Monday, December 28, 2015

52 Weeks to a Simpler Life – Tip #17 – The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing” was actually the title of a cover article in an early issue of the “Conde Nast Travelers” magazine. It probably dates back to about late 1987 or 1988. The first issue of the magazine was published in August of 1987. I received it free of charge for a year or more as part of my American Express membership. But, to this day, I remember that cover title. I was a very busy entrepreneur at that time, actually, doing freelance production and contract conference recording, so I was traveling a lot during those days and staying at a lot of nice hotels and resorts, usually compliments of those I was working for on a contract project.

Frankly, the concept of . . . doing nothing? . . . was pretty alien to me. Since high school and especially through college, graduate school and my nearly four year gig in the U.S. Air Force, I had become very accomplished at always doing something. What's the old saying? Something about an idle mind (and maybe idle hands) is the devil's workshop. Somehow, I believe you and a lot of people like you, if you're reading this article, can relate to what I'm saying.

So, I read the "Conde Nast Travelers" article with interest. I was pretty frazzled by that time in my life. I was just past the 40 mark and don't recall ever really stopping much during that time. Although, in hindsight, there were actually a couple of events/circumstances that did cause me to take some time off. But, those stories are more relevant to an upcoming article in this series. The reality is people during that era were busy, busy, busy! We had careers, businesses, families, community involvements, religious involvements and more. What most of us didn't have was “downtime.”

The Antithesis of Doing Nothing

You may be asking, “Is there really an art to doing nothing?” Believe it or not, there is. How can this be? Don't you just . . . do nothing? Ah! That it should be so easy. Remember, most of us from that era, the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation were conditioned to a life of productivity. The idea was work hard at whatever you do to generate the income to have the nice home with the accompanying maintenance. Then, of course, there was the family. We were basically expected to spawn 2.3 children, plus a dog and a cat to occupy that little dream home with the white picket fence.

By the 70's and 80's we were expected to pretty much become two income families. That means both spouses had jobs/careers to purchase all the “stuff” we believe we needed. Actually, we didn't need most of it, we wanted it because the Jones's had it. And, of course we especially had to make up for the time we weren't devoting to our “latch key” children. We farmed them out to daycare businesses, a new, booming industry, we helped create. So, we bribed the kids with “stuff.”

The old fashioned family entertainment, a day or evening trip to the county fairs or the old style amusement parks had given way to “destination” vacations to the growing “family entertainment” theme parks like Disney Land and Disney World. You went there and spent days and oodles of those hard earned, double family incomes. The old vacation concept of going to the lake or the ocean or the mountains and just unwinding for a week or two to put the world of work and cares of day to day responsibilities and obligations aside and out of sight, were no longer. Now, you got up early to get to the theme park to spend hours standing in line to enjoy a ride or attraction that lasted 90 seconds to, maybe five minutes. You came back from vacation exhausted and looking forward to the more relaxed life of your hectic career.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it strike a chord? This was pretty much what the average middle class American's life was all about during the later 70's, 80's and 90's. It's become even busier since then. All generations seem to get busier and busier. However, it took millennia to reach the current state of frenetic life so many in our society live.

There is virtually no such thing as doing nothing for the average person in a developed nation. Actually, we spawned several new industries. We now have the anti-anxiety and anti-depressant pharmaceuticals, the therapy and counseling field, the physical fitness/gym industry, the personal organizers who organize your home, work space and time, shopping services, online shopping that delivers to your home and workplace, dog walkers/pet sitters because you're too busy to do it yourself, but you still want to have a pet, meal delivery services beginning with pizza, but now, include just about anything and everything you might want, even fast food hamburgers – delivered to your door. I could go on, but I won't. You get the picture.

Why have all these “industries,” many of them cottage industries, sprung up and are flourishing? Because, we're all out of time. Our minds never shut down. We need sleeping pills to turn off our brains so we can catch, perhaps, four or five hours of necessary rest. And, here is this Ed Helvey guy talking about simplifying our lives by learning the Art of Doing Nothing. Is he crazy?

Nope! And that's the point. The world is going crazy because few people understand and practice the art of doing nothing.

The Art of Doing Nothing

So, what the hell are you talking about, Ed? You want me to take a day off work and spend it with the family? You want me to take a vacation and not go to the theme park one day and just hang around the swimming pool at the resort hotel . . . with my smart phone in my pocket or purse? Just what the hell do you want from me, Ed?

It's simple! I said it's simple. I didn't say it is easy. I simply want you to learn how to actually . . . do absolutely nothing. No goals, no objectives, no chores, no one to answer to . . . absolutely NOTHING! If you feel like reading something you've been wanting to get around to, go ahead – or not. If you want to watch an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, go ahead – or not. In other words, you have absolutely NOTHING you have to do or must do. You have no to do list or agenda for the given time. Maybe you just want to put on your shorts or bathing suit, slather on some sunscreen and relax in the warmth of a sunny day.

You want to let go of and forget that there is anything in the entire world that has to be done. Your entire focus is NOTHING.

Step by Step

I said this is simple, but not easy. It's a bit like meditation, if you've ever tried to meditate. The idea of meditation is to clear your mind and psyche of every thought for a defined period of time. If you've tried meditation, I'm sure you know just how hard this is. If you haven't tried meditation, you really should, but as I said, clearing your mind for a defined period of time is a real challenge. It takes practice and more practice. Meditation is actually a good way of doing nothing.

But, back to the art of doing nothing. Don't expect to just start doing nothing. Your life is too busy and too packed with trivia, clutter, to do lists, deadlines, responsibilities, obligations, etc. to just start actually doing nothing. Again, I say this is simple, but not exactly easy. You start by taking very small steps.

So, you pick a day this week and you say to yourself, I'm going to take 15 minutes from 8:00 AM to 8:15 AM and do nothing. You can lay in bed without a book or looking at your smart phone or your clock. Just let you mind wander to anything except your daily life and routine. Don't think about work, the to do list, the meeting with the school guidance counselor or teacher, the dinner party on Saturday evening and what you're going to wear. If anything, let your mind wander to, “Gee, what would I do if I had nothing to do for an entire day or weekend or week.” Do this at least once a week to get started.

Then, expand that to a half hour, then an hour, then two hours, preferably all in a single block of time. As you become more comfortable with the idea, expand it little by little until you can actually spend an entire day doing nothing. Nothing means no pressing emails to answer, no phone calls to take or make (other than emergencies, of course), skipping the texts about nothing of value or importance and nothing is listed on your to do list for that day or weekend.

Basically, you are learning that if you actually do nothing, the world will not implode, you won't lose any friends and your family won't hate you or feel you've abandoned them. When you go on vacations you'll actually feel empowered. You can take one or more days to do nothing except relax and unwind. You won't feel anxious about not getting up at the crack of dawn, downing a fast food breakfast and getting to the gates of the theme park before they open so you can be among the first people in the park. You can keep adding to this list.

Almost everything we do is a learned and conditioned process. Since you were a child you've been conditioned to jump and run on command. You were given orders, do this, do that and do it now. You've been reprimanded for not being responsive to everyone else's needs, obligations and guilt trips. So, you're not going to unlearn and uncondition yourself overnight. Maxwell Maltz, in his book, “Psycho-Cybernetics” said it takes 21 days of focused effort to make or break any habit, good or bad. This tip for simplifying your life is a perfect way to put this idea to work.

Make doing nothing a good, healthy, positive habit and simplify your life at the same time. Become an example of this process for your spouse/significant other, children, siblings, parents, friends, colleagues and others.

The Bottom Line

The world, YOUR world, will not come to an end because you actually choose to do nothing for a change. Yes! Certainly, there are some things that must be done. You must eat, you must consume fluids, you must breathe, you must keep yourself clean, you need to be there for your children. You need to be there for your spouse. You must be effective and productive in your work (employment or business). However, you do not need to be “on-call” 24/7/365.

You need to learn to not feel guilty because you choose to set some time aside to just . . . do absolutely nothing productive. Most of our behavior is habitual. Use Maxwell Maltz's 21 day plan to change your habits. I used that very idea to stop drinking coffee 33 years ago. I wasn't actually addicted to coffee. But, it was a habit, like it is with so many people. They can't start their day without their first cup of coffee. It is not a necessity. It is a habit. Once people are in the habit, they believe they can't start their day without coffee. I can absolutely guarantee you can start your day, everyday, without coffee. You chose to make coffee a habit.

You choose to be as busy as you are. You can give me as many excuses as you want to as to why you have to do everything you do all the time. But, once again, everyone of them is a choice. You can change things. You know there are many things you do habitually that will not change the course of your life or those around you if you decide to not do some of them. The world will not end if you don't make your bed everyday. Nothing bad will happen if you decide to not make dinner one or two nights a week and let the family scrounge for left overs (there are almost always leftovers, especially if you plan to make extra for that sole purpose). If you are not a church goer, you can choose to stay in bed until noon every Sunday. If you are a church goer, you can choose to skip one Sunday every month. You will not go to Hell because of that choice.

As I've stated in other tips about simplifying your life, you only get one chance at this life. This is not a dress rehearsal. There are no do overs. And, when you get near the end of it, there is no going back and reclaiming time you spent doing things that, in hindsight, you would have preferred not to have done. Doing nothing is healthy. It allows you to clear the cobwebs, take some deep breaths, enjoy the majesty of a sunrise or a sunset or both – on the same day even.

So, Tip #17 in the 52 Weeks to a Simpler Life is – learn and practice The Lost Art of Doing Nothing. 

Live free and be happy. EH


Richard Rosen said...

I have begun a stillness break of five minutes or so when I change activities. This allows me to relax, have no agenda to accomplish a task and focus on remaining still, allowing errant thoughts to pass: essentially a meditative practice.

It’s refreshing. I feel an energy influx. It also encourages redirection rather than having set tasks to accomplish. It allows the freedom of new thoughts to enter my consciousness on which I reflect. And I may do something I hadn’t planned.

I also take an hour each morning (I rise at 5 or so) to walk a mile (good exercise) and enter into stillness. I listen to my inner voice and have a dialogue, talk over decisions, problems and so on. I then read something of soul worth for the remainder of the hour, sometimes longer.

This regimen keeps me from running to and fro, ever busy without being grounded – and certainly not “doing nothing.” This is my art of being mindful, directed and energized.

Feelit said...

Excellent topic. I think purposefully doing nothing is a very important part of staying grounded in this crazy world. I also agree that starting small to change a habit is a good way to go. I look forward to the first 5 minutes of my day tomorrow lying in bed, mindfully breathing and doing nothing! :) Thank you for your post!

Ed Helvey - Location Independent Traveler said...

Good points and ideas, Richard. Doing nothing, like most things, is interpreted by each individual. Some activities we might call doing nothing are activities that are doing something very different than the normal humdrum of daily routine, whatever that may be. To others it may be meditating or smoe other form of doing literally nothing. Your regimen sounds good to me.


Ed Helvey - Location Independent Traveler said...

Thanks, Feelit --

In order to change direction in our lives - be it habits, work, relationships, etc. a simple plan and a step by step approach is probably the best for most people. And, I agree on that wake up "nothing" time in the morning. I also like to follow that approach before I start the day. It's a way, for me, at least, to get the "motor" started and warmed up before beginning the journey of the day ahead.


Richard Rosen said...

It's heartening to find more and more people paying attention to the health of the inner life: mind (thinking: meanings [morals & ethics]) and spirit (values). The world is rapidly but subtly raising its consciousness as more and more people recognize there's much more to living well, alive and beneficial than the material accouterments of a standard of living.

Glad to hear from like-minded souls.