Are You Versed in the Fine Art of Doing Nothing?

Are You Versed in the Fine Art of Doing Nothing? August 18, 2021

Haley Phelps via Unsplash

My family was recently watching the oddly entertaining miniseries White Lotus, which is set in a Hawaiian vacation “paradise.” As a still working professional, it was hard not to notice that one of the characters, a high-powered businesswoman, was regularly attending Zoom calls and checking her work email while supposedly on vacation. And all I could think was, what a mistake.

I learned long ago about the need to occasionally unplug from the distractions of the world. There comes a time when the batteries need to be recharged and that means disconnecting from the things that don’t really matter. I call it the fine art of doing nothing. I recently ran across a list I scrawled out several years ago, regarding my personal do’s and don’ts of unplugging during downtime. It went like this:

What I’m NOT going to do on vacation:

  • Blindly answer the phone
  • Respond to e-mails
  • Engage in social media
  • Randomly surf the Internet
  • Think about work or “my career”
  • Watch the evening news
  • Watch my beloved NY Mets (a recipe for anxiety)

What I am going to do each day:

  • Give thanks for the good in my life
  • Read something that enriches my soul
  • Gaze at the ocean
  • Really listen to people
  • Kiss my wife
  • Find a morsel of wisdom to offer my daughter
  • Drink good craft beer, in a glass, slowly
  • Give more thanks

Maria Popova provided the following anecdote, about the writer Anaïs Nin, regarding the restorative qualities of unplugging. In the late-1940s, Nin wrote about a winter escape to an isolated beach on the cliffs in Mexico. She found her trip to be “the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success, the presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals.” She pointed out that at the beach, all that is “nonsense” and continued:

(On holiday) you exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses.

 A similar message comes from Elizabeth Gilbert

The author Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her book Eat, Pray, Love. But several years ago, she contributed the essay below to a collection called “What Matters Now” that was curated by Seth Godin. It hits all the right notes on where we are as a culture—and where we should be, especially as it relates to escaping the distractions of everyday life.

We are the strivingest people who have ever lived. We are ambitious, time-starved, competitive, distracted. We move at full velocity, yet constantly fear we are not doing enough. Though we live longer than any humans before us, our lives feel shorter, restless, breathless…

Dear ones, EASE UP. Pump the brakes. Take a step back. Seriously. Take two steps back. Turn off all your electronics and surrender over all your aspirations and do absolutely nothing for a spell. I know, I know – we all need to save the world. But trust me: The world will still need saving tomorrow. In the meantime, you’re going to have a stroke soon (or cause a stroke in somebody else) if you don’t calm the hell down.

 So go take a walk. Or don’t. Consider actually exhaling. Find a body of water and float. Hit a tennis ball against a wall. Tell your colleagues that you’re off meditating (people take meditation seriously, so you’ll be absolved from guilt) and then actually, secretly, nap.

 My radical suggestion? Cease participation, if only for one day this year – if only to make sure that we don’t lose forever the rare and vanishing human talent of appreciating ease.

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