We all have answers to that question. Some of us have so little time to rest, between our paid work and our commitments to family, that the idea of taking a rest seems ludicrous. It seems like a luxury that there just isn’t time for. And to be clear, this is not one of those op-eds wherein I tell you to take three weeks of straight rest, as if that is a thing you can just…do. That’s just not helpful.
No, I’m asking you to take some time from the relentless quest for self-improvement. How many of us, when faced with somewhere between a tiny amount of free time, and no free time at all, have said things like, “I should really [learn Russian/take up wood carving/get back to running 10ks]”? Frankly, a good number of us. That’s the world we live in.
The idea that we live in a Protestant culture, for better or worse, has been explored in so many op-eds that I’m not even going to take a stab at it here. We distrust the idea of doing nothing because it seems lazy. It’s true. But we also don’t like the idea of doing nothing because the idea of silence terrifies us to our very core. We don’t want to be alone with our thoughts. We really, really don’t.
If you’re at all like me, the reason you’re afraid of being alone with your thoughts is highly nebulous. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that we’re afraid our thoughts will somehow attack us. Whether it’s part and parcel of our other distrust of our bodies (such as our unhelpful and disingenuous beliefs that our bodies are just waiting for us to let down our guard so they can force us to gorge on junk food, or that they’re too weak and prone to injury for us to be healthy), this fear of our thoughts is robbed of a lot of its power when we think about it openly. Openly means not allowing the fear to control the narrative. It means asking a lot of “and then?” questions and actually listening to the answers. Most of them are ridiculous (see And Then I’ll Catch Fire).
Unlike something such as cliff jumping, this fear can be fairly painlessly confronted. All you have to do is take about 2 minutes without your phone (or any other distraction) and just…be. That’s all. For those of you trying this on your breaks at work, I find that bathrooms (depending on their cleanliness) and stairwells can be useful for this. Work up from there. It’s not going to be comfortable at first, but it is going to get easier – soon, you’ll find yourself able to chill out with a glass of lemonade or a cup of tea, just letting your mind wander.
Okay, but what’s the point? That’s tricky. The point is, to a certain extent, that there is no point. Doing pointless things refreshes your brain. It allows you to rebuild, recharge, and restore. Even in 2-5 minute increments, doing nothing at all can act powerfully to give your mind the feeling of space and safety (something we truly need). The second point, however, is to make the subconscious into the conscious. Often, our subconscious fears are ridiculous (“if I wear this new color of lipstick, people will look at me funny and I’ll mess up this presentation and my boss will think I look incompetent AND WEIRD and my midyear review will be terrible and I’ll be set on a path to financial ruin”), but occasionally they’re very, very useful (“I bet you think you’re clever, but you’re overbooking yourself again and you’re going to end up having to drop the ball on about five things at once, so you’d best scale back now”). Either way, the only way to get the ridiculous thoughts out of your system and the helpful ones into the open is to let yourself think them.
And, because you are literally the only one you can expect to give yourself a break, you have to be that person. Luckily, if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly someone who has a chunk of time and energy you can free up for a double whammy: the time you spend trying to improve yourself. It’s One More Thing, and if you’re as stressed as most people, it’s probably at least wavering on the edge of doing more harm than good. Also, you only need to free up a tiny, tiny piece of that time to start with – remember, 2-5 minutes.
So, this weekend, when you sit down to learn coding or try cooking perfect macarons or go for an extra-long run, take 2 minutes right at the start and do absolutely nothing. You will have less time for self-improvement. It will be okay. You will be stronger, fresher, more able to take on the world, and (shhh, don’t tell your self-improvement-obsessed forebrain) more able to say, “what do I need to learn coding for, anyway? Championship-level macrame and kickball are the only two extracurriculars I really need.”
If you’re terrified of the silence, I get it. I really do. But you have to trust me that it’s not as scary as it seems. Just 2 minutes. This weekend, give me 2 minutes. I know you can do it.