Monday, August 4, 2014

Doing Nothing

There is this concept that most people have heard of. It's in the bible. The basic premise is that God created the world in six days. He was extremely busy during those six days. But on the seventh day he rested.

Observant Jews mark the Sabbath. If you are very religious you won't work from sundown on Friday night to sundown on Saturday. If you're running a household, you have to be very organized.

When Jacob was in the hospital at NYU medical center, we learned about this from the orthodox families whose children were inpatients at the same time. Their definition of work was broader than we anticipated. They weren't allowed to push elevator buttons, so they got in the Sabbath elevator, which automatically stops at every floor. Jeremy and I made the mistake of getting on this elevator once, and it took us forever to get to pediatrics.

The families would ask Jeremy or I to microwave meals for them because they weren't allowed to push those buttons either. At first, this made Jeremy annoyed. At the time, he thought it was ridiculous and antiquated. Then later, once he got to know people better, he became more open minded. He also started identifying as Jewish, something he had difficulty with previously.

I was raised to work hard. My mother, my grandmother and the man who became my dad all had strong work ethics. My sister and brother are like this too. It's part of the family culture. I also married a hard worker.

If you hire me, you'll get a good hard day's work out of me. At the moment, I'm not working for a paycheck. If you are thinking that you are sick of lazy employees and could use a person like me around the office, I'm not available right now. I'll let you know when that changes. You wouldn't be sorry.

I mentioned before that I am not employed in the usual sense of the word. But I still work hard. In a nutshell, my not working for income right now is so that I could stop being busy with one kind of thing to focus on and being busy about something else. There's more, but that's all the writing I'm going to do about it now.

Last week, I was whipping through my to do lists like nobody's business, getting all kinds of stuff done. I take good care of my time. There's hardly a moment that's not spoken for. I'm a planner.

Around Friday, I noticed that I was feeling tired and irritable in a way that didn't feel quite typical. I could feel a sense of burn out coming on. I was surprised by this. That's because every day before bed I take some time for myself to do things that I enjoy that are not work. Besides that, a lot of the work I do is very enjoyable and gratifying. A significant number of things I do are so aligned with my strengths and interests that they don't feel like work at all.

I wondered for the first time if something more substantial than the time at the end of the day was in order. I got a little biblical in my thinking. I reminded myself of the creation story. Notably it didn't feature God creating the heavens and the earth in seven days along with an hour or so of relaxation at the end of all seven days. No. He worked hard for six days. Then he took a day off.

God and I are different. For one thing, I believe in evolution. But putting that aside, God worked harder than me because his job was much bigger. Even so, we have a few things in common. Anyone who has taken a rigorous summer homework packet and broken it into color-coded, manageable chunks for a child with ADHD can relate to someone who has turned water into wine.

After deciding to take a page from the Good Book, I shifted my attention to another book. A really good book. 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. It's been my bible more than the bible. If you want to know more, read my review.

If I was going to take a day of rest I was going to need to schedule it. I'm very literal. If it isn't on the schedule, it doesn't exist. So I went to an app on my iPad where I keep my lists. Each list is named. I located the one called Weekly Planning.

For Saturday, I typed the words, reading, creative and relaxing. This is my version of doing nothing and having nothing on the agenda. That's because these are all extremely enjoyable activities.

There have been rare occasions when I have truly done nothing. When Hannah and Noah were toddlers, there was a period when they were both napping in the afternoon. I distinctly remember a time when I'd put them both down, have some lunch, then spend a few minutes staring at a blank wall. That was nothing.

I did not feel that it was necessary to look at a blank wall on Saturday, although for a certain level of mental exhaustion I highly recommend it. What I had in mind was an overall sense of leisure that stretched out over a day. Not the kind of leisure that one enjoys on a private island. Not the kind of leisure that can only happen when kids aren't around. Not the kind of leisure where one decides that they are not going to touch a pot or pan. To be honest, that was not the kind of leisure I have a fondness for these days. That is not the kind of leisure I know how to participate in.

The leisure I had in mind was just as special; maybe more so because it was inexpensive, takes minimal planning and is utterly accessible. I would still go grocery shopping with my family. I would still cook and clean up from meals and care for my children.

What I wouldn't be doing was a list of things that take more discipline and are attached to an accomplished outcome. On this particular Saturday, we were going to be in the Berkshires. Jeremy's family has a house there. We are very fortunate.

On other Saturdays, I'd been ambitious at the country house. I'd spent time cleaning the screened porch, washing sheets and towels and vacuuming. I might bring files of work to do from home. But on this Saturday, I gave myself a break from all of that.

So when I wasn't marketing, caring for my children or cooking I had wide swaths of time to do whatever I wanted. I stretched out on the chaise lounge and read. I to went for leisurely strolls and took pictures. I socialized with extended family without pressure to be somewhere or do something else. I ignored parts of the house that could use some attention. It's okay. I said to myself. I'll get to it another time.

This was my kind of leisure time. I didn't have to go somewhere far way. It was fully and seamlessly incorporated into my everyday life. It wasn't exotic. It was me.

The next day, I was back to my usual accomplishing stuff. I really enjoyed my day of leisure. But the ambitious part of me couldn't help but notice a fringe benefit.

The lying around in the chaise, the reading, the strolling and the relaxing with a custom list of activities chosen by me, had revitalized me more than I anticipated. I was not only energetic and fresh the next day, but unusually patient and creative.

I was able to do work with a renewed enthusiasm and efficiency. It felt like I'd hired an assistant, only I was that assistant.

It has been over a week since I took my day of rest and I am still feeling the positive effects now. This experience has been a true eye opener.

It's interesting to wonder why a person such as myself, who is not a workaholic and has read about the benefits of leisure, took so long to discover this. Maybe I thought I was in a special category of person who didn't need to consider such things. I guess I had to be ready to experience it for myself.

I've already set up another similar day on my schedule. Jeremy and I are taking Hannah to camp on Sunday. There will be bags to take to the car and last minute jitters to help with. Noah will need some TLC with his sister not around. But my neighborhood of NYC with its coffee shops and restaurants a mere stroll away will be a lovely backdrop to my day of leisure. I have a teetering but tantalizing pile of books by my bed just waiting.

Jeremy doesn't know it yet, but he's joining me. He'll do a fair amount of driving and may need to bake some pumpkin bread for Noah's breakfast. But in between those moments, there is music to listen to, cocktails to mix and scrabble to play.

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