Is it just women called Sarah who find it hard to do nothing? Nope. It’s most of us. Sarah Lang investigates ‘doing nothing’.
When was the last time you did nothing, without feeling like you were being lazy or even feeling guilty about it? And who ‘does nothing’ regularly, as opposed to 20 minutes here or there? By ‘doing nothing’, I mean doing something enjoyable that’s not ‘productive’ in a strict sense – so a walk, meditation, watching your fave show, doing a jigsaw puzzle, taking a long bath, getting a massage or reading a book might count. In other words, doing nothing that you feel is a chore or an energy-sapper.
As a mother of an eight-year-old, I work part-time in paid work (9 til 3, give or take), and part-time in unpaid care work and housework (yep, I’m privileged to be able to #workschoolhours). I do feel like I should be on top of things in the home: cooking, dishes, laundry, life admin, etc. My husband works 9-5, if not longer, so it makes sense that I shoulder those things; he does his bit when he’s at home.
In the weekends, there are always motherhood duties. I often cook a huge shepherd’s pie or a similar dish so we’re somewhat prepped for the week. I might do an hour’s reading on a Sunday, but then I’ll feel lazy and get started on dinner or tidy up a bit, even when I’m tired and know my body would benefit from rest.
Why do women feel this way?
I recently spoke to author Sarah Jane Barnett, who is ‘doing nothing’ as a project after suffering burnout. “I think there are so many reasons [why women find it hard to do nothing],” Sarah tells me. “The legacy of the Protestant work ethic, women being rewarded for being carers and giving to others, yet not ourselves; avoidance of feelings – we don’t get a lot of education on how to be with and process feelings – and a person’s value being associated with their productivity (capitalism). ”I think all of the above play into my struggle to ‘do nothing’ (and also, growing up, I was expected to always be busy, always be over-achieving).
Could I perhaps learn to ‘do nothing’ on the regular? One weekday evening, I gave it a try. (The irony being that I did so for the purposes of this story, but I promise I didn’t take notes.) Cooking? I remembered Tuesday is free delivery from Hell Pizza. Dishes? Some were crying for the dishwasher; I just left them to it. Laundry? I decided it could wait. I watched The Bachelorette. I started a book.
So weekday evening: tick. Was I getting quite good at this ‘doing nothing’ business? Doing it on a Sunday should be easy, right? Wrong. It was harder than anticipated. I read more of my book, watched a TV show, went for a walk, did Wordle, achieved nothing significant outside minimal parenting. I felt SO lazy. I had to restrain myself from attacking the dishes.
Why is it so bloody hard?
So here are Sarah Jane Barnett and I, trying to learn to do nothing. After I posted about this topic in a Facebook group, the first two people to comment were called Sarah. Is there something innately hard-working about our name? Is it because there were so many Sarahs in our classrooms that we had to work extra hard to stand out?
Says one Sarah: “I’m definitely learning to do nothing! The most success I’ve had has been watching Netflix. Lol, even that term [success] is productivity lingo.” Says another Sarah: “Up until recently I’ve been terrible at ‘doing nothing’ because there’s always something I feel like I should be doing – housework, etc. I’m working now on devoting time to doing things I want to do, rather than need to do, like reading, TV, resting, etc. But it’s not easy to fight that urge to always be busy or productive!”
Turns out it isn’t just us Sarahs who struggle to do nothing. Stef Rozitis says: “Doing nothing is hard. I’ve struggled with it and although I’ve got pretty good at it, I need to often remind myself to do it properly – not procrastinate but do ‘intentional nothing’. I try to change the script around it to ‘oh look I am recharging my batteries by being near the ocean’ rather than ‘Aargh something is missing [because] I’m not busy’. But also I try to tell myself ‘slow down’ or I try to tell my thoughts ‘swim away’ in a calm inner voice, not with judgement or panic, which would be more natural to me, but with an accepting patience and also I try to schedule time for daydreaming.”
Miriam Ross says: “I’m very bad at it [doing nothing] but what’s worked for me is jigsaw puzzles. Once I start one I get quite addicted to it and ‘waste’ a decent amount of time on it until it’s finished. I quite like having something where I’ll let it take over my spare time for a little while and it has an end to it.”
Chris, a writer, has a unique take. “Researching the 18th century for my PhD, I found that schools only came into being because the land owners had need of workers who could read and add up. Then school holidays only came into existence because parents (outrageously!) kept their children home at the end of summer to help with the harvest so the Protestant schools made a virtue of necessity and called the harvest break a holiday. They also didn’t have to pay teachers for this ‘time off’. Working every hour you were awake was considered ‘to the glory of god’ but was actually to the glory of your master. And the gentry passed laws that ensured that the clergy kept preaching about how good it was to suffer and work hard and you’ll get your reward in the NEXT life.”
“This information, and the cruelty it entailed, has made me more determined to do nothing purposefully. Subverting both the patriarchy and capitalism helps me. But I’m weird I know. And I also have the inner voice telling me I’m ‘lazy’. FFS.”
Chris, who lives with her partner and puppy, actively does nothing sometimes. “Seems counter-intuitive I know! Sometimes the house is clean and the washing is done and dinner is organised.” And sometimes they’re not. “I try and remind myself that doing nothing – which usually means reading, or enjoying the view or playing a game – is valuable to me and that’s all that matters right now. It’s a privileged position for sure but I’m trying actively to pursue it because I think it’s a mindset alien to working-class women – and that’s me!”
The benefits of doing nothing
In 2020, Chandler Kitching published a book called The Art of Doing Nothing: The No-Guilt Practical Burnout Recovery System for Busy Professionals. That’s great and all, but how about we start doing nothing before we succumb to burnout? Kitching, who experienced burnout himself, reckons we should ‘work deeply’, then ‘rest deeply’. “We have been transformed from human beings to human doings,” he says. “We live in a society of people that forgot how to enjoy the moment.”
In an article for Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Dr Colleen Long writes about the Italian term ‘la dolce far niente’, which means “the sweetness of doing nothing”.
She says that ‘doing nothing’ is actually an event in itself. “How different would your quality of life be if you made time throughout the day to experience la dolce far niente? That puritan work ethic instilled in all of us at an early age, is just as much effort as going to the gym and doing the stair climber. Yet the results of our restraint are well worth the hassle… The la dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing and enjoying where we are in the present moment.
“What if instead of saving up seven vacation days out of 365 to finally enjoy life, you spread those out in hours among each day? What if you didn’t look at Saturday/Sunday as your only day to cut loose and chill out? Maybe you sit and read a book. Maybe you stare out the window or balcony and listen to your favourite musician. Maybe you learn how to whistle, meditate, stretch, lounge, or (gasp!) nap. What can you do today to begin doing nothing?’”
Well, I can remind myself that doing nothing is, in fact, doing something. I can remind myself that ‘doing nothing’ can be a goal in itself – because it’s good for you and, through a ripple effect, likely good for those around you. I’ll undoubtedly be a work-in-progress. But I have my response ready for the next time I ask myself why I’m not busy. “I’m busy doing nothing.”