A Whole Lot of Nothing: How Completely Disengaging Helps Us Recharge

December 3, 2015

Yesterday, for the first time since launching into an ambitious November, I took a day off. And when I say ‘a day off,’ I mean it. Man, I did nothing yesterday. Or at least nothing of much value. Watched some TV. Did a few minor chores. Paid a couple bills. That’s about it.

At least NaNoWriMo thinks I'm a winner.

At least NaNoWriMo thinks I’m a winner.

It’s a strange quirk of my work life now that I even have the option to turn a Wednesday into a Saturday, and it’s nice to have that luxury. After pushing hard through thanksgiving to finish NaNoWriMo (which I did! See image), I needed a day to completely disconnect. There were other days where I did not write, or did not write much, sure. But it’s been quite some time since I allowed myself to not worry about writing, to not let it consume my brain in every idle moment.

It may or may not have been discernible to those I’ve seen over the last month, but there’s at least a 64% chance that when we were speaking I was secretly thinking about whether to kill off that one character or if the part where two characters learn each other’s identities was working. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to avoid that.

What’s more, you don’t really want to avoid it. When in the midst of a writing project–even when it was the hiking book, which was more straightforward–I spend most waking moments on some level of alert for the possibility that a great idea will strike. I’ve said a million times that writers cannot wait for inspiration, that it requires simple butt-in-chair time. That’s all true, but doesn’t preclude the possibility that an idea will strike in an unexpected moment.

Constant Engagement Diminishes Work Quality

But there’s a cost to all that constant engagement. A sort of cruft builds up in your brain, a detritus of passing thoughts and discarded ideas that doesn’t get completely eliminated even when you go to sleep. It’s not unlike the way a computer that never gets powered off can start to slow down after a while. If you never disengage, eventually the quality of the work begins to falter as your ability to evaluate it diminishes. You begin to fail to separate good ideas from bad ones, and, worst of all, it makes it harder to care about the quality in the first place. It makes all of it seem like a joyless grind.

For that reason, days like yesterday are important even as they are also uncomfortable. Several times throughout the day my mind drifted toward thoughts of work-related things, whether that was editing drafts, working on new stuff, whatever. I had to make an effort–one that felt as much physical as mental–to force myself to ignore those impulses.

Our working culture values the illusion of busyness at the expense of effectiveness, the great misfortune of which is that we learn to feel like we should be doing something at all rather than doing something well. Even though I had planned to take yesterday off, I felt guilty for doing so several times throughout the day.

Get Bored. Then Go Back to Work

It took a good chunk of time, but I got past the guilt and was largely successful at ignoring the impulses to do a little work or think about my writing. The result of that is a feeling of freshness I haven’t had since I finished the hiking book draft. By the time I went to bed last night, I was absolutely sick of doing nothing and excited to go to bed so I could get up and figure out what’s next.

Boredom can be good, but it’s also, you know, boring.

One day off isn’t enough to completely recharge, but it helps make a clean break with one phase to move onto the next. When I got up today I wanted to jump into my work for its own sake, not simply because I had to. I’ve got lots of stuff to do, and reengaging with it this morning didn’t feel like a slog.

For those in a more typical office setting, this kind of temporary disengagement may seem like a luxury not afforded to you. That might be the case, but I actually found I was much better about it when I worked in a corporate setting than I am now. Your mileage will vary based on company cultures, demands of your job, and relationships with coworkers and managers; but, I found it was often possible to achieve a certain level of “doing nothing” in the white-collar jobs I’ve had. Moreover, I’d argue that good companies and good managers enable and encourage this sort of recharge period. They recognize you’ll do more and better work in the long run compared with forcing you to lurch from one major initiative to the next without time to think.

Whatever the circumstance, I think this kind of time is crucial. Block your calendar. Work from home. Take a random vacation day if you can afford it. Find ways to disengage temporarily, to clear your mind. It can even be as small as giving yourself permission to get a little less done for a day or two. You’ll do better work when you come back from that, and even if it’s work you don’t love, you’ll probably be a bit more excited to do it.

Or at least you’ll be able to tolerate it a little better for a while. Minor victories are still victories!

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Tell me what you think, but be chill about it.