Being ok with doing nothing

With the usual distractions and busyness taken away, how does a Type A overachiever learn to be ok with doing nothing? Jo Matthews shares her story.

Being ok with doing nothing

My daughter was almost three months old when the global Coronavirus pandemic was declared. And, well – you know the rest. Schools, shops, cafes, gyms, cinemas, restaurants were all shut. Words and phrases like ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ invaded our vocabulary and were even parachuted into the Oxford Dictionary as emergency new entries. And as our usual activities, busyness and distractions were progressively taken away, we found ourselves left with a little bit too much time with ourselves. Mentally, emotionally, practically, spiritually – we were not prepared for this. What were we to do now?

In a flurry of creative solidarity and togetherness, individuals, enterprises and businesses quickly put up their offerings online, touting yoga classes, cookery courses, classical concerts, breathing workshops and graphic design qualifications. Instagram became an array of pictures of perfectly baked sourdough, gardening triumphs, DIY accolades and #summerready bodies.  We were all imperceptibly, collectively asking each other how we wanted to use this time to better ourselves. Or rather, what could we do to distract ourselves not only from the anxiety that the world as we knew it seemed to be falling apart, but from the anxiety of having to be with ourselves.

Or rather, what could we do to distract ourselves not only from the anxiety that the world as we knew it seemed to be falling apart, but from the anxiety of having to be with ourselves.

As a closet Type A overachiever from a long-line of get-it-done Protestants, this new wave of potential activities sent me into a panic. I’m the kind of person that uses how many things I’ve ticked off my to-do list to ascertain how much guilt I should take with me to bed. Rather than just accepting that life would be pared-back and less frenzied, I somehow added another layer of pressure to the already worrisome situation by agitating that I ‘should’ be doing something productive and ‘should’ be improving in some way. More time? More chance to get things done!

I joked to my partner that I was going to use the lockdown time to learn Japanese, write a novel, Marie-Kondo-the-shit out of my wardrobe, paint the flat, learn to bake, learn to run, learn Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ on the piano, update my website, get my pre-baby body back and finish a collection of poems. He laughed, with a knowing look that said ‘yeah, but you’re only half joking right’?

And I was only half-joking. Because global pandemics and small babies aside, there is and has always been (for me at least) a lot of pressure to be constantly moving forward, improving, striving, achieving, producing and ensuring that I am able to justify my place on this earth. A persistent feeling of ‘when I am (fill in the blank)’ or ‘when I’ve done (fill in the blank)’ or ‘when I have (fill in the blank)’, then I will allow myself the chance to feel perfectly happy. For me it’s ‘when I am a successful writer, fluent in Dutch and Japanese, with my own coaching practice, the patience to bake a really good cake (and follow the recipe), with J-Lo’s body and a house with a garden, then I will be happy’. Your list might be different, but the foundation will be the same. We postpone our own happiness by thinking it is pegged to our to-dos and to-haves.

We postpone our own happiness by thinking it is pegged to our to-dos and to-haves.

And if I were ever to achieve this list, there is no doubt that I would by that point have added a whole array of vaguely unrealistic new things to it, thereby always pushing my own happiness just out of reach.

There have been occasions in these past weeks when my daughter finally succumbs to a nap and I weigh up that if I’m lucky I might have a spare 30 mins to 1.5 hours on my hands. What do I do with this time?  What do I DO?!?!?! I go online and frantically look at ALL the yoga classes. Nidra for 16 minutes or Vinyasa flow for 25? A guided meditation about fear?

Or I could sort out the kitchen cupboard? Write a poem? Finish that other poem? Or start an online course in mindfulness. Or listen to a podcast about gardening. Or Buddhism. Or politics. I could meditate for 20 mins. Transcendental or guided? Perhaps I’ll make some soup? Paint my nails? Or do a HIIT workout, one is about to start now on Instagram Live.

My brain goes into a state of over-excited paralysis and generally I’ll end up picking one of these activities that I do to 60% capacity with the other 40% of me fretting that I should be doing one of the other potential items on that long list. And sometimes I’ll do nothing, and then beat myself up about it.

But what if doing nothing is in itself the very thing that we should be doing at the moment?

But what if doing nothing is in itself the very thing that we should be doing at the moment? And by doing nothing I don’t mean scrolling through Instagram to see who is looking glowy thanks to their detox cleanse or watching another episode of The Tiger King, both of which will leave you with a pronounced sense of uneasiness (it’s important to make the distinction between numbing and nothing).

For me, doing nothing is one of the most confronting things in the world – I am so used to distracting myself and finding ways to avoid myself. I’ve spent 37 years perfecting the art. But by doing nothing we are finally entering into the realms of being which is where real healing and transformation take place. It’s a place where the achievements, accolades, status badges and labels that we use to define ourselves fall away, and we are left realising that we are here, we are alive and we are OK, just as we are.

Don’t get me wrong, doing nothing is not an excuse for laziness or procrastination. In fact, I’ve found that the few times I have allowed myself some time to do nothing over the past weeks, there is more energy and impetus then to do something afterwards. Because there is no doubt that we are on this earth to create. And there is no doubt that this is a time to develop, to make and to evolve. And that involves some digging around for new projects and some dusting off of old ones. But it also involves just stopping and being.

When I was growing up, all the family used to suffer from Sunday night blues which led my dad to coin the idea of a ‘crack day’. This was based on the appealing fantasy that we might discover a secret extra day tucked into the gap between Sunday and Monday, giving us the chance to finally stop and catch our breath, or catch our tails, or catch up with ourselves.

And now we have been given a whole heap of this slow, breath-catching, tail-catching time. And yes it’s confronting, and yes it’s uncomfortable, and yes I ache to see my family and hug my parents and share my daughter and go and drink wine on a terrace with my mates and play with my nieces and go on holiday and run out into the world and just live.

But in the waiting, let me be OK with this slow time. And let me be OK with doing nothing. 

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Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

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Jo Matthews
Jo MatthewsOriginally from Oxford, Jo is a freelance writer, poet and copywriter now living in Amsterdam, a coach in training, and a new(ish) mum. She has recently started sharing some of her personal writing on instagram @jo___matthews.