Doing nothing: the art of taking a day off

I’m learning how to take a day off. I’ve always had downtime, of course – breaks in my work schedule, that is – but for much of my adult life I get the sense I’ve been spending it wrong. Weekends, weekdays, any hour away from my desk; it doesn’t feel like “free time” to me, but time to be filled.

Whether I’m doing necessities like chores or activities and hobbies I genuinely enjoy is irrelevant. There’s always a whirring cog at the back of my brain pushing me to do something. And, if a don’t do anything, it grates away at me, a scraping sense of guilt in the back of my mind.

My experience sits against the backdrop of a society that glamorises busyness. Picture the weekend of the idealised successful woman: 5 am spin classes, DIY projects, reading classic novels and volunteering in the community. Her Instagram feed tells the tale of someone rising in their career, living their best life, and looking good while doing it (#productivity, #motivation, #success).

This is the person that little cog thinks I should be. It’s better to be busy, it says. You’re worth more if you do more things. The thing that matters is the number of ticks on the to-do list.

And the ‘busy culture’ doesn’t stop there. Socialising with friends, self-care, your favourite hobby, a good night’s sleep; these are all good things to do, but oddly there exists a pressure to do them. It’s not that you look bad if you don’t get 8 hours sleep, but it seems a worthy thing to say that you do.

It is a waste of a day, the little cog says, if I’m not up by 7 am knitting a jumper while learning Greek.

This is why doing nothing is out of the question when I have time off. It is a waste of a day, the little cog says, if I’m not up by 7 am knitting a jumper while learning Greek. But by Monday my mood has swung one of two ways. Either I stuck to the severe schedule I set myself and entered the new week feeling less than rejuvenated. Or, I scrapped the list in favour of watching Netflix in bed and returned to work plagued with guilt.

The thing these two scenarios have in common is shame. ‘You should be doing this, you could be doing that, you aren’t using your time right’ – that’s what the cog is telling me. My busyness ends up being performative, doing things for the sake of those things rather than for myself.

So, how do you take time off? What does it mean to do nothing? It’s a bit of a conundrum; even sleeping counts as doing something. The question is complicated further when we add a pandemic lockdown into the equation, not to mention mass redundancies and thousands of people discovering what furlough is. Now, we have more free time than ever, and more pressure to fill it.

It should be noted that my message here isn’t that you shouldn’t be productive in your free time, regardless of its length. I’d be the last person to say that; I love being busy. But, when you’re planning tasks for the day ahead, just ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Time off starts when you remove that perception of obligation; you only have to do things you want to do.

Jam that little shame gear in your brain, and instead pay attention to what works for you. Are you going for that 5k run because you feel like you should, or because it makes you feel better? Did you start that doorstop of a book for enjoyment, or because you wanted to say you’d finished it?

Time off starts when you remove that perception of obligation; do nothing except for things you actual want to do.

Wanting to do things doesn’t mean you have to enjoy them, but it does require some kind of personal motivation. And, when that sense of obligation goes, so do notions of the value of an activity. If you want to spend your lockdown learning Tik Tok dances, then that’s what you should do.

It’s a strange sense of relief stripping the ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’ from my days in lockdown. That image of the successful woman? It doesn’t really exist, and I wouldn’t want to be her anyway. With the internal pressure taken off, I’ve found I’m doing more than I ever was before. Or at least I think I am, I try not to quantify it. What I do know is that time spent doing things for myself is much more rewarding than time living in the minds of others.