts on sale and some K-beauty products that were on clearance with the intention of doing some masking at some point in the day. I didn’t end up using them, so I stick to my opinion that self-care is not, in fact, magically achieved through face masks. (I am doing the gold face mask right now, though.)
The real test was going to be “doing nothing productive” at home. I’m pretty good at switching off my work-brain when I’m out of the house and doing something else actively, like when I’m on vacation or at an event or doing anything outside of my normal routine. Escaping to a different place is my favorite instant self-care move. (See: my morning shopping adventure.) However, you can’t escape when you’re in your home. I work in my home. I live in my home. I co-parent Remi and am responsible for keeping our home semi-functional. There’s no getting away from the messy piles or incomplete chores or my constant running to-do list in my own home.
Literally, as soon as I was back in my house, I started thinking in terms of things I could get done with my free time. I could put those clean clothes away that have been strewn across the bed for weeks. I could throw a load of laundry in. I could finally pick up my desk. I could pick up Remi’s toys. These thoughts kept coming to the surface as I tried to relax. I’d actively swat them away but it seemed impossible to turn my brain inward.
Instead, I sat with the urge to pick up my house and reflected on what it means for self-care. Having a clean space improves mental health and reduces stress, so should I use this time to pick up because it helps with self-care later? I definitely get a little dopamine hit from accomplishing a chore I’ve been putting off. Ultimately, I decided that I would stick to my “no cleaning” rule and stepped away from the clothing and toy piles. But I think, had I not been doing this experiment, I would probably have benefitted from having time to do some picking up at a leisurely pace. That said, I took a hot, pampering shower instead.
I had one other plan for the day outside of the house, which was to go to the gym. This felt like an appropriate part of my day because I was going to do it with Waffle, something I can’t usually do during the workweek, and because I exercise purely for my own wellness, not to achieve anything in particular besides movement and health. That said, I had to decide if I wanted to put my gym clothes on after my shower or not, which brought up another existential crisis about doing nothing.
Should I wear what was practical, my gym clothes, or put on something more comfortable for the couple of hours of lounging I had before the gym? The pragmatic choice was the gym clothes. I asked myself this question: What feels good? What does my body and mind want? The easy answer was that my body wanted to wear my supersoft, breathable, roomy loungewear jumpsuit without a bra. So that’s what I put on.
Finally, I was on my couch, doing nothing in particular. I had a hard cider and a stack of fresh books on a table next to me. I turned on some music. I couldn’t figure out what to do next. Normally, I’d reach for my phone and play a game or check my email. This kicked off what was probably the most interesting part of my day.
I decided to just lay back on the couch, my slicked-back hair wet from the shower, my arms and legs floppy falling wherever they fell, and focus on feeling my body and my mind. I closed my eyes. I started by focusing attention on any parts of my body that weren’t comfortable or weren’t relaxed. I worked on relaxing and repositioning until I was as comfortable as I could be. Our cat sensed an opportunity and climbed atop me, laying down across my chest like a tiny weighted blanket. I could smell his warm, sweet fur. I focused on that, too. And I just laid there with my eyes closed.
My mind began to wonder. I discovered something weird. I don’t usually have an inner monologue – I experience my own thoughts as bursts of pictures or feelings or ideas. However, apparently, when I’m in a quiet mental space, I have an inner voice. I heard myself start to think about myself in full sentences, in the third person. I visualized pulling those words back into my head and rephrasing them as “I” statements. My mind kept going to external things and I kept having to pull direction back to myself and the moment I was experiencing right then.
As I practiced this, I began to feel really quiet and really still. I eventually shifted my body to lay down on the couch with my head on a pillow, my eyes still closed, and stayed like that until I heard my phone go off. Over an hour passed in that time and I didn’t fall asleep, I just stayed in my own mind and body. Truly, I didn’t know I could do this. Is this meditation?! I don’t know, but my hour of nothingness was the high point of my day and it totally got me in the headspace to stick with the “do nothing productive” experiment for the rest of the day.
Ultimately, I had to shift back into thinking about needs beyond my own when I picked Remi up from camp. However, I learned a few things about myself and about the art of doing nothing.
1. Doing Nothing Is Not Always Self-Care
Doing this the way I chose to, as an experiment with clear parameters, actually kind of made it a productivity thing and thus made some parts of the day somewhat stressful. I had to answer questions about whether it made more sense to stick with the experiment or do what feels good. I actually get a lot of satisfaction from cleaning my space when I have the luxury of time to do so, which is not often enough. I think if I wasn’t doing the “do nothing day,” I would definitely have put my clothes away and felt so much better having a picked-up room that it would have cleared my mind a bit. That said, giving yourself permission to not do the chores is a whole other thing. I’m glad I let go of any guilt I might have felt about not doing any chores or cleaning. That part was definitely self-care.
That said, doing nothing is also not always self-care because I often do nothing without any intention. When I’m exhausted or overwhelmed, those are the moments I’ll find myself up late at night watching nonsense TV. But that mindset is more about burnout and my body reacting in survival mode to stress. Underneath all of that is a whole lot of guilt about whatever I either can’t or am choosing not to do. The difference in this experiment was that I did nothing with a lot of intention. I even prepared ahead of time to help myself let go of guilt and worry. And the result was a much better experience.
2. Doing Nothing as a Self-Care Philosophy Is Still Rooted in Capitalism
I couldn’t have done a whole day of doing nothing without quite a few privileges and supports. Everyone deserves to achieve mindfulness and the reality is that you need to have a lot of security in your life to really do so. I have no worries about food, housing, or job security. I had childcare all day which created space for me to be alone. I had paid time off from work. The very concept of leisure time has always been predicated on class, wealth, gender, and race. So “doing nothing” is not pure from Capitalism after all. You have to have some accumulated wealth in order to have the luxury of not producing and be praised for it. If you don’t have wealth and spend a day doing nothing productive, you’ll be called lazy and useless, not leisurely. All people deserve rest and leisure. I feel even more passionate about defending the right to leisure and trying to promote the kind of supports people need and deserve to experience rest, especially those most pushed to the margins.
3. Doing Nothing Well Is Really, Very, Extremely Hard
This wasn’t a surprise to me, but I have to fess up that it was a real challenge. I’m not sure that I can function on a daily basis in “do nothing productive” mode. I did learn some techniques to relax my mind and get to a more introspective place and I want to bring that practice into my daily life more often. I think I’ll always be a person who wants to achieve bigger things, take on new challenges, and do more and more. That said, I’m also a person who gets overwhelmed and engages in spontaneous, desperate escape–impromptu trips and vacations, binge-watching TV until 4 AM, playing games for hours before bed. I want to be more mindful in moments like that and be able to be focused on the present even in my usual space. I’m thinking I may want to build more skills in meditation and visualization to put in my mindfulness toolbox when I need to take a break and get the urge to escape.
4. Doing Nothing Is Only Successful If It’s Guilt-Free
The success of the experiment hinged on keeping the rules flexible, preparing ahead of time for the day of rest, and absolving myself of the guilt I usually carry when I try to do less. Frankly, doing less is something I can do and actually do fairly regularly. I don’t overwork myself at this point in my career. Instead, I have a huge to-do list trailing behind me at all times, but I just put it aside at break time and triage it every morning. That said, I’m always aware of what I still need to do and that to-do list runs in my head 24/7. Turning off that part of my brain was extremely difficult and I really only achieved it by doing some intentional brain training during my amazing hour of nothingness. Letting go of guilt by making doing nothing the goal of the day both fed my desire for productivity (must achieve the goal!) and helped me let go of all the things I wasn’t going to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever plan a whole day this way in the future, but I definitely think scheduling time to do nothing is the key to keeping it shame and guilt-free so I can actually recharge my batteries.
5. Doing Nothing Is Best Done Alone
I derive a lot of pleasure from doing activities with others. However, when I’m with others, I’m always thinking about others. As soon as Waffle got home from work and even more so once Remi was back home, too, I was thinking about them and their needs and including them in my decision-making process. I don’t think I can “do nothing productive” with someone else. Maybe other people can hold those two things at the same time. For me, though, this is only a state of mind I can achieve when I’m alone. I’ve always liked to work out alone, shop and complete errands alone, drive alone, spend time alone. I thought I was an extrovert for a long time because I love and get high on great conversations with people, I’m open to change, and I’m very, very, very talkative. I think I really am an ambivert, though, partially because my mind needs time to recover from so much external stimulation. I haven’t always been good at setting boundaries to carve that introvert space out for myself and I think I really need it to thrive.
Ultimately, I don’t think I could “do nothing productive” for more than a day, nor do I think it’d be right for me, but I definitely learned more than I expected about myself. My go-to coping methods, escapism and indulgence, are things I really love and hold dear. I don’t want to totally replace them with a mindfulness practice because that doesn’t seem realistic (or fun) to me. That said, I’m going to try to add mindfulness to my self-care toolbox. (I haven’t done a lot of reading or work on mindfulness, so if you have recommendations, I’d love to hear them in the comments!) At the end of the “do nothing productive” day, I felt ready to jump back in on my to-do list on Thursday, grateful for the time to rest and grateful for the work I love to do.