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The Art of Doing Nothing

The Art of Doing Nothing
Published December 16, 2019 by Tina Essmaker

Over Thanksgiving break, I read Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism, in which he urges us to engage in regular periods of solitude. “We need solitude to thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives.” Newport defines solitude as being along with our own thoughts and having the ability to listen to our internal dialogue without distraction or input from other people, screens, or devices. When was the last time you had a moment of solitude?

With the new year approaching, many of us are wrapping up work and hitting deadlines prior to winter break. Regardless of individual traditions or rituals around this time of year, one thing is certain: there are many requests on our time from family, friends, and colleagues. For many of us, this is the busiest season of the year, one in which we can feel obligated to participate, say yes to invitations, and fear missing out if we say no. 

In her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell suggests that “we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out.” Newport backs this up in his book, noting, “Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life.” Saying no can help us say yes to our most significant work priorities and to our own self-care. It’s vital to integrate downtime to reset on a regular basis, and what better time than the end of the year. 


When to say yes: Setting guidelines to help you decide 

But how do we know what to say no to? We often say yes to everything because we don’t have any hard and fast guidelines for knowing whether or not we want to say yes. Setting guidelines for when you’ll say yes can help you make decisions that will better serve your priorities. Here are a few examples of when you might say yes to an activity or request:

  1. You actually have the time. Don’t simply say yes and figure out where you’ll fit something in later. Take a hard look at your calendar before you respond and make sure you have the time you need.
  2. You want to do it. This might sound oversimplified, but if you want to do something and you have the time, go for it. If you don’t want to do it, say no. 
  3. It aligns with your mission and values. If you don’t have a personal mission applicable to your work and life, start there. Once you know your mission, it can be a guide. If an item doesn’t align with where you’re headed, perhaps it’s a pass for you. 
  4. You have the resources to do it. Once you know you have the time, have checked in with yourself about whether or not you want to do it, and have decided it aligns with your mission and values, it’s important to determine if you have the resources to do it (i.e. money, skills, contacts, knowledge, and so on).

Here’s how you know when to just say no

  1. You’re beginning (or already) feel burned out. This week, I noticed I was feeling more tired than usual after saying yes to more work and social engagements than I normally do. I decided to prioritize rest and cleared a day on my calendar to do something that refreshes me. Pay attention to your physical energy and what your body is telling you and respond accordingly if you need time to reset. 
  2. You don’t want to do it. There are some work-related or social obligations that can feel tricky to say no to. However, if you don’t want to do something, you can say no and find a way to communicate your decision that feels good for you. 
  3. It’s out of alignment with your goals. We only have so much time for work and living. If you know what’s important to you, you can determine what isn’t. Revisit your mission statement and values when you’re making a decision and ask if it supports your goals or not. 
  4. You don’t have the resources to do it (even if you want to). Sometimes we do not have the time, physical capacity, money, or other resources to do something, even if we want to. Perhaps it’s not a no forever, but a no right now while you work on gathering resources or waiting until a more opportune time. 

Embracing moments of downtime without our screens 

The point of defining when we might say yes and no to something is to help us integrate moments of solitude and downtime into our schedule—yes, even during this time of year. When we think about resetting, we might imagine a long break that leaves us feeling recharged. However, we can have those moments in our day-to-day, integrated into our routine.

To begin with, screen time doesn’t count as downtime because it’s still input. My dictionary defines downtime as, “time during which production is stopped especially during setup for an operation or when making repairs.” Of course, that’s related to technology, but it also serves the purpose of our exploration. 

I encourage you to find at least 15 minutes in your day as a starting point to practice solitude. Use this downtime to do nothing. There are probably already opportunities for you to do this. Forgo input on your train or car commute. Resist the urge to stare at your screen while waiting in line. Take a quick break from work and go for a walk. Find ways you can practice having no input that are accessible. 

One trick I recently learned from my friend Jillian was to use the Screen Time features for iPhone. They allow you to set time limits for phone usage in general, and for specific apps. You won’t get locked out, but you will get a message to inform you when you’re done with your time limit for the day. You can also set downtime hours when you take a break from your device. I’ve set my downtime hours from 10pm to 7am and noticed I’ve spent more time reading books in the evenings.

Doing nothing can lead to more meaning

If we are always busy saying yes to everything, how do we know what’s actually important? If we spend time mindlessly inputting whatever comes our way, how do we know what we want to consume? If we have no moments of solitude with ourselves, we forget what our own voice sounds like. It becomes harder to know ourselves and thus harder to know what we really want when it comes to work and life. 

Doing nothing is just as important as producing and creating. As Jenny Odell puts it, “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.” Downtime may not look productive to others, it may not feel productive to us, but if we engage in it on a regular basis, we will surely see the positive effects: being more in tune with what we want and being more engaged in what makes a good life during the busiest time of the year—and all year round. 

For further exploration on this topic:

More about Tina Essmaker

Tina Essmaker is a New York City-based coach, writer, and speaker.

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