Back Away from the Desk

The case for a Do Nothing Day

Posted Dec 21, 2017

Anthony Tran / Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran / Unsplash

“May all your sheep have lambs, but not on Christmas night.”                    

                                           — Irish toast

Translation: I wish you prosperity, but also a day of rest.

These days, that counsel sounds as quaint as pot roast and a promenade down Main Street. The “prosperity” part doesn’t seem to square with downing tools for a whole day.

No one would dispute that it’s wise to take short breaks. A coffee run, Sudoku pause, a workout, even a nap. All good. But a whole day of intentionally unproductive chilling remains a hard sell to North American strivers.

Nonetheless, I’m going to take a best hack at it — beginning with the writer Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau raised chickens in his backyard at Walden Pond. From his window he’d watch them admiringly, jotting notes.

Behold the humble hen. She lays a single lovely egg a day. The rest of her time she spends feeding on the things that will make the next egg.

There it is, the million-dollar insight. For creative types especially, the rest that follows a hard push isn’t just about recharging so you can buckle down and make another egg. The rest is the very stuff of the next egg. It’s in that dreamy resting state — what Thoreau called “a wide halo of ease and leisure” — that the insights and the connections come, the blueprints for the next phase of building. Thoreau went further:

“Those who work much do not work hard." Really hard work can only be done in concentrated pulses.

The track coach Steve Magness, co-author of the new book Peak Performance, would concur. He noticed a pattern in the US Olympians he works with.

“The best train harder than everyone else,” he says. “But the best also rest harder than everyone else.”

Rest harder. Savor the paradox. The backing off is every bit as important as the bearing down. Between the pulses there is stillness. The stillness is itself an art. It’s not a lazy out; it’s where the growth happens. But doing nothing actually takes its own kind of discipline.

Not long ago the Buddhist teacher and author Sharon Salzberg was helping a Type-A guy prepare for his first Vipassana meditation retreat. This Eastern practice, whose roots are a couple thousand years old, requires sitting in silence from very early in the morning till late at night, noticing the thoughts and feelings that come and go. For newbies, the first day is extraordinarily difficult. Even Salzberg herself, a 45-year veteran of Vipassana, finds the first day hard.

“There are two voices in my head,” she said. “The first voice says, ‘There’s nothing happening here; I guess it’s time to sleep.’ The second voice says, ‘There’s nothing happening here – I need to make something happen.’” She finds herself planning the next book, the next workshop — so much to do, so little time. The mind, faced with a blank sheet, toggles between boredom and restlessness, until it eventually settles and becomes both relaxed and energized. This can take time.

The prospect of having nothing to do scares the hell out of people. Cool things lie on the other side of boredom — but boredom is a muscle, and a lot of us stopped going to that particular gym round about the time we got a smartphone.

Which brings me to my own Do Nothing Day.

It began as a challenge, in the spirit of Buy Nothing Day, popularized by my old boss, Kalle Lasn.

Kalle believes it’s worth taking a hard look at where our energy is going. What’s pulling us along from dawn to dusk? What cravings are in play? Buy Nothing Day asks: How deeply in thrall are you to the consumer trance, to the reflex of filling empty moments by buying something to put in your mouth or your living room or your hard drive? The way to find out is to go cold turkey. Don’t open your wallet, don’t spend a single dime, for 24 hours. You’d be surprised how hard it is.

For a lot of people the prime addiction isn’t spending, it’s working. Or worse, busyworking – repeatedly checking some screen in order to know what to think or do next. My whole family is definitely guilty of this – all four of us.

So we embarked on an experiment: a 24-hour technology fast.

We listened to music and watched jellyfish at the aquarium and hung out. We basically did nothing. And found that it filled us up more than those days when we tried to do everything.

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People have flirted for eons with this idea of carving out a whole day of absolute non-productivity. (Two words: The Sabbath.) But in 1994, Chicago artist Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith gave the idea a hedonistic twist. “National Splurge Day,” in her coinage, was a way to reconnect with the world and its sensory pleasures.

By “splurge” she didn’t mean go crazy with the Visa card. She meant be lavish with your emotions and your appetites. Indulge. Treat yo self. Play 36 holes of golf — even if you're a duffer. Pass the day with an old friend in warm water somewhere. Basically, your one job is just not to go back to work. Even sleeping all day is okay.

But wait a sec. Who can really afford to try this experiment? It sounds like a recipe for falling behind.

Actually, the data suggest otherwise.

The software company 37 Signals switches to a four-day workweek every May through December. Employees can blow off any day of the week they choose. True, that means they have to get their whole week’s work done in the other four days. But they do. With interest. “Better work gets done in four days than in five,” said CEO Jason Fried.

Turns out Thoreau was right: The more we busy ourselves with the drudgery of work, the less work we actually accomplish. Backing fully away is incredibly rejuvenative. Well-rested employees are more productive.

A four-day work week also tends to make people mighty happy. Which is why a lot of big companies, including Google, Deloitte and Amazon are now experimenting with springing employees one day a week.

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“Everybody needs a Sunday,” says the indie singer-songwriter Ted Leo.

This holiday season, let’s take one.

Drivers, still your engines.

Accountants, close your spreadsheets.

Soldiers, lower your guns.

Doing Nothing is the new Great Leap Forward.