Accomplishing Something by Doing Nothing

Last weekend I finally did what I had to do: I declared that I was officially becoming a hermit, and then cut out all thought of everything that didn’t absolutely have to get done to make as much time as possible for nothing. And Monday morning, I actually felt refreshed for the first time in memory. I learned a few things along the way.
 
Lesson 1: Know what works for you. Take the effort to really observe the effect, rather than assuming it.
 
A few months ago I ran across the first hint about what needed to be done in a Rands in Repose article titled Chill. Rands talks about trying biofeedback as a way of curing migraines: 

It gets interesting when you start ignoring the feedback. “Rands, we’re going to try different relaxation techniques and see what works. How do you relax?” 

TV? She turned the TV on for ten minutes. “Yeah, that doesn’t relax you. Your brain is working.”

Closing my eyes and breathing deeply? Five minutes later, “Again, it looks like you’re thinking too much about not thinking. You’re not relaxing.”

What about reading? She pulled a book off her shelf and I started reading. Within a few minutes, all of the feedback pointed out that my body was diving into a deep relaxation.

“Rands, reading chills you out.”

I realized, as perhaps I had suspected before, that watching TV is not particularly restful for me; watching at my desk, as I often do, is even less so. And yet it has been my “chill out” of choice. I reason, watching TV burns about the same amount of calories as sleeping, so it should be almost as restful, right?
 
Lesson 2: You have to prepare to relax just like you would any other activity. It’s like dieting, when you remove the junk from the house and stock up on fruits and veggies, knowing that you’ll eat what’s on hand rather than going to the store for what you really want. Make a path of least resistance to something that’s actually good for you.
 
The other reason I use TV to unwind is that it’s something that doesn’t have to be thought about at all. I have several favorite shows, and I simply click on the next episode of whichever one I’m most behind on and let it pour into my brain effortlessly for the next hour. 
 
To not do that, to do something else, becomes quite an ordeal by contrast. What should I do? If I read, what should I read? One of the “should reads” stacked around the house? But that requires so much mental energy. Something lighter? But which exact flavor of lightness would I like? And so on. But I know there are authors whose work is serious enough that I don’t feel guilty, and compelling enough that I can’t put the book down – just what you want in this situation. I happened to have one on hand for the past few weeks, and will definitely be going to the library regularly for more.
 
Lesson 3: Priorities change, and balance is needed.
 
For many years I embraced the school of thought that “People who need people are too needy for me.” Then I reached a place where I was lonely every Sunday, so I adopted an approach much like Jim Carrey’s in Yes Man: I said yes to everything I possibly could. Eventually I built up a social life to the point that, in recent weeks, I resented every social activity I “had to” go to, yet felt socializing was too important ever to refuse. 
 
A friend reminded me of the extrovert/introvert continuum: some people get their strength from being around people, and some people get it from being alone. Most fall somewhere in the middle and need both within reason. Sure enough, a few days of determined solitariness – I hardly spoke a word or heard a human voice that first day – were enough to make me cheerfully accept company again.
 
Lesson 4: Once you know a thing – don’t forget it.
 
I knew about the effect of reading vs. TV. I knew about my need to be alone sometimes. And I knew that 10 p.m. is my magic bedtime. For some reason there is a disproportionate difference for me between eight hours of sleep starting at 9:45 and eight hours starting at 10:15. And yet, night after night, I would go to bed well after that cutoff. Remembering that and shifting back to a schedule that works better for me has had a huge effect. 
 
Granted, many of the pressures of the past few months lifted at least somewhat in the past week, which helps. But I have no doubt that these “new” practices are largely responsible for the improvement in my sense of well-being.

You’re Never Ready

Very shortly after starting my job (perhaps within hours, but certainly within a couple of days) it became evident that my predecessor had been dismissed on Friday and I had started on Monday. Within a few weeks I learned that people were taking bets on how long I would last because there had been such turnover in the position. Seeing the environment I worked in – or at any rate, the character of the man who had hired me – there were definitely times I watched very closely to see if any young women came in to interview.
 
But I also started thinking about the manner of my departure, should there be one. I like to behave generously to my company, regardless of the circumstances. When leaving one job I left my half-finished expense report in my inbox. I didn’t forget it – I just decided it was my parting gift to them. (They must have discovered it eventually, but didn’t send me the money.) 
 
Since there was no training and no continuity at all when I started my job, as soon as I started to get a handle on what I was doing, I created written procedures so the next person wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all over again. And once I got a colleague in the department and got comfortable enough to personalize my desk and bring in a mug, I created a document called “If I Should Happen to Leave Suddenly,” which listed everything I needed to take with me and everything I needed to turn over to her. From time to time I review and update.
 
I guess there are some people who might think that’s morbid. I just like to be prepared. I know that when something big happens, especially something like that, everything goes foggy. You might be thinking, “Okay, well, what needs to happen now?,” but the answers come too slowly and from very far away. Rehearsal helps. People in dangerous jobs must remind themselves constantly of what to do in an emergency so they can rely on instinct when it happens. In those situations, doing what it takes to survive isn’t thought of as being morbid. An extreme example, perhaps, but I think it translates.
 
Hearing the news today was as shocking as such news always is. My beloved boss was laid off this morning, but I’ve been assured that I am still safe. Just at that moment the memory of my own departure checklist sitting useless in My Documents struck me as immensely ironic, almost mocking. I had never thought of it in reverse. You’re never ready. 
 
And yet the preparation was not useless. Having gone through the exercise for myself made it easier to remember several things that had otherwise not been thought of in her case, and if it had to happen I was glad of that, at least.

The Perfect Problem

There is not a day in the week I’m not exhausted. Of course, a very few moments of self-pity are enough to remind me to question the assumption behind it: do I really think that isn’t a common, perhaps nearly universal complaint?
Do I really think that traditional and especially subsistence farmers (most of the world for most of history) aren’t constantly worn down?
Do I really think salaried employees who don’t leave on the dot of 5 come home bounding with energy?
Do I really think that single parents, or parents working multiple jobs to support their family, or even married, stable, middle-class parents don’t have more demands on them from more directions than I can even bear to think about?
Unfortunately, this method of gaining perspective only makes me feel worse: thinking about others’ suffering doesn’t change mine, but now I also feel bad for being such a baby about it, plus I feel frustrated by a world system that does so little good for anyone.
So my first question is this: does that kind of comparison make you feel better, and if so, what is the mental process you go through to get that result?
My second question is this: do you have any advice on how not to be a baby about your own difficulties? I know the obvious solution is just to put your head down and push on, and there are definitely times to do that, but it doesn’t seem like a good way to live over the long term. The question is really: what do you do, and how do you not get discouraged, when you lift your head and see the full bleak reality – and don’t see a way to change it?

Microscope vs. Telescope

One of the most educational aspects of my trip to New York was the hotel. I was allowed to book somewhere I had particularly wanted to stay and was therefore very, very excited – which is not something one can often say about business trip hotels – in spite of the very divided reviews on TripAdvisor. It seemed that people either love it or hate it, with little to no middle ground.
 
I expected that I would tend more to the “love it” side, and indeed, here is a partial list of Things About My Hotel That Made Me Happy:
  • The atmospheric (aka dim) lighting. It made it like a nightclub for intelligent people.
  • Keycards that NEVER demagnetized, even when I accidentally put them next to my phone.
  • The tiny perfection of the room’s arrangement, even if it didn’t always adhere to “Anatomy for Interior Designers” best practices (i.e., if you can’t fit through a space 9” wide, you’ll have to climb over the toilet to get in the shower)
  • The Library Bar. It’s a Library! And a bar! Together! Genius!
  • A very effective air conditioner which did not rattle, thus soothingly drowning out Blondie’s “Atomic,” which could be plainly heard echoing up from the courtyard 7 stories below at 9:59 p.m.
  • Hudson Hall. The concept pleased me – Harvard/Oxford-esque communal dining made cool (and also fitted out with a beautiful bar).
  • Unbelievably delicious bread.
  • Louis-something chairs painted silver and upholstered in mustard suede – the perfect blend of uber-formal and rocker-chic.
  • Potentially snooty design, very casually helpful staff. Almost everybody I dealt with was somebody I’d want to be friends with, too. The combination made the whole place fun and cool rather than pretentious.
To be sure, there were things here and there that were escaped perfection by some little distance, but I greeted them with cheerful indulgence. It was much like when Junior captures the neighbor’s cat and starts pulling out all its fur, only to have his doting mother exclaim, “Oh, boys will be boys! You can’t expect them to behave all the time!”
 
But eventually some of these things needed to be dealt with, which was more of a hassle than it should have been, and all of a sudden everything snowballed. I was going to present you with Things About My Hotel That Made Me Furious, but honestly, the list goes on and on. You know how it is – once you see one flaw, you see them everywhere. Eventually it overwhelmed all the positive feelings I started with until my whole mood and demeanor collapsed under the weight. 
 
I had to force myself to refocus. Get out of the room with patchy internet, and go sit in the Library Bar with a book. Don’t think about paying $19 for a nectarine (don’t ask), just take another helping of the spectacular bread. I was never able to get back to that early, effervescent delight, but at least I wasn’t angry all day.
 
The thing is, I still really do love parts of the hotel. (As a product, not an experience. I can’t help viewing all this as a lesson in Marketing and Brand Promise failure. But I digress.) And I knew almost from the moment I stepped inside that loving it would be the product either of them having a really good day, or my willingness to make allowances, my ability to ignore the less-than-ideal details and revel in the concept of the place. The hotel does not fare well when gone over with a fine-tooth comb, but if you zoom out a bit and add a bit of romantic blur to the picture, it’s irresistible.
 
From a marketing perspective, it’s great that the standard of service has been raised so much and customers have gotten so pampered, but expecting, and demanding, perfection isn’t the best way to enjoy it. Nor is it realistic. Things will never be perfect – and neither will people.
 
There’s an old saying that you choose on a daily basis whether you will be happy or unhappy. And we know that love is a choice too. Turns out it’s the same one.