Failing at nothing

Yesterday as Brooklyn dug out from 20″ of snow still yet to be plowed (Hi Mayor Bloomberg! Over here! Waving furiously!) I enjoyed myself a bit of a snowday.

My sitter managed to make it over to play with the kids, and while I didn’t get that free day of shopping and pedicuring and gallivanting about in dry shoes as hoped, I did try to make the most of it within a three-block radius of my home.

This is Josh. He’s the maitre d’ at The River Cafe. 
He skied to work down Henry Street from Fort Green, smart guy.

I took myself to see Black Swan, which might be the first non-animated film I’ve seen in a theater all year. I described it on Twitter as (The Turning Point + Requiem for a Dream) x Carrie. Let’s just say if you want to laugh a lot, mostly at scenes that are supposed to be serious, this is the film for you! It also made me feel a little better about Thalia dropping out of ballet.

Of course I might have enjoyed it more had I not been forced to keep my winter coat and scarf on the entire time. Ah, indie theaters. So hip. So alternative. So freaking cold.

Beforehand the film, I had about 90 minutes to kill and so I trudged my way across the Snow Drift Formerly Known as Clark Street to the one open cafe, hoping they might have something edible (if a day-old) in the kitchen. They do make the best brie-apricot panini.

I worked on the Sunday Times puzzle. I checked the time. I checked my email. I skimmed an article. I stirred my coffee. I checked the time.

That’s when I realized I am horribly bad at doing nothing.

Other customers stared at the snow out the window, warming fingers on steaming cups of espresso. They looked happy.

I could stare out the window for a good five seconds before my mind started racing and my hands twitched with an uncomfortable idleness.

The puzzle was a break from the email. The email was a break from checking Twitter. The Twitter interrupted the cover article. The article was a break from the emails. And it was all just “killing time” before a movie, which really, maybe I shouldn’t be seeing at all, what with all the work there was back home for me; a dollhouse that needed assembly, a bedroom that demanded straightening, towels ready for a run through the wash, emails with exclamation points, cats with no food, and most importantly, two beautiful, costumed children waiting to perform their new dramatic interpretation of New Year’s Eve fireworks, complete with original music.

Maybe it just takes me longer for me to slow down on a holiday break, after moving at break-neck speed for so long. Or maybe I am just terrible at doing nothing.

I’m not so sure that’s healthy.

As New Year’s creeps up and we start thinking resolutions, I know I need to find more balance in my life. I need to put the laptop down more, delegate the dry cleaning, read a book for a change, let the dishes go–although I’m already pretty good at that. I need to make the time for the things I like to do and not the things I have to do. (Although it has crossed my mind that I actually find happiness in some twisted way, in completing a to-do list. I wonder what Gretchen Rubin would say about that.)

I know I need less multi-tasking and more single-tasking. And I definitely need more moments that don’t have anything to do with tasks at all.

I need to be better at doing nothing.

But that is so very, very hard for me.

Are there any parents good at doing nothing? Are you?


41 thoughts on “Failing at nothing”

  1. I'm not especially good at it, even now at 29 weeks pregnant. There's just too much to get done. Which is not to say I get it all done. I futz around on the computer, from blogs to Twitter to Facebook to CNN to whatever. I try to justify it by putting in a load of laundry, and then totally forgetting about it for hours. I can barely watch a show on TV without checking my phone or cutting fabric for a new quilt.

    I definitely have gotten worse at single-tasking in the last few years. I totally blame Twitter.

  2. You know how when you go on vacation, it takes a few days to settle into vacation mode? It's the same thing with doing nothing. If you're not used to having an hour to yourself to just be, just unwind and be still, it's not going to come naturally overnight. You need to ease into it, work on it. 90 minutes is too long for a rookie.

    On the bright side, look at your New Year's Resolution writing itself!

  3. You are asking me as I eat breakfast while watching the Today show, looking at a pile of wash the size of Texas, drink a cup of coffee, update my twitter, read blogs and answer email?

    I suck at single tasking and also at doing nothing. If you discover the secret, let me know.

  4. I'm starting to wonder whether this is a blogger issue.

    Or whether those of us who too-many-task are drawn to blogging because of our inability to be still.

  5. Crunchy New Hampshire gal here, living a life completely different from what you experience in the big city. Well, not so different, really, in that we all run at breakneck speed to get…where? Once I get to the place where I think, “phew, now I can rest!” something else happens, a new challenge awaits, and I'm not entirely happy with where I am.

    Years ago after a divorce, I shut off the TV, didn't listen to the news, forced myself to be by myself. Best thing that could have happened to me. Slowly I began to add things to my life, things that I liked instead of things I had to do. There are times now when I get too busy; then I need to slow down again.

    It's a constant battle. I would suggest to shut down one thing for, say, a half hour and get used to how that feels. Once you get used to doing one thing less, drop something else. Take your time.

    Hope this helps! Love your blog – Always wanted to live in the city -I can live vicariously through your posts. Happy New Year!

  6. In fact, being good at doing nothing Is my credo…so yeah, it's an achievable goal but not for the people who are Type A. To be able to do nothing, you have to LET THINGS GO!!! Not your kids, because then child services or school calls, and maybe not your bills because then your husband invariably finds out that things were cut off and you had to race to fix it, but unimportant stuff…like PTA, and competing with other moms. I'm willing to be your mentor. After all, I've ruined bunches of women down here already.

  7. Wait Lynn, I don't actually compete with other moms. Now there's one more thing I have to add to my list!

  8. “Doing nothing” is really an dependent on interpretation. Perhaps it's simply a matter of getting use to doing something different.

    When we judge something as “nothing” we may be missing the big picture, no?

  9. Couldn't agree more @ToyFoto. Obviously nothing is something…important. Or I wouldn't care to do it.

    I used to describe it as inputting, especially when I'm so busy outputting all the time.

  10. Does watching hours upon hours of Law and Order: SVU marathons qualify as doing nothing? If so, I am really good at that!

  11. I've been fascinated by these retreats where you spend the entire time in silence. It's such a foreign concept.

    Silence AND no internet interaction? It would either be amazing or cause me to be psychotic in the first hour and a half.

    Either way – it might be an interesting experience.

  12. I want to learn to unplug. Completely. Well, almost, since I do have a job and a boss that may want me to check in now and then. (ahem)

    My dream wishes? Get rid of cable TV (all of it). (It'll never happen unless I run away alone.) Play more cards or board games. Read a good book once a week (to myself—reading Harry Potter aloud doesn't count). Get outside a lot more.

    But, ugh, sitting in a coffee shop alone with nothing to do? Bo-ring. I'll never be good at that. I prefer my coffee to go.

  13. I used to be so good at doing nothing. In my single-living-alone days I could do nothing all weekend, and it was bliss. Sweats, crappy lifetime movies, reading…I miss those days sometimes.

    But since having a baby I can't do nothing very well anymore. I can go about 30 min tops before I start twitching about this thing or that thing that needs to be done before the todder wakes. And of couse when she is awake there is no doing nothing. Add in work and, well you know what I mean.

  14. I'm a do nothing champion. I think being good at doing nothing depends on your definition of nothing. Like right now I consider reading and commenting on blogs doing nothing, because I have a to do list a mile long and this is not on it.

  15. Generally I'm no good at doing nothing, primarily because it bores the crap out of me. I have to say, though, that this holiday has been wonderful. I haven't posted, I haven't emailed, and I've rarely tweeted, and it has been so nice to take a break from it, only because those things are such a major focus of my life. I was on overload a little bit, and this has been great. Off to the beach tomorrow. Yahoo.

    P.S. This week I had a crazy dream in which I was in a brand positioning meeting for a new Pepsi soft drink aimed at teen boys. The (completely serious in terms of the dream) tagline was “Drink maliciously.” I have been laughing about that for days.

  16. Doing nothing has to be one of the hardest things of all! Hope you're digging out of the snow okay.

    P.S. I think you're onto something about blogging as an alternative to doing nothing…

  17. I wrote about just this a few weeks ago. At night? I realized I watch TV while working and being on Twitter. As well as taking breaks to play Angry Birds and WWF. I'm only catching half of what I'm doing. It's a sickness.

    I think as working mom's of small kids, we are so accustomed to multi-tasking that we literally don't know how to stop.

    I've been working on it the past week or so. Failing miserably probably. But at least I've been on Twitter less. It's a process. Try with something small. Say, if you are going to do a puzzle or read an article, just do that until you are done with it. New Years challenge?

  18. Am reading comments and yours makes sense. That those of us who multi-task, who think about six things at once are drawn into blogging because of that.

    In a way that makes sense. It's also the same reason we can deal with Twitter. Others who don't maybe think that fast, tend to not be on Twitter.

  19. I am not good at 'doing nothing'. Not even a little bit. Luckily (?), thanks to my smart phone, I never have to.

    Which is very conflicting, for me.

    I've decided I need to start reading more books again. I think it might be a good first step on my path.

  20. I think it is pretty easy to do nothing in NYC. Just sitting in a coffee shop looking at the street outside is so intriguing. A million little stories unfold. I find as you move out to stip-mall land where the most exciting thing to look at is Stop and Shop tracker-trailer backing up–suddenly my iPhone is my best friend. Do you have the ap for TED talks?

  21. I'm not very good at it–probably a symptom of coming of age along with the Internet and all its endless promises of perpetual activity and stimulation. I'm trying to get better. But then I wonder, isn't there a certain irony at *working hard* to do nothing?

  22. The slowing down is something that I have been working very, very hard at the past month or so. It is definitely not easy for me, but I have come to appreciate the slowness more. Still makes me twitchy sometimes. 😉

  23. Hi Liz. I am very good at “doing nothing” like Chris in Pooh story. I start with a glass of wine, twitter stream on, and just read what others are doing because I'm “doing nothing!”

  24. Doing nothing doesn't make me happy. In fact, it makes me unhappy.

    It's not easy to explain to other people. Even my 8yo daughter tells me, “Mom, just go take a bath. I'll keep everything under control.” I tried to explain that getting things accomplished is more relaxing and satisfying to me than the pretense of relaxing by engaging in activities that others find relaxing – baths, movies, staring out the window.

    Perhaps it's just not our nature to relax in the same way that others do.

  25. I am horrible at doing nothing. I have the nervous energy of a hummingbird. My resolution–accept my faults and relish that I have this much endurance 🙂

    Motherhood is a marathon not a sprint.

  26. I agree with Julie. Very good points, Julie!

    And being one of the types of people who always wants to be doing something, I DO recognize when I really need a break. I'm not the sort to run myself ragged–I like activity, but I'm pretty good at scaling back or “turning off” for a few days if that's what I need instead.

    I think the key, like anything else, is listening to what your body/soul are telling you.

  27. Oh, I don't know. Sitting in a cafe staring at snow is comparable to sitting in a traffic jam staring at snow, isn't it? In one case you're killing time and in the other time is being killed… Both strike me as time spent waiting.

    I am not very good at sitting around doing nothing with other people, but on my own I'm a champion do-nothing. I could sleep for 10 hours and then spend another hour lying in bed wondering what the heck that dream was about — not every day, of course, but easily once a week, given the chance!

  28. I'd differentiate between doing nothing and relaxing.

    Doing nothing is being with what is.

    Isness/suchness can be observed in a sitting practice. A sitting practice is straightforward. Spend 10 minutes on a cushion sitting each day and you'll learn, likely, what it means to “do nothing.” It's not relaxing, though. It's cultivating a practice of being with what is.

    One place to start: Ruling Your World

    Another staring place Faith: Trusting Your Deepest Experience

    Those two teachers, Sakyong Mipham & Sharon Salzberg, can help you onto the path. Another starting place – buying a zafu and having a dedicated place in the house in which to sit. (I've used a Smile Cushion from Carolina Morning for about ten years.)

  29. Liz, I was just telling my husband how awesome your blog is, how so many times I get what you're saying 'cuz it's what I'm feeling (especially since our girls are almost the exact same ages) and then you write this post. I just today had an hour plus of free time and couldn't stop thinking of all the things I could be doing (and the To Do list that I could be crossing off). Instead, I folded laundry, while checking email and Facebook and catching up on tv I can only watch alone (yes, I can't help but like “Cougar Town” for some reason). Yup, and felt guilty about watching the tv. So no, no advice on how to do nothing well. Just thank you for once again speaking my mind for me. 😉

  30. ditto. ditto. ditto. I finally realized that I am so much better at spending time with my kids when I leave the house. Because at home, I'm just continuously doing things like cleaning, straightening, etc. I can be so much more present for my kids when I'm out (as long as I put the Blackberry down).

  31. Over the past few years, I've come to realize that there's a certain level of activity that keeps me happy. Too much and I start to feel stressed and too little makes me fidgety. If I stay in the “happy zone”, then there are enough quiet “nothing” moments to keep me sane and patient and let me appreciate the world around me. I have stuff to do all day every day. My to do list doesn't end, it just kind of scrolls by. When I cross enough items off one page, the un-done stuff gets moved to the top of a new blank page. There's stuff that's been on there for years!! But it'll get done. Eventually. Or it'll just drop off the list because it's never been important enough to take care of. I wish I had the energy of a hummingbird, but I don't and I'm okay with that now. I am pacing myself when I can because I'm in this homemaking job for the long haul!

  32. Nope. And it drives my husband nuts. I think I am my own worst enemy when it comes to relaxing. Christmas Day, had no family to visit, nothing to do. I sat for 30 seconds after the kids opened their gifts and then proceeded to put together their lego toys for the next 2 hours. I suck at doing nothing, especially if it's a nothing I could be doing for myself. It's a curse. I'd be shoveling you out if I lived there.

  33. I don't think I know anyone who's good at doing nothing. Except those people that meditate and do yoga – although isn't that “doing” something? I like the idea of having more balance, more clear spaces to think. Finding the patience to make it happen – that's another thing.

  34. Spent two hours in the Park with my 6 year old yesterday building a snow fort. Literally kept thinking “if I had brought my Blackberry I could have gotten some work done while she builds!” It wasn't that I wasn't enjoying her company or building the snow fort, it was that I'm just not used to be so…present. The park was empty and quiet, my kid was contentedly playing – I should be working! I'm trying to hold on to that moment in my mind as a way to gently remind myself that sometimes just being there (with her, with myself) is important. I'm planning on going to see a movie and getting a pedicure on Monday (office is closed, school is open, bonus day!) and I know I'll be fidgety then as well.

  35. oh. boy. hm. i could have written this (though not nearly as well). i'm enjoying my first day of 4 on a farm in CT (after helping my neighbors dig our street clear so that we could drive since the plows never showed up). babies asleep. kiddos watching a movie. i tried not to grab my laptop. couldn't help myself. started to work. stopped. started to look up a recipe so that i could get up and cook. stopped. (it's important for me not to CONSTANTLY cook. must. stop. sometimes.) now i'm here. funny, huh. first place i went once i refrained from recipe hunting for inspiration. and found this post right up top. perfect. i'm the worst at doing nothing. and, now, i'm going to close the laptop and practice. thanks for the reminder. godspeed. (to us both.)

  36. Never been good at it. I can't meditate, either. I suck at yoga. It's only gotten worse since I had a baby. I've given up, I don't think it's a learned behavior.

  37. I'll never forget my time at Kripalu Yoga Retreat in the Berkshires many moons ago. Not only did we have to eat our meals in silence, but lights were out really early and I was sent to my minimalist room. I had such a hard time there, and it broke my heart that I literally ran out of there at the end of the weekend. Maybe now after having two kids and always turned “on” and never “off” I would appreciate it. I don't know, but I, too, have trouble killing time with nothing to do.

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