Robert Poynton
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Nothing Doing

March 4, 2019 – 4 min read


Yesterday I decided to do nothing. On purpose.

I found this surprisingly hard and quite illuminating.

It had been an unsatisfying week. I was a bit jet lagged, having been in South Korea on a business trip the week before, but it wasn’t really that. For once, I had no looming deadlines. There were no imminent trips to prepare for, no client calls, no upcoming programmes to design and with ‘Do – Pause’ complete, no book to write. I had plenty of interesting things to do but none of it was pressing and no-one (but me) would notice if I didn’t do it.

As a result I didn’t feel I spent my week very well. I fiddled around busily but without finishing anything. I neither got things done, nor was able to relax. My mind was agitated, finding a hundred and one little worries to latch on to, without doing anything to resolve them.

My automatic response was to chastise myself (of course!). An insistent inner voice berated me, advocating that I knuckle down and get my act together. But it was Sunday and I was weary (I had woken up at 330am to take one of my sons to the airport which is a two hour drive away).

So I did something that I rarely, if ever, do. I decided as far as possible, to doing nothing at all. This was immediately fascinating. In the very act of committing to it, I realised how unusual this is for me. I saw how, even at the weekend, I have a mental list (if not an actual list) of things to do. The weekend list has different kinds of things on it from the weekday list (changing the oil in the generator rather than writing a proposal for example) but there is still a list, which governs, in large measure, how I spend my time and more importantly, how I feel.

Of course, just because I have this list doesn’t mean I actually do the things on it, but it does mean that I feel I ought to. This is something that the Spanish, amongst whom I live, seem much less prone to, so there may be a cultural factor involved as well, but for me personally it is a very strong tendency.

Given that the subtitle of the book I have just written (‘Do – Pause’) has the subtitle – “You are not a to do list”– this was rather sobering. It was also fantastically liberating. Having made a conscious and deliberate decision to pause, I had a point of reference. As my mind drifted off into the ‘ought’ space (“I ought to do this, I ought to do that etc. etc.”) which I inhabit a large proportion of the time, I now had a touchstone to go back to – the decision to do nothing – so I could fix on that, instead of a list of tasks.  

This day of deliberately doing nothing was an application, albeit an unconscious one, of the ideas I explored in the book. A pause of this kind, casts a positive forward shadow, like a rock that shelters you from the prevailing wind. By not doing things yesterday, I reasoned, I would be more motivated (and more rested) to do things today. As indeed has proved to be the case (it is only 10am and I have written two different pieces already).

It reminds me of a ‘Pump storage’ power station, where water is pumped to the top of a mountain when demand for electricity is low, so that it can be released immediately when demand spikes. Deliberately not doing anything yesterday, or not even allowing myself to think about doing, refreshed me. This isn’t just about rest and energy but about mental decisiveness. By making no decisions or choices, or only trivial ones, it wiped the slate clean and I am more able to make them quickly and easily today. This feels very different from what I normally do, which is just to switch one set of activities (work) for another (domestic).

So obviously, whilst the book might be finished, the learning process about how to use pauses to live a more fruitful and enjoyable life continues. I must do nothing more often.




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