To Do Or Not To Do Nothing

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Some say they want to do nothing when they retire. Others cannot bear the idea. They want to spend their lives with purpose. Why does it have to be one or the other? Making room in a purposeful life for purposeless time could be a healthy thing to do.

For many of us, early retirement is a time of high energy and possibilities. Work gives way to travel, volunteering, joining clubs and groups, lunch dates with friends–and the danger of overbooking. The opposite choice, to do nothing, seems somehow foreign and culturally wrong. Yet it’s an option that deserves a look.

Elsewhere online an argument goes on about whether it is bad for  a person to do nothing in retirement.  I thought it was an interesting problem, so here we are.

What is it to do nothing?

If you look at it literally, it would be impossible for a living being to do nothing.  We eat, breathe, eliminate and move around as a matter of course.  Being in a coma would be the closest to achieving nothingness.

That hopefully isn’t what we’re thinking of when we say we want to do nothing in retirement.

To a guy who has worked with purpose all his life, with deadlines, commitments, responsibilities all over the place and loads of pressure, doing nothing may be taking downtime.  No schedules, no responsibility except to himself.  Just a spell of doing what little he wants to do.

This guy doesn’t want a plan for now.  He wants to get up when he wants, shave only if he wants, drink from the carton.  If he wants to read, he reads.  If he wants to go to the beach, he goes.  If he wants to change the car’s oil, he does that or sets it up.  He may have to walk the dog, or deal with the consequences, but that’s OK.  It’s not like he hasn’t got a choice.

And if later on he decides he needs more meaning to his life, he can choose to do something other than “nothing.”

Choice matters

When you volunteer, you submit to a schedule and some expectations.  We know this when we sign up.  If you’re going to clean cages at the animal shelter on Tuesdays you show up at the appointed time just like you did for your job.  You have chosen this so it doesn’t seem imposed.  But now you’re on the hook.

If you are to do nothing, you won’t do nothing on a Tuesday when you have the animal shelter work.

Same as serving on the zoning board–Thursday nights you will not be free to do nothing because of board meetings.  These standing obligations limit when you can do nothing.  Other carve-out activities include religious rites, club meetings and activities, courses you can take, family obligations and appointments.  All of these interfere with doing nothing.

When is it OK to do nothing?

Our Puritan forebears would say, “Never!”  Those people were busy all the time, as are many today in less privileged parts of the world.  When our country was young there was always something to do:  beans to snap, wood to split, fires to tend, livestock to care for, wool to spin–you get the picture.  Doing nothing was a fool’s option.

On the other hand, you didn’t see many fools lying about for long either.  The price of doing nothing was pretty clear.

Our workday culture is the same here and now in the States.  We are afraid to take vacations and when we do, they’re as pressurized as work.  In the attempt to get the most of your time off, you get the earliest flight out, the latest back, everything reserved to that schedule, and action-packed adventures await.  Such as the meltdown when it blows your schedule because the plane’s late.

So we are trained not to do nothing.  Nothing is what you do when you are sick or too tired to do anything else.  You could be doing something constructive, you know, not just sitting around.  Don’t those kitchen cabinets need wiping down?

Why do nothing?

Letting go of some structure is good for you.  The ultimate letting go is probably meditation.  There you are, sitting quietly with your breathing, letting thoughts float by without snagging them and getting all wound up.  Just floating.

For those of us with loud minds, that’s probably more work than relaxation, at least at first.  But the benefits of quiet time without being hooked into something else grabbing for our attention keep calling.

Like the guy above who just wasn’t into being demanded into things, some of us have honestly had enough.  But unlike him, we may benefit from breaking up time to do nothing and mixing it in with our activities.  Most of us have had our time structured for us and we sorta like it, but we need bigger holes in that structure for some “me time.”

This excludes things like reading up on the place you’re hoping to move to, or learning the language, fun as those may be.  You’re still doing this with purpose.

How to do nothing.

If you’re going to do nothing, do it just for the heck of it, just for now, and just to feel good.  Here are some examples of nothing that I do when I get the chance:

  • Float in water, listening to the water sounds and spacing out.
  • Read fantasy.
  • Go look at yard sales.
  • Watch a stupid movie.
  • Look at the clouds going by.
  • Noodle around on the Internet.
  • Ask Wikipedia about some word I heard and don’t know about. Learn something for no reason.
  • Play “Angry Birds.”  Don’t get wound up with the scoring.

None of these take very long unless I want them to.  I could blow a whole day yard-saling if I decide to.  The point is the serendipity of yard sales.  You can’t really go out with a list and expect to scratch things off.  Unless that’s a project of yours, of course.

The point is pointlessness.

If you’re going to do nothing then the point of it is not to have a point to the activity.  It’s a pastime in the purest sense of the word.  And while we all have limited time on this Earth, we can surely shorten it by always doing something that has a point.  Who needs all that pressure?

So waste a little time now and then on the guilty pleasure of doing nothing that has a point.  In the long run you may have a better time of it overall.

Where do you stand on doing nothing?

Some say they want to do nothing when they retire. Others cannot bear the idea. They want to spend their lives with purpose. Why does it have to be one or the other? Making room in a purposeful life for purposeless time could be a healthy thing to do.Some say they want to do nothing when they retire. Others cannot bear the idea. They want to spend their lives with purpose. Why does it have to be one or the other? Making room in a purposeful life for purposeless time could be a healthy thing to do.Some say they want to do nothing when they retire. Others cannot bear the idea. They want to spend their lives with purpose. Why does it have to be one or the other? Making room in a purposeful life for purposeless time could be a healthy thing to do.

 

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