The Lost Art of Doing Nothing
by Melody Tan
I am standing outside a cavernous hall, holding a clear plastic bag that contains several pens and pencils. My head is pounding; I’m wide-eyed with fear; my heart is about to burst out of my chest; and I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The reason? I’ve forgotten to study for an exam that’s about to begin!
I remember my textbook in my dormitory room, a three-minute sprint away. Even if I could read just one page, I’d be better prepared than I am now. I turn to race back, but my legs are heavy. I try to run, but I’m heading nowhere fast. I push harder, but it’s as if I’m running in knee-deep snow. That’s when my eyes spring open and I find myself in bed at the point of hyperventilation.
It’s been 10 years since I graduated from university, but such nightmares continue to haunt me. While I always remembered my exam dates in real life, it appears that I have a deep-seated fear of being unprepared.
And it may have something to do with an insatiable need to be busy. Now that I’m working full time, I no longer need to spend my free time studying. But instead of relaxing, my brain is processing the lack of activity as inadequacy. While most people probably won’t have nightmares like mine, they probably share the need to do something—to be busy—all the time.
In an article titled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” published by the New York Times, Tim Kreider said, “It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’ . . .
“Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”
Most of the time, the only person we have to blame is ourselves. Even when we have an official sanction from our bosses to take time off work, many of us fail to listen. Expedia published the results of a recent Australian survey that showed that nearly 75 per cent of those interviewed acknowledged that their employers encouraged them to take personal leave time. Most of those who didn’t said they were too busy to take a break from work.
Kreider says that “the present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”
When God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. . . . By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:17, 19), He probably never meant for us to fill every single free second in our lives with some form of sweat or toil.
Timothy Sharp, a clinical psychologist with the Happiness Institute, says that our obsession with being busy lies in society’s overemphasis that more work brings about more accomplishments, which in turn provide us with more satisfaction.
“There is a certain truth to that, but there comes a point where we cross a line, and busyness that contributes to satisfaction can become stressful,” Sharp says. “We’ve devalued or lost sight of the importance of quiet activities like contemplation and reflection. We’ve lost the art of doing nothing in a constructive way. I’m not advocating laziness, but just sitting and being isn’t considered as valuable as they once were.”
This “lost art” is perhaps best seen in our addiction to our mobile phones. “Whenever there’s a moment in time when we are not doing anything—whether it be standing in line waiting to catch our tram, or catching a ride on the elevator, on an escalator in the mall, waiting to be served—any of those times is a prompt, so we pull out our phone and check it quickly,” says Brent Coker, a lecturer on internet marketing at Melbourne University.
Ironically, when it comes to work, Sharp warns that “more hours don’t necessarily go to better outputs or better productivity” and that sometimes, it could simply be a matter of efficiency.
Scientists are also discovering that we perform better if we take a break now and then. A University of New South Wales study revealed that learning improves when students take a rest from continuous study or training. Stanford University found that people who multitask achieve less than those who don’t. n Speaking about the time just before Jesus returns, the Bible predicts, “Many will go here and there to increase knowledge” (Daniel 12:4), which conjures up images of a train station during rush hour, filled with people hurrying to get to work. While being busy may not necessarily be a sign of the times, it can tune out one of God’s instructions:
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Examining our own lives, examining our relationships with God and get ting to know Him better, all require time—time that we can afford to take by being less busy and reclaiming the lost art of doing nothing.
Melody is a magazine editor, features writer and television presenter. When she’s not at a computer typing her life away, she enjoys snowboarding, travelling, beach activities and the not-so-grandmotherly activity of knitting. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son.