Wednesday Missive: What's So Hard About Doing Nothing?

Hello Darlings,

More than a decade ago, when I lived in the Andes while working for the Peace Corps, my Peruvian host family used to do something that completely unnerved me.Every day, after spending their mornings bustling through farm chores and cooking a huge lunch over wood fire, they would all sit in their open-air courtyard and DO NOTHING. 

And when I say do nothing, I mean do nothing. The static-y transistor radio would be in the background, but no one actively listened to it. People would say things now and then but they didn’t engage in any kind of ongoing conversation. Sometimes my host father would tenderly pick the gray hairs out of my host mother’s extraordinarily long hair, which always kind of melted my heart, but still, they weren’t really doing anything. 

(Just want to point out here that my Peruvian host family was completely abiding by the laws of nature as described by Ayurveda. Learn more about how we should be using our afternoons here. Hint: it's not about getting more done!)

I had arrived in Peru determined to immerse myself and try to live like the people around me.But even with this determination, I think I lasted about 20 minutes of my first afternoon of sitting with them. I sat quietly and swatted the many flies away. I commented on how hot the afternoon had become. Finally, I excused myself to go read a book. I simply couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about these strange afternoons during my two days a week caring for Jonah. Especially because during the intense heatwave of last week and a few afternoon thunderstorms we’ve had this summer, we can’t always get outside after his nap. The good news is that my toddler is mostly okay with this. He chooses to occupy himself by taking all the books off the shelf, rearranging his baby spoons, and gleefully emptying his basket of balls as many times as I regather them. 

I, on the other hand, have a very hard time with these aimless afternoons.I want to DO something! And when I can’t do anything, I want to check my email and/or social media feeds over and over in the hopes that something will entertain me or at least distract me from the ongoing nothingness of sitting around my living room on a Thursday afternoon. 

I could turn my discomfort in these situations into a problem with me and my inability to be present.However, I know I’m not the only one who has a hard time doing nothing.

I look out at our modern culture and I see the neverending pulls on our attention and how we collectively deal with it: overspending, overwatching, overscheduling, our dependence on our phones and allegiance to our emails, and our discomfort with ever having a pause in the flow of entertainment and information. 

We have an “addiction to excitement.”That’s a phrase I heard in the 12-step traditions that has helped give me vocabulary for where I see us struggling in our self-care and our lives. An addiction to excitement occurs when our early experiences of life are chaotic, disconnected, and fueled by anxiety. Although it doesn’t feel good, we become used to never-ending upset in our lives and actively seek out experiences that help us recreate this rush of brain chemicals. An addiction to excitement can help explain why our friends continue to date unreliable partners or move from one toxic work environment to another. 

(Personally, I know it was very hard for me to finally choose a partner who is stable and consistent because I was so addicted to the opposite. Thank you to everyone who helped me learn to finally commit to someone who is good for me.

Even if you had a super stable childhood experience, I think being raised in modern culture, especially in the United States (where I live), makes it almost impossible to avoid having some kind of addiction to excitement.Here in the United States, we are a nation built upon trauma after trauma as well as our denial that anything is wrong. Disconnection and anxiety are in the air we breathe and are now so fully manifested in our 24/7 media culture. Because it seems utterly normal, few of us stop to ever question whether our dedication to always tuning in is actually helping us or anything we care about. 

I recently listened to a great interview with artist and writer Jenny Odell about her book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” In it, she talks about how our refusal to be swept away with the media-created issue of the day is a necessary step for returning to a grounded activism that creates real change. To do this, she proposes that we need to relearn how to give ourselves meaningful pauses, especially where we can connect with nature (she’s recently taken up birdwatching).

From an interview with her in The Guardian, Odell summarizes the importance of creating intentional space:  

Obviously "doing nothing" is not activism, but I hope the book helps clear the ground for activism. I looked at the formal quality of how people have organized [in the past] – these closed spaces where people come together and encounter one another in a fuller sense than one does online, and then strategizing in slightly larger meetings, and larger meetings. It wasn’t until I came across that pattern, as I was researching these movements, that I realized how much was at stake with the attention economy.

In a way it’s destroying the frameworks that we have traditionally used for organizing, and it’s destroying the contexts that allowed people to encounter ideas in a way that’s productive. In the Veronica Barassi essay that I cite, the activists she interviewed complained about the effects of social media on time. Like, not having the time to have conversations about ideas, and that anything you say online is immediately buried.

Activism takes time, and that time is getting taken away from us.

Kelly Barrett of the wonderful Om Weekly newsletter(and who is leading the retreatI mentioned above) recently wrote a post called the “Unexpected Anxiety of Free Time,” where she shares about the anxiety she experienced during a supposedly relaxing lake vacation.I really love what she wrote at the end of her post: 

And maybe...just's because I was being reminded of all the parts of my identity that are not at all what I do...but are who I am. Like if the paychecks stopped tomorrow, and the Internet permanently broke, I would still be a friend. I would be someone who loves nature, a person who gets completely swept up in their thoughts, the one holding up the rear because I've stopped to look at something too long. I would have flat feet and bad ankles but a strong need to walk ev-ery-where. I'd still have trouble making eye contact in a room of acquaintances, but be completely at ease for hours in a one-on-one conversation with a stranger. I'd still write poems in my head while I'm on the toilet and forget them before I wash my hands. I'd still run when the urge hits, even though I'm horribly slow, pausing to look at flowers as an excuse to catch my breath.


By the end of my time in Peru, after I had become more seasoned to living at a slower pace, I could stay a little longer in that courtyard with my host family. I noticed that I didn’t need to make as much small talk as I tried to fill up the blank spaces. I could sit, look up at the mountains, and just appreciate being alive for a while. 

My increased ability to just be in the moment without doing was probably more of a victory than any project I signed my name on during my service. It’s also one of the skills I call upon when I’m on my third hour of sitting around with Jonah doing absolutely nothing of mention. 

It’s in these moments I remember that it’s very healthy to give myself a break from productivity.I’m modeling for him what I most think we need in the world right now: time to pause, time to recenter ourselves, and the space we need to look at the world again with new eyes. 

With care,