Be More Productive By Doing Nothing
I didn’t write a post last week. And this week’s post is 4 days late. Shit. SHIT!
Normally, when I miss a post, I feel bad about it, and try to catch up somehow. It weighs on me, like the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head by a thread, ready to drop at any time and kill me.
But with this post, I had reached a point where I had too many things going on, and something had to give.
I was burning out.
Calvin Is My Hero
When I was a child, I read this passage from Calvin and Hobbes. It changed my life.
He’s right you know. There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want. Sometimes, there isn’t even enough time to do a little bit of nothing.
My life is busy. I write for my blog, I go to the gym, I cook, I work fulltime, I play fighting games, I work on getting my book published, I clean my apartment.
And that was just yesterday.
Basically, I have no free time. Ever.
And it comes at a price.
When I have too much stuff going on, I spread myself thin. Things start falling apart. I don’t eat as healthy, or take care of myself, or spend as much time with my friends. I let many things fall by the wayside.
When you’re too busy, when there are too many things going on in your life, you make room for the most urgent ones by dropping the ones that you can live without.
Which is horrible, because oftentimes the most urgent things aren’t the most important ones.
Like when you miss your best friend’s birthday because you have a deadline.
My Cups Analogy
I think of it like this:
The things going on in your life are cups.
You are the water.
By choosing to have many cups, you are spreading the water very thinly across them. For a cup to have more water, another must have less.
The problem with life is there are infinite cups. But there’s only a limited amount of water. There’s only a limited amount of you.
So why didn’t I write a post last week? Because another cup needed filling more.
I’ve been playing the harp on and off for about 8 years now. Last year, after injuring my shoulder, I stopped playing the harp completely. I recovered after months of physio, but I stayed away from my music, because I was too busy.
About a month ago, a friend asked me to play at a charity benefit this past weekend. I had just over 3 weeks to practice and create enough music for 20 minutes.
Rather than say “no, I’m out of practice”, I used this opportunity to get back into it. I added another cup to my collection.
So I practiced every day. In fact, I practiced harder than I ever have in my life. It was beautiful, and fun, and exhausting.
But it was too much. By adding this practice on top of my already full schedule, I had to take away from another cup. I ended up emptying out my writing cup, and missing a blog post, and not writing my book proposal.
Notice the nothing cup is still empty. With so many cups that need filling, who has time for nothing anymore?
Why Nothing Is Important
I am a ashamed to say that it’s been ages since I did nothing. I don’t remember the last time I had an evening where I had no plans, where I would come home, plop my ass in front of the TV, order some food and chill out.
Why? Because I don’t allow myself downtime. There’s always work to be done.
Wanna watch TV? I could, but that’s time that I could use to practice my harp, or write a blog post, or work on my book proposal, or fix my curtain rack, or stretch my aching shoulder and do some physio, or… you get the idea.
Worse still, on the rare occasions where I do get downtime? I feel guilty. That never ending to-do list looms over my head, and makes me feel like shit, if I’m not constantly checking stuff off it.
The part I had forgotten, was this: there’s always going to be more work to be done, even when you’re done.
You don’t finish a checklist and then say “whoopee, let’s roll baby, no more work forever!”. For most people, I’ll wager you never finish the list. You get close, then expand it again by adding 10 new items.
And it takes its toll on you mentally. By always having something to do, by always having unfinished business and items to check off your list, you get tired.
Even when I’m supposed to be relaxing, I’m worrying about getting stuff done. When I’m working, I’m worrying even more. All that mental energy that gets sucked away, makes me perform worse at everything.
Empty Out The Cups
Here’s my pattern. I work hard, fill up my schedule to the max. I spread myself thin, and run myself ragged.
I end up with too many cups, and not enough water. Then I pour the water from all the not-urgent cups into the most urgent one. I do that one thing the best, and shove everything else aside.
Then I burn out. I fall apart for a few days, where I don’t want to do anything, or I get sick, because my body tells me to stop this stupidity.
And I end up accomplishing much less than if I had balanced things out.
What saddens me, is the first cup that I chuck is the “nothing” cup. I never do nothing. Calvin, and the little boy inside of me, would be ashamed.
I wasn’t even aware it was a problem until I read Play It Away, a book by Charlie Hoehn on curing anxiety. Charlie pointed out that I wasn’t playing enough. Worse still, when I played, instead of feeling good, I felt guilty. And that’s so wrong on so many levels.
After reading his stuff, I decided to do something about it.
I decided to take a day, and do nothing.
Thank Baby Mario for Office Space
Sunday evening. 6pm. I was home, alone, tired. I had a blog post to write. I had dishes that needed doing. I had a full basket of laundry. My shoulders were tense and needed some physio exercises and stretching. My fridge was empty, I had to do groceries.
6:10pm. Shit. Ten minutes of worrying, and wasted mental energy, and I still haven’t done any of that stuff. I’d better… wait.
It can all wait.
The world isn’t going to end if I don’t write a blog post. I’ll survive without groceries this one night.
I took a deep breath then.
You know what I did?
I did nothing. I ordered a chicken salad with avocados, turned on Netflix, and watched The Clone Wars cartoons for a few hours (thanks JR for the recommendation!).
And it was glorious.
I didn’t think about anything, except watch Jedi do backflips and wield lightsabers, and imagine myself taking down an army of droids with The Force.
I went to bed at 10pm, relaxed and happy.
When I woke up Monday morning, I was so ready to kick ass. For the first time in weeks, I felt like I had a full night’s sleep, and actually felt rested.
I had some oatmeal, moseyed on down to the gym, and pushed like a maniac. Quick shower, then I was off to the office, where I had one of the most productive days ever.
Who knew a little bit of nothing one night, could mean a lot of good somethings the next day?
Of course, I’ve been busy every night since then, and life’s been hectic. It’s not easy getting rid of patterns, and I do still have many cups to fill. Or many cups to empty out, I haven’t decided yet.
However, this Sunday night, I have a date with my new best friend: NOTHING.
I’m not good at this nothing business yet, but I’m thinking, with a bit of practice, I’ll get better at it.
And maybe, in doing so, get better at everything else as well.
Nothing truly is a beautiful thing. I feel ya on that. I’ve been working on a website, hitting the gym, and spending time with the girl, so I haven’t been able to just veg out for a good while now, though a free day will be coming up soon, due to a day off work, thank god!
Oh man Seth, when you get that free day, milk it for all it’s worth. It’s going to be GLORIOUS
First of – thank You for writing every once in a while. Your wisdom is appreciated here.
Funny, “nothing” is the first cup I take care of. And it’s what I consider my biggest weakness. Still, I really do see your point – what most people don’t know is: you are only free when you do nothing. In fact, the old Greeks considered this to be a main difference between a citizen and a slave: free time to think.
On the other hand, as capitalism forces you to work, it’s really hard to achieve (what does that mean, anyway?) anything, if you don’t work hard. But what worth are achievements, if you don’t have the nothing-time to enjoy them?