How to Do Nothing

This article shares its title with a New York Times bestseller by Jenny Odell. But I haven’t read it. A reviewer said that Ms Odell’s work is “ambitious”. This article’s subject is the antithesis of ambitious.

I’ve been working. I’ve been busting my ass without a break for months now. I’ve kept my nose to the grindstone working on stuff that turns your brain into an overheated, dried-up, two-stroke engine. But even when I’m not working at the stuff that brings in the bread, I’ve been dosing myself with social media, snorting newsfeed to lull my brain, distract me from matters of bread-earning.

I feel compelled to be occupied. I feel restless if my brain isn’t paying attention to something, doesn’t matter productive or not. Sometimes I get exhausted and drop everything—laptop closed, smartphone dropped, eyes shut. But once again I’m filled with a strange kind of emptiness bordering on dread … what is happening to me—when in fact nothing is happening to me. And my arms unconsciously fetch the nearest book, device, newspaper, remote, or what have you, to claw back from that emptiness. This is my decades-old sudden acute emptiness syndrome.

Why is it impossible to do nothing? Why is it so difficult to remain idle … to just remain? Often I’m so drained, mentally and physically, that I don’t want to move a muscle. I don’t want to have a purpose, an aim, an objective, a to-do list, a next step, or anything to accomplish in the next moment, minute, hour, or day. I don’t even want to meditate—it’s too … proper. I just want to take a break, a real break, from doing and thinking, especially thinking.

I imagine what that looks like. I’m pretty sure it begins with banishing all “thought provocateurs”. Stuff that get into your head through your five senses and make you process them, analyze them, making you work at it, forcing a consumption of sorts. Books, television, smartphones, newspapers, magazines, product packaging, ad banners, movie stubs, lorry slogans, song lyrics, drug receipts, currency notes, so on and so forth (I’m a compulsive reader: if anything has words on it, I can’t help but read it).

After sanitizing myself of alphabets, what do I do? Do I lie on the bed staring at the ceiling? Am I absolutely still? What am I thinking? Should I even think? But you know it’s maddening maddening maddening to try to have an idea-free mind! I know I’ll give up that line of treatment.

Does it look like what we call relaxing? Maybe listening to some soothing music will empty out my brain. Maybe that is what doing nothing is: you sit comfortably in an inclined armchair, wear your earbuds, and listen to some smooth jazz, or piano solos, or birdsongs, or nature sounds, or white noise. Does that work? Or maybe sitting with a cup of chai and taking slow, indulgent, present-in-the-moment sips is what doing nothing looks like.

What about sleeping? Sleeping is doing nothing, right? But you know, nowadays we sleep like it’s our duty to sleep. I sleep when I’m sleepy at night, but I’m anxious about not getting enough shuteye. I know the perils of lack of sleep, so sleeping feels like taking multivitamins or krill oil or chyawanprash so that I don’t die a horrible, painful death. It feels like a bloody chore.

Why can’t I sleep on cue? Like whenever I feel like? Say I’m done with the day’s work, and it isn’t bedtime yet, and I want to “do nothing”. So I’ll sleep; lie on my bed and just shut off. No, I haven’t tried that; I don’t know if that’s even physically possible. But wait: now that I imagine it, why does it feel like such a huge waste of time? Sleep or Netflix? Sleep or power walk? Sleep or book? Sleep or professional networking? Sleep or to-do list? Sleep or grocery shopping? Sleep or paying bills? How come sleep is always the villain here?

Maybe there are people for whom sleep is such an enduring companion, such a virtuous indulgence that it is always the protagonist in their stories. Such fortunate, privileged folks! I’m not one of them. I think I should try harder, make an effort, put in some elbow grease in my quest for the nothing. Annoyingly ironic.

Suddenly, doing nothing, for me, sounds like something that will make me do something. On top of that is the entire stigma around being unproductive. I think the last time I was effortlessly and guiltlessly unproductive was when I was under the expansive and generous umbrella of my parents. (I have now voluntarily left that privilege.) Can I really spend a “manhour” on something that does not make Zuckerberg or me some money?

Is doing nothing the same as being unproductive? By equating (or confounding) doing nothing with being unproductive, modern society has put part-time bohemians like me on the spot. I cannot shake off the guilt of “wasting daylight”. And I’m so far gone that I can’t see on-demand entertainment or viral content as time sinks. On the contrary, I reach out for them like I would reach out for a painkiller in a migraine, or punctuation in rambling prose, or a paperweight in a windy room, or toilet paper in a public restroom. (Now I sound like a socialist stuck in the Grand Old Party, or a hippie in the House of Lords.)

Even though I do not yet know what doing nothing actually entails, I know that it doesn’t find favor with the modern economic structure. I don’t want to become an enemy of the state of affairs. Okay: before modern society banishes me to the land of no income or throws me in a productivity penitentiary, let me try and make a scientific, logical argument in favor of doing nothing.

Actually, no. I won’t give a scientific, logical, or even a philosophical reasoning for doing nothing. I’m sure there are, and I’m sure others have, but I won’t. I’ll do nothing of that sort. I’ll do nothing. Already this article has reached a pointless end without answering the titular question. But at least I have one firm conclusion, a salve for myself, something that will put my mind to rest: I don’t have to give a reason for doing nothing.

Photo by P Hsuan Wang from Pexels

Published by Anupam Choudhury

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger from New Delhi, India.

One thought on “How to Do Nothing

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