“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
—W. H. Davies
You’re just about to leave for your dentist appointment, when you receive a phone call saying the dentist has been called out on emergency and will have to reschedule your appointment.
Congratulations! You are the winner of one unexpected free hour!
What will you do with your winnings?
Answer your email? Return to the project you were working on before you had to leave? Pay bills? Return phone calls?
Ever consider doing nothing?
If you’re like many of us today, the thought of doing absolutely nothing for an entire hour seems as wasteful as throwing a week’s worth of groceries out with the garbage. Indeed, free time with nothing to do can generate near panic among some of us who are overloaded and time-starved.
“We seem to have a complex about busyness in our culture,” says Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul. “Most of us do have time in our days that we could devote to simple relaxation, but we convince ourselves that we don’t.”
And yet, the harder we push, the more we need to replenish ourselves. As Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of Timeshifting, says, “Each of us needs some time that is strictly and entirely our own, and we should experience it daily.”
The importance of this downtime cannot be overstated. We see more clearly, we hear more keenly, we’re more inspired, we discover what makes us feel alive.
On some level, we know this already. But claiming time to ourselves—time that is often labeled “unproductive”—and sticking to it can be difficult. We need to establish formal boundaries around our idle time to ensure that others—and we, ourselves—honor this time. Some ways to do this are:
• Make a date with yourself. Get to know someone who deserves your attention—you.
• Stand firm. Learn how to say “no” to co-workers, children, a spouse or a friend. In just a short while, you can say “yes,” but now is your time.
• Be clear about your needs. It’s not, “I need more time to myself.” It’s more like, “I’d like to spend 20 minutes by myself in the morning before everyone gets up.”
• Be on the lookout for stolen moments. Use the cancelled dental appointment to sit on a park bench watching pigeons.
• Practice doing nothing. “Doing nothing” is an art, and like all art you need to practice it to reach your highest potential.
How we define idle time varies by individual. For example, for one person, gardening may be meditative downtime, whereas for another, it is one more item on the to-do list (to be done as quickly as possible). The bush is a great place to stroll through for one person, an opportunity to be in and with nature; for another, it’s a great place for a power walk while dictating letters into an iphone.
Our idle time should be like a beautiful flower: it has no purpose. It’s just there. And yet, it refreshes us and reminds us of nature’s glory.
Do something that has no purpose other than joy. Take a half-hour a day to surprise and delight yourself. Keep it simple, and keep it consistent. If your idle time becomes a “program,” or becomes progress toward some productive goal, begin again.
It’s stunning, how simple it really is.