I’ve been coming across more and more people of my generation who are very uncomfortable with unstructured time. Like the rest of America, they are so busy most of the time that when they are not busy, they don’t know what to do. Furthermore, they worry that if they rest or enjoy even a few hours of idleness, it will mean they are being lazy, unproductive, or even worthless. Throw in a debilitating chronic illness that keeps someone in the house, in bed, or generally unable to do a lot of things, and this discomfort and worry is compounded in a huge way.
Interestingly, it’s our inability to be still and idle that lands so many of us in doctor’s offices in the first place. We’re not designed to be “on” all the time. The brain and body need time to rest. We also know now that idleness actually increases blood flow to parts of the brain which can improve creativity, and make you more productive later on.
So what’s our beef with doing nothing? Some of it is cultural, for sure. The norm is to always be busy, and, as the second article linked above mentions, defaming idleness has been on the rise since the Industrial Revolution. Additionally, some of us millenials had very structured childhoods, full of not only school but endless sports events, club meetings, concerts, and recitals. We didn’t get a lot of opportunities to entertain ourselves and explore. And smartphones certainly don’t help the situation for any of us. Remember how people used to have brilliant ideas while they were on the toilet or in the shower? Now we take our phones into the bathroom to check e-mail or listen to podcasts. We’re allowing ourselves less and less time to space out.
I am a recovering workaholic and chronic overachiever myself. One of my college professors even called me the latter, and while I took it as a compliment, I sort of didn’t believe him and felt like I always had to be doing more to try to make the world a better place.
After burning out from a demanding non-profit job in my early twenties, I took jobs at a cafe and a farm to explore a less stressful lifestyle and take some time to get my health in order. I was surprised to find that I suddenly had ideas for poems and art pieces again. I began blogging about anything and everything, and I doubled the size of my vegetable garden plot. I was pretty happy with my downtime. Then at some point I decided I needed to get back into the career game. I took a cushy academic 9-5 job that I was really pumped about. My boss was great and so were the benefits. I did interesting work but didn’t have to take it home with me. When I stayed late I got overtime. I saved money and had time to do other things.
After about six months of suckling on the teat of academia, I began worrying again that I wasn’t doing enough. I was supporting people in learning about the Middle East but I felt like I needed to be organizing, working in the community, trying to make more change happen locally. One volunteer gig led to another and before I knew it I was the Board President of a brand new non-profit, managing 15 people and building a volunteer program, on top of my day job, at the bright young age of 26. I was always working and always saying “yes.” I went to a ton of parties in that time and felt like I was really crushing life. That is, until I got in a bike crash, got a semi-serious concussion and experienced a huge resurgence in symptoms that I later learned were Lyme and Bartonella. Interestingly the non-profit was a bike advocacy one. The coincidence was not lost on me. It took me a little while but eventually, I saw the crash for the wakeup call that it was.
I had to leave the job and the non-profit because I was sick and my brain wasn’t working anymore. That was my third big burnout. It took one more before I finally began to slow down in earnest and embrace the slower life. I took eight months off from working. I’m very grateful that I was able to do that, because I might have worked myself to death otherwise. It took a little while to settle into doing nothing. I spent my 30th birthday on my parent's couch but surprisingly didn’t feel that bad about it. I was determined to set a different tone in my next decade on the planet. I began meditating, practicing yin yoga (which was so hard but so good), taking walks in the woods when I could, and intentionally cutting down on screen time. It made a difference in my energy, my brain function, and overtime it’s taught me SO much about how to listen to my body. I now regularly take time to stare at the wall or out the window and I treasure that time. None of these blog posts would happen without it!
I’m still an organizer and an activist at heart but I see now that the revolution will not happen from a place of exhaustion. Rest and unstructured time are crucial ingredients in a healthy and well-lived life. Why not strive to march into every battle – personal and political – well rested and with a smile on our face? That is what I’m striving for.