The Gift of Nothing


It’s February. Lots of you (I hope) are still going after those goals and New Year’s resolutions you made. Additionally, the season of Lent is upon us. Many of you have chosen to give something up for those 40 days of sacrifice, and some have chosen to add something to their lives, make good new habits, if only for a few weeks. All of these actions take persistence, something we can find ourselves in short supply of at this stage of the game.

I imagine you still have a ways to go. It’s still going to take work to get there. You’re going to get tired. Sometimes you will want to do anything but this. There will be times you will need to remind yourself why you want that thing so badly because suddenly you can’t remember why: why losing sleep to go running was a great idea; why skipping an outing with friends to get in some practice/writing time is worth it; why you’re sitting in class instead of catching up on episodes of your favorite show.

Whatever it is you’re doing instead of–let’s face it–having fun, I am here to remind you it’s worth it. So worth it. Totally…

Except when it isn’t.

One thing I harp on more than anything else is BALANCE. I have a deep and abiding interest in it. Frankly, I can’t shut up about it. It’s very important to me. That’s not to say I’m perfectly good at achieving it, just that I try really, really hard to. Because everything depends on maintaining it.

I mean, you can hustle all you want, but you still need sleep. You can work out and cut calories, but you still gotta eat. You can focus on yourself and your goals, but not at the cost of relationships, or else who will be there to celebrate with you when you get wherever you’re going?

I bet a lot of people could be “successful” or famous if they cut all “distractions” from their lives. But that kind of success is empty, worthless. Impressive, but not admirable.

I have some hefty goals I set for myself this year, and I’ve been grinding away at them. But you know what I did today? Nothing. For one hour, I made myself do nothing productive. I didn’t do chores, write, or even read a book. Just as an experiment. And it felt…weird.

I’ve gotten so used to multitasking, having 2,500 tabs open in my mental browser at all times, that I had difficulty turning it off. You don’t realize how much you ask of yourself until you don’t let yourself do anything.

I tried to think of ways to pass the time, but everything was production-driven. I thought I might read, but then remembered I have my book-reading goal. Nix that. I tried watching my new bird feeder, but my mind kept drifting toward my to do list and composing this blog post (ironic much?).

For a few minutes I snuggled up under my blankies and looked around the bedroom, ticking off all the things in the room that I had been responsible for: installing outlets and light fixtures, sanding, caulking, painting. It’s nice sometimes just to remember all you’ve accomplished, especially when it feels like you haven’t put a dent in your massive to do list.

Now, the funny thing is, there are times I can sit on my brains and binge-watch Netflix and stuff my face like it’s an Olympic sport. But then I always feel guilty about it. I always feel like I should have done something more meaningful with my time. As often as not, when this happens I burrow deeper into my blanket fort and hide further and further from my responsibilities. Funny how working too much can lead to idling too much.

The key difference, I’ve found, is being deliberate about it. Whatever you’re doing, be present. Relish the grind and the chill alike.

Giving yourself permission to be a lazy bag-a-bones for a specific amount of time makes it feel like you are doing something. Better yet, schedule it–put it on your to do list and label it “self-care” if that’s what it takes to trick yourself into feeling like you’re allowed to do nothing.

It’s difficult at first, but I found it very refreshing. When my hour was up, I was ready to tackle all of the things that occurred to me when I was chilling. I felt a sense of delineation between my work time and my down time.

Perhaps it would help if I offered some words of wisdom in favor of idleness. Why not start with our trusty Bible? The third (or fourth, depending on who’s doing the numbering) commandment of the big ten (fifteen, according to Mel Brooks) that God gave to the Israelites was to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), the Sabbath being the designated day of rest. The Bible–the same one that gave us “Look to the ant, thou sluggard,” and told us how tirelessly the ideal wife was to work, poor dear–not only advocates but insists followers take off one day every single week, and that they stick to it like a sacred duty.Probably sounded like a pretty good commandment to a people who had just left slavery behind them.

Later, in the New Testament: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath,'” (Mark 2:27, NLT). It was a gift, He told them.

Divine permission not cutting it for you? How about a fictional character’s perspective? “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” (Winnie the Pooh, a virtual guru of idleness)

What about an example from nature? I need hardly tell you that bears hibernate or that plants die off in winter and reappear in spring.

Perhaps a quote from a historical figure with an impressive résumé is more likely to persuade you. Some long-dead feller with a majestic beard gave us these beautiful words:

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” –John Lubbock, The Use of Life

So, do as you’re told, good soldier, and while away an hour, with my–and Pooh’s–blessing. Even if you take just one hour to rest your weary soul, set that time aside deliberately and protect it. Then do all the nothing you can possibly do.

Possibilities include the following, but are subject to your whims and discretion:

  • Stare at birds/neighbors/memes.
  • Color a picture.
  • Sing or play a song.
  • Read things that don’t count toward your goal.
  • Get a drink with a friend you can be your most relaxed self with.
  • Snuggle with your pet and watch them breathe. (I am not liable if they feel challenged by excessive eye contact and attack you.)
  • Put on a facial mask and paint your toenails.
  • Make a DONE list, written, mental, or aloud. Just because it’s done doesn’t mean you don’t still get credit for it. I installed lights and outlets that we use every day, so it doesn’t hurt to remember that we can see at night and charge our phones because I did a thing.

Whatever you like. Whatever refills your well. This is your time to recharge and replenish.

When that time is up and you must return to your work, take that same sense of ease you found with you into your labors. And try to remember that zero and break-neck aren’t the only two speeds life has.

Take this gift of nothing and try it out. Let me know how it goes for you!

Also, here’s a thing I did, with much help from Ryan:


(And, yes, I will hang it higher so the birdies will be safe from the many stray kitties in my ‘hood. And pull those weeds. And plant some lettuce. And beans. And fertilize…)


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