Do Nothing

Do Nothing

Over breakfast recently, a friend told me that she had had the most wonderful Saturday. Her family was out of town, so she stayed in bed all day, drank coffee, and read a junky novel. She never even changed out of her pajamas. She seemed somewhat surprised by how happy this made her. And she is by no means a slothful person – she works full time as the executor director of a non-profit, travels a lot, and has a very full life. But I think that is exactly the point. My friend would be bored out of her gourd if she spent every Saturday lying around. It was the change in routine and the novelty of it that made it so enjoyable. What I was impressed with, however, was her ability to let herself relax like that. Most of us can’t. We have these internal nags that tell us to go go go all the time.

Now here is the tricky part of this newsletter. In a perfect world you, the reader, would think, “Hmm, here’s someone who treated themselves to some real relaxation time and it seems to have been a wonderful experience. Maybe I’ll try it myself.” However, I am well aware that most of you – actually, I need to include myself in that sentence – most of us, are incapable of relaxing for extended periods of time. Yes, we go to the gym or the movies, or we visit with friends. But in the backs of our minds is still the feeling that we are doing all this for some reason – we’re trying to get fit, reduce stress, or take a break so we can work harder.

So, I am going to do what I wish I didn’t have to do, and tell you some reasons why you should do nothing. This is basically counter to my wish that you would do nothing because it would feel good, but here goes anyway.

There have been many studies on the importance of sleep. For example, a recent study on mice, published in the October 18, 2013 volume of Science Magazine (http://bit.ly/1gORDzQ), found that brains flush out toxic waste in sleep, including proteins that have been linked to Alzheimer’s. (If you don’t feel like plowing through the Science Magazine research – I know I sure didn’t – the Washington Post has a good summary at http://wapo.st/15SlPp1.) Getting enough sleep has also been found to help with, among other things, memory, mood, learning, and performance.

There have also been a number of studies on vacations. It turns out that Americans aren’t great about taking them. Expedia’s annual survey on vacation trends found that the United States is one of the countries that gives its workers fewer vacation days – the average American gets 14 days a year. And, to add insult to injury, it is also one of the countries where workers have the most unused vacation days. Most people only use 12 days a year. According to CNN Money, that totals 226 million unused vacation days/year. Which, based on a fancy CNN Money calculation, adds up to $34.3 billion worth of time. (http://cnnmon.ie/1ktr2ax)

Now I imagine that some of you are thinking that this is a good thing – America needs to be productive and compete. The world is a rapidly changing place. Our economy is still shaky, etc. But I would say that it is actually a case of throwing good money after bad. If you’re overworked, you tend to get overtired. And if you’re overtired, you don’t do your best work. You are inefficient, more prone to illness, more bad humored, less productive, etc. I could go on, but read some of those sleep studies and you’ll see what I mean.

Furthermore, a 2006 Ernst & Young study of its employees found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation its employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved by 8%. This study also found that people who took frequent vacations were significantly less likely to leave the firm.
But what I’m talking about here isn’t taking a vacation – though I am a big fan of those. And it isn’t getting enough sleep. Rather, it is doing nothing. Or rather, it is doing exactly what you feel like doing without regard to whether you are “accomplishing” anything.

Here’s the thing though — I can’t find a study to support my theory that doing nothing every once in a while is an excellent idea. As I mentioned, I can find studies on the importance of sleep and vacation. But the articles I found on “doing nothing” either just hypothesized that it was a good idea, or were a how- to on “relaxation techniques,” like meditation, hypnosis, or Yoga. But learning and implementing new relaxation techniques seems quite different from hanging around all day reading a trashy novel.
That being said, I hope that, as the holidays descend with all their madness in the name of vacation, relaxation, and togetherness, you find a chunk of time to just hang out in your PJs and bunny slippers.


 

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