How to Do Nothing: Break Time at Your Breaking Point
Ever feel like your skull is completely trampled from work? Think of the times when you get irrationally grouchy at nothing (we all do sometimes); think of the times when the thousand-yard stare sets in and someone has to "wake" you; think of the times when you're so fried you can't form sentences (or even certain words) properly. Hopefully you’ve learned that, once you reach that point, it’s not effective to drink another cup of coffee and keep going. “Dragging yourself by the bootstraps” doesn’t always work; even bootstraps eventually break.
At times like these, what should you do?
In a word: nothing. You should do nothing. You’d think this is obvious, but it’s not. Whether you’re talking to someone at a fledgling business, someone driving aggressively to promotion, or just a bona fide workaholic, they have surprising difficulty peeling themselves away from their desks. They feel guilty for not being productive, but they’re exhausted by working more—a dilemma in the truest sense of the word. What they need is a solution to that dilemma, which we suggest is as follows: if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, don’t. You save effort that way.
Sometimes, as we've written, productive procrastination is a good idea. Other times—just don’t. For those times in particular, we give you our guide to doing nothing. The harder this article is to follow, the worse you need it.
What NOT to Do
Don’t do any more work. Seriously. This should be obvious, but lots of people bait themselves with “well, just five more minutes” or “I’ll just finish this one—“ But that’s how you get trapped. If you pull the whole “five more minutes” thing, first you need to pack your s#!t, set a timer, and then stand up and walk out when it goes off. Willpower, people—if you can’t use it to save yourself at the simplest opportunities, what good is it to you?
Don’t pick up the phone—unless you’re calling for take-out. Don’t check the mailbox, unless you’re expecting that thing you ordered. Definitely don’t answer another email. And, as much as it pains us to say it, you probably shouldn’t pick up a notebook or pen; unless you feel unadulterated joy when you open your Code&Quill notebook (in which case, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org—later), we acknowledge that they are thinking and working tools, which is the opposite of what you need.
Don’t stay where you work. Likely that means leaving the office, library, studio, lab, or dungeon where you work; if you work at home, it might mean sitting in another room, or a different part of the room.
If you’re extraverted, you probably shouldn’t go somewhere by yourself; just be sure you’re surrounding yourself with people whom you actually like. If you’re introverted, you probably shouldn’t go somewhere crowded or try to do something with your friends; you don’t have the energy, and it’ll just sap you further.
What to Do (to the extent you must)
Let’s start with the suggestion nearest nothing: sleep. People with burnout don’t usually get eight hours a night—or anywhere close. You’re probably behind; catch yourself up. If it’s nighttime, just go to bed early, and skip the alarm if you can help it. If it’s the middle of the afternoon, take a nap. But if you take a nap, let it be one of those good naps, the kind where you drool on your pillow for three hours, then wake up and have to remember where you are.
Not tired? Try bathing. Take a long, hot shower with the lights off. Take a candlelit bath with some eucalyptus suds—a $10 bottle lasts forever (and guys, it’s not too feminine-smelling). Bring along some relaxing music, an adult beverage, and a glass of ice water; you may have forgotten how relaxing “doing nothing” can be when done right.
If you need something semi-active, go for a walk. Forrest Gump-style, just pick a direction and start walking. If that seems boring, bring your headphones (but put your phone on Airplane Mode first). If that still seems boring, go for a drive instead; hopefully it’s warm out so you can roll down the windows and blast some music. You don’t need to go Forrest’s distance—15 minutes might be enough—but this is the old mantra of solvitur ambulando, to solve it by walking.
The reason that walking “solves” anything is that it helps empty your mind. It’s a form of forced meditation. And on the topic of meditation, remember that meditation is not “thinking about nothing” so much as it is “thinking about nothing in particular and being at peace with each thought.” Annie Dillard once compared the mind to a muddy river, where the wildlife and the garbage belong equally. Sometimes, rather than wade in it and try to clean it out, you just have to stand to the side and watch.
Be a Kid Again
Fred Rogers once noted (to paraphrase) that play is the work of children. But playtime isn’t just for kids; it’s an important activity for the human psyche. It’s why the gods of Hinduism and Greek mythology were sometimes defined by their joke-telling, dancing, or even pranking. In our own time, research suggests that video games help people with depression. So if you’re approaching burnout, you are probably in desperate need of some playtime.
If you’ve already got a game in mind, go for it. Otherwise, pull out an old favorite—something you haven’t touched in a few years. If you’re not big on games, think of a movie or TV show instead—something you’ve been looking forward to watching, or an old favorite you haven’t seen in a while. (Oscars or not, we don’t recommend The Revenant; it’s not exactly “fun” to watch.)
Like any other time, a little self-knowledge goes a long way. Maybe, in “kid mode,” you enjoy puzzles or watercolors or Play-Doh. Even if you subscribe to Paul’s teaching, about growing up as “putting away childish things,” there’s one semantic distinction you shouldn’t forget, and that’s the difference between childish (immature) and childlike (innocent and joyous). Be childlike for a little while; it makes “adulting” hurt less. Have a cookie, for goodness' sake.
Burnout is gradual, something that happens slowly and quietly to the people it afflicts. You might realize it one morning and start to wonder why you’re so stressed, but you don't fully exhaust yourself in a day or a week. It happens over the course of multiple weeks, months, or even years. And this is why “unplugging” in this way—allowing yourself a complete mental break from all things work—is important sometimes. Frankly, we just can’t afford to do this all the time—but at the same time, we can’t afford not to do it every now and again.
Remember, too, that these empty spaces are part of any creative process. By removing our conscious minds from the thinking, we allow the deeper parts of our brains to work their magic. Take a break, take a bath, play a game, chill out for once, AND make real progress on your creative works? Sounds like a good deal to us.
Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we'll be giving an introduction to typography. (Last week, we wrote the second half of our discussion of continuous improvement, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here.