Slow and Simple Experiment: Doing Nothing

Over the past month, I’ve been making a concerted effort to Do Nothing for at least fifteen minutes each day. Ever since reading In Praise of Wasting Time, I have recognised the value of empty space in the day. Doing nothing allows a few moments to pause, to slow down and tune into our inner world a little more. It allows for creative insights to emerge, often solutions to problems we’ve been mulling over will present themselves after a few minutes of space and down time.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Most of us have it drummed into us that being “idle” is a bad thing, that we should be busy being productive, that good old Protestant work ethic. With doing nothing comes a certain amount of guilt about wasting time, the “shoulds” come thick and fast: I should be washing up, I should be preparing for that meeting, I should be getting on with my to-do list…

It is rather difficult to actually do nothing at all, we are always thinking, looking, hearing and so on. I have built Doing Nothing time into my day by linking it to something I do every morning – having my morning coffee. Whilst this may not strictly be doing nothing (I am drinking coffee, after all), this serves as a mental reminder for me – OK, here’s my coffee, it’s time to Do Nothing. I sit in the same chair each time, focusing on bodily sensations as they come and go, the smell and taste of my coffee, and noticing any thoughts as they arise (trying not to get caught up in the story behind those thoughts).

Sounds a bit like meditation, doesn’t it? And it is the same, although in a much less formal way. I am not closing my eyes or focusing on my breath, or trying to cultivate positive emotions as in meditation. I am simply sitting drinking coffee.

The challenge comes once you start to notice boredom or the urge to reach for your phone / book / something to look at. If you can step into the gap between feeling and acting, if you simply watch those urges, they dissipate, and you can sink into it, into the being-mode, rather than the doing-mode. And that spaciousness can spill over into other moments in the day.

At the end of one month, I am definitely going to try to carry on with this new habit. It has opened up a sense of much more space in my day, and even a few minutes of down time bolsters my energy levels and resources for the rest of the day.

Weekend Reads on Doing Nothing

Five reasons why we should all learn how to do nothing

How doing nothing helps you get more done

The case for doing nothing

Book review: In Praise of Wasting Time

Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.

Thoreau

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, and in particular the challenge of doing nothing. So when I came across this little book, I had to read it. At only 128 pages, this is a must-read for anyone curious about the benefits of dropping everything and just being.

Professor Lightman outlines our fixation with time, with how long everything takes, with filling every minute of our waking time with activities and projects. He argues that our lives have become “frenzied”, that we get angry if we have to wait to see our GP. We have lost the ability to take the meandering way home, to daydream,

The problem, Professor Lightman argues, is that we are constantly plugged into “The Grid” – the internet, digital communication and social media (although he does also argue that the general pace of life outside of this has taken on a frenzied pace). Consumerism and an obsession with productivity have lead to a “heightened awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time” at the expense of genuinely free time for reflection and doing less. Even the speed at which we walk has increased in recent years.

He extols the benefits of unstructured time in terms of our creativity and mental “replenishment”. This non-stop stimulation from technology is having a detrimental effect on our mental health, leaving us with an inability to be alone with ourselves.

Lightman also talks about how childrens’ lives are overscheduled and the amount of pressure parents feel to have their children reach certain milestones by particular points in their lives, to keep up with peers. Play, both for children and adults, has many well-documented benefits. The joy of doing something simply for fun or amusement allows the mind to focus on means rather than ends.

The author outlines the well-known benefits of meditation on wellbeing, although he says that this is not strictly necessary, what is needed is simply downtime from The Grid. Downtime enables us to rest and develop our creativity.

Whilst this was an interesting read, I did not come away feeling like I had learned anything new. I think many of us are well aware that our lives and those of our children are increasingly overscheduled, and the disadvantages of technology for our mental wellbeing. What was most interesting to me was in the final chapter, Lightman talks about the difference between chronos – sequential clock time – and kairos – time created by human events, such as a meal or a relationship, a memory.

Surprisingly, despite mentioning meditation, Lightman does not really mention mindfulness, which I think is the key to what he is getting at – when we are aware of what is happening right now, in this moment, then we can truly slow down time (as it were) and begin to create some space in our lives to appreciate the little things, to create gratitude, appreciation and the sense of kairos he mentions.

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My journey towards slow and simple living

I’ve never really been one for keeping up with the Joneses, never really felt the need to have the latest tech device or strictly follow fashion, never been one of those folks who has to have a holiday abroad every year. Having my first child 13yrs ago opened my eyes to the potential of a slower lifestyle – with a new baby (and even in pregnancy) you really have to slow down. I enjoyed this new pace of life, and cut my hours at work to the minimum I could afford to work.

However, with having children comes a great accumulation of STUFF – clothes and toys, and I found myself hanging on to things “just in case” I ever needed them for a future child. Once I ran out of space in my small flat, I began to store things in my parents’ loft (out of sight, out of mind).

It wasn’t until several years later that I discovered meditation, through a tutor on a counselling skills course I was doing. I began to develop the ability to create mental space, life-changing skills in mindfulness and self-awareness. Creating space allowed me to notice the little things, to appreciate more. This was definitely the key for me in slowing down.

We had moved into a “nice” house in the London suburbs, because that’s what you do, right? However, we never really felt like we fitted in there, spending much of our time in much hipper areas further into the city.

After my second child was born, I was determined that I didn’t want to return to work. I had always had home education on my radar, but never felt in a position to do it. But now I was going to be at home, we could give it a go. At first, we went on all of the educational trips I could find, but after a while we settled into our own rhythm, with a much gentler pace.

After a couple of years, my husband began to get ill with what later turned out to be an auto-immune disease. We began to reevaluate our lives, to think about what really mattered. We knew we weren’t happy in our current state, and began to make plans.

After much deliberation, we decided to take the plunge and sell our spacious semi-detached surburban house and downsize to a terraced house in central Brighton. On paper, it was “risky” – we didn’t know Brighton that well, had lots of friends in London. Some people thought we were bonkers moving into a smaller house with 2 children, but to be honest we had rooms in our bigger house that we weren’t even using.

During the moving process, I discovered Marie Kondo‘s book: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I began to declutter, and it felt really cathartic getting rid of all of this stuff I’d been keeping from the past. So many kids’ clothes and papers! We had to get rid of most of our furniture as well, as it just wouldn’t have fitted in the smaller house.

Two years later, we are loving our new life by the sea. My husband took a part-time job, which was lower paid, but which allows him to be more hands-on with the home education, which he really enjoys. So many Dads of home ed families are working long hours to support that lifestyle, but are unable to be very involved. Working part-time has allowed him to reduce his stress levels, which has had a positive impact on his health.

Our most recent addition to our slow and simple journey is reducing waste, particularly plastic. This is very much a work in progress, as is this whole journey. What small step could you make today to slow down and simplify?