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.

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