Are you good at doing nothing?
It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot. And for those of us who see ourselves as productive and sufficiently busy, those of us who are providers, earners or creators, I’d like the answer to increasingly be, “yes.” I’d like for us to see that doing nothing can be something in itself, and not necessarily the lack of an activity deemed more essential.
But I’m finding it tough. Not just because I’m fidgety and restless as a rule, but because of the constant pressure to do, to make, to produce.
I’ve come to see that our society often presents time as a rigid binary; something either to be used productively… or wasted.
We struggle with the in-between.
Time is precious.
No one ever said on their deathbed, I wish I worked more.
Time is money.
Well that’s two hours I’ll never get back!
Okay, so I said that last one myself, just last week as the end credits rolled on the Ant-Man movie.
But you know what else happened during those 125 minutes? I connected with my 17-year-old. We created a new shared experience. On the subway ride home, we one-upped each other by naming the worst action movie cliches. (“He’s right behind me, isn’t he.”) We read the snarkiest Letterboxd reviews. We laughed. A lot.
Maybe it wasn’t the best $36 in movie tickets I ever spent, but it wasn’t wasted time either.
As we enter a new era with sensible pushback against hustle culture and girl-bossing and the canonization of Moms Who Do it All — because no one ever really did it all, did they? — I’m entirely 100% here for it. It will take time, though. (No pun intended.) Because American culture has always assigned relative value to the ways we spend our time, with the least value placed on those things give us pleasure or give us peace, or simply allow us to slow down, rest and refuel.
The word productive itself — do you know the first definition that Merriam-Webster suggests? Having the quality or power of producing especially in abundance.
No wonder I beat myself up about still being in my pajamas at 11:59AM, drinking my second lukewarm cup of coffee and catching up on the news. Not very abundant of me.
While the culture may be slowly changing, as Gen Z rises up with their healthier views on work-life balance, I’m still finding it hard to push back against our my own, deeply internalized expectations of myself and how I think I’m supposed to spend the 1440 minutes I’ve been gifted each day.
How often have I thought that with all the hours doing crosswords on my commute, I could have read more ebooks in my queue? How often do I look back at the manuscripts friends finished during the dark, quarantined days of 2020 and feel remorse at my need to trash a nearly-done book proposal of my own? How often do I see friends on social media gleefully sharing a jam-packed weekend outing with family, the perfect balance of educational and entertaining, while my own family sat around the living room doing…I’m not even sure what.
And there it is: the self-deprecation. The guilt. The need for me to apologize — to myself, and I suppose to all of you— for not “taking advantage” of that weekend. It’s such a reflex, I do this without even thinking about it!
Our “I’m not even sure what” may have been an incredibly meaningful use of time. Maybe video gaming or endless social media scrolling was exactly what we needed to do after a full, draining week of school and work and stress and obligations and all that productive productivity.
Creators can’t just create nonstop, 24/7. It will blow up on you eventually. I’ve been there.
Let’s go easy for giving ourselves what we need, especially if it’s a break.
Recently I joined Margaret Ables on the What Fresh Hell Podcast to talk about ditching the hustle. It’s a good conversation, and I come out strongly in favor of things that give you joy, simply because they give you joy. It’s worth a listen.
Hobbies don’t have to be “side-hustles.” The art you love making doesn’t have to be for sale. The books you enjoy don’t have to be classics. The dinner you cook doesn’t have to be Instagrammable. The binge-watches don’t have to be award-winners. And if our weekends aren’t jam-packed with thrills and delight, we don’t have to explain it away (“I was just so tired…”) like I hear friends and colleagues do every Monday morning without fail.
In fact, I wonder: What if we teach ourselves to stop asking, “what did you do this weekend?” and instead ask, “did you enjoy the weekend?”
It sounds almost…European!
I don’t want to do nothing with my time. But I do want to make more time for doing nothing.
Because because maybe “nothing” isn’t nothing at all. Nothing is something. Nothing can be recovery. Nothing can be a reset. Nothing can give ourselves space to form ideas, build on them, throw them away and restart. Nothing allows the synapses to fire in all the ways, creating channels of creative thoughts that branch into tributaries that may or may not lead somewhere that’s meaningful to you.
Maybe nothing will end up being the most important thing you’ll do all day.
Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.