The Incredible Value of Doing Nothing at All

It rained yesterday.

And not for a few hours, no, some scattered showers to dampen California’s otherwise sunny afternoons. It rained all day. For hours on end. I didn’t see a single ray of sun for the solid sixteen hours I spent awake, each one of them characterized by long, dramatic looks out the window and a growing sense of discontent.

I like the sun. I didn’t realize just how much until I’d lost it, naturally, but don’t worry — this isn’t some long-winded story about appreciating what you have before it’s gone. It’s a frank look at what I did during those interior hours, which I’m now happy to say can be summed up thusly: nothing.

And it was glorious.

The Need for Speed

Los Angeles never sleeps. If my time here has proven anything, it’s that everyone is arguably insane, rushing from one destination to another with barely an opportunity to breathe. That’s the nature of a city, I guess, that has come to characterize such a volatile industry, and it’s a sad reality of life that the average Los Angelino handles as best they can: running, moving, surviving, until the inevitable occurs.

Burnout.

A week will pass. The sleep debt will accumulate, mounting higher and higher as the days progress, and then that average Los Angelino will drop — into bed, normally (and preferably), for half a day of straight snoozing. They’ll catch up over the next few days, groggier than they’d like, but powerless to do anything other than what the city demands: move. Keep moving, keep working, keep pushing yourself to your limits until everything comes crashing down.

I’m not trying to pick on the citizens of this city, honestly. The exhaustion I see all around isn’t unique to this dot on the map, though we’d (and I’d!) like to think it is, as anyone ensnared by the endless need to be productive can probably agree.

The worst part, I think, has nothing to do with the burnout. I’m concerned, instead, by what comes after: the slow-dawning guilt and regret over all of those ‘wasted’ hours.

The Pressure to Perform

There’s a reason that productivity is such a perennially hot topic. Blame the Internet, the Information Age, or the human need to accomplish goals, but there’s a common quality all of us have probably experienced: the insatiable desire to be doing something productive, and a staggering sense of restlessness or guilt on those rare occasions we’re not.

I’m guilty of the same. The first half of my rainy day went a little like this:

1. Peer out the window. Lament the lack of the sun or how incredibly unfair it was that California should have one day of not-amazing weather.
2. Reflect on the ridiculous thing that just occurred.
3. Realize I turn into Mr. Grumpy Pants whenever I don’t get any sun.
4. Repeat process.

The biggest hurdle, I think, was my inability to do anything. I wanted to be walking, to be exploring the city, to go to my coffee shop and crank out some of the work I’ve been pushing off. I’d spent the entire week with my nose to the grind, hammering out words like nobody’s business, but I didn’t want to stop just because the sky had decided to be a big, gloomy jerk.

I wanted, in other words, to be productive. I felt like I was stuck inside, killing time I didn’t want to kill, as the rain pattered merrily against the roof above. I could feel the restlessness growing. Below it, I felt the regret coming on even stronger, the little voice whispering “you just wasted an entire day!” in my ear. It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t pretty.

But I realized, somewhere around mid-afternoon, something else: it was ridiculous.

The Truth About Productivity

Ready for the twist?

You don’t have to be productive all the time.

That’s hard to accept, I bet, based on my own experience. We’re conditioned to keep running, to have projects aplenty for those rare chances we might be bored. But what about those days that it rains? What about that handful of hours after a particularly strenuous day at work?

Any productivity blogger worth their salt would tell you to keep moving. Hell, I advocated keeping the TV off in my ebook, Simpler, though my perspective has expanded a little since then. Ready for the other twist?

I watched TV yesterday. I worked on a few small projects that have nothing to do with blogging or networking whatsoever, and I generally let myself do every single thing that I know isn’t all that productive.

Why?

Where There’s Burnout…

There must be time to reignite — time to recharge. That might be a few straight nights of sleep, for our resident Los Angelinos, or it might be a day doing absolutely nothing of value as the rain streaks down the glass.

That might be a night of crashing on the couch with a favorite movie after yet another meeting at work. That might be playing a few hours of video games — guilty! — that you normally don’t let yourself play in order to make room for productivity.

The point, in any case, is simple. You need time to recharge. You need time to rekindle the fires — creative or otherwise — that keep you moving, and you need to realize that what gets you going won’t always be the most productive thing you could be doing.

Most importantly, though? You need to stop feeling guilty.

You need to enjoy the occasional mindless romp. You need to enjoy sleeping in, for once, instead of lurching out of bed to do more work. You need to remember how productive you are most days of the week (provided, er, that you actually are), and you need to stop beating yourself up for needing some time to read really, truly terrible novels.

Where there’s burnout, there needs to be a chance to recharge. And whatever form that might take, you need to enjoy it, because otherwise you’ll force yourself back into the cycle of productivity feeling even worse than before.

It comes down to balance, in the end. Only you know how to tip the scales, but don’t forget that you’re the one in control of weights. If you’re burnt out with the unending desire to work, take some time to play. If you feel like you’ve been wasting your time, take a moment to recall how productive you were in the days before, and only dive back into your projects if you feel your ratio of work to play is slanted more heavily towards the latter.

As always, keep it simple. And try not to beat yourself up for the occasional moment of mindless entertainment, would you? You might need it more than you think.

Thanks so much for reading!

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46 Comments

  1. Krystal says:

    Great post! I always have to remind myself that it’s okay to take a day off and just relax for once. I inevitably feel guilty if I spend the day on the couch reading a great book. Nighttime comes and I think to myself, “Gasp! You didn’t workout today!” or “Why didn’t you work on that huge assignment that’s due in two weeks?”

    I’m on spring break from graduate school this week and I fully intend to have one day just like this! :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      I know the feeling. :) I’m the type to sigh gloomily come evening time and wonder what I did that day, though I’m getting better now at saying “not a damn thing!” and realizing that’s okay. :)

      Enjoy that break! And enjoy some time to turn your brain off for a change, haha.

  2. Adriana says:

    Nice post! I too am guilty of feeling guilty for not saving the world or doing other various productive tasks which seem to drain the life out of me. I too am guilty of already taking on board waaaaay too many tasks and hobbies for my own wellbeing anyway, and know I should be resting… And when the sleep debt stacks up, I don’t even try to repay it.

    I try to avoid television where possible, but I absolutely love to crank the music and dance around like a crazy fool in my house (and possibly street). I find great joy in these moments and extremely relaxing at the same time! Hail the small things.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Whatever works, Adriana. :) Just make sure you catch up on that sleep debt! Maybe make it a point to dance so much that you’re utterly exhausted and have no choice but to sleep for hours on end, haha.

  3. Anna Barlowe says:

    Ha ha, here’s your next challenge, then – do nothing on a day when the sun is shining!

    You definitely wouldn’t like it here – it snows a lot, so much of the winter is spent redecorating the igloo and whatnot. Fortunately I am a nester type who rarely needs to leave the house to be happy, so sitting by the fire blogging away all day is just fine with me. And my friendly ghost keeps me good company, of course. He doesn’t mind either, he’s dead and all that.

    But I used to live in California, so I know what you’re talking about. I think most people run on clorophyll out there from all the sunshine. :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Impossible. :) Haha!

      I could adapt, I suspect, but it’d definitely be a rough transition from sunshine and happiness here in the great CA. Then again, I might be moving to Philadelphia in June or July, so I might be due for a rough patch regardless!

  4. Sam says:

    Great post and one that I think any “information worker” can relate to. I’d also just like to point out that I got to experience that rain. I made my first trip to California this weekend (Claremont) and was greeted by weather worse than Detroit. I think all this good weather you Californians rave about is a big farce :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Haha! I can’t call myself a proper Californian, but I can say the weather here is normally pretty damn awesome. Sorry you experienced the worst of it! Let me know if you ever make it to LA area. I’d be glad to meet up!

  5. Erin says:

    I was born and raised in So Cal…a third-generation Angelino. It wasn’t until we upped and moved to Eastern Washington that I realized I was absolutely and completely exhausted…burned out…at 42. It took me a year to accept that the Los Angeles pace was one I couldn’t live with, yet it had been normal for those 42 years…so normal that I hadn’t even questioned it. Now that we’ve lived here 5 and a half years, I can’t imagine living at that frenetic pace again.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      That’s great insight, Erin, and slightly relieving — I didn’t want to misrepresent a proper Angelino! :) I’m not surprised you spent 42 years here without realizing it, though, as in just a few short months I’ve found myself syncing up with that same “go, go, go” rhythm. For someone used to a little more relaxed pace, it’s definitely a big contrast, and one you’re no doubt experiencing yourself in Washington. :)

  6. People always took at me funny when I say that I love a rainy day… I find the sound of rain relaxing, it’s for me sort of a “day off” to read, write, bake and just enjoy! :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      I’m getting better with the rainy days, now (what with 3 on the forecast this week!), for that exact reason: they’re a great chance to read, write, and generally take it easy.

      Still miss my sun, though. ;)

  7. eva says:

    As a graduate student I run myself to be productive practically every minute. It isn’t possible.

    Something I recently realized: nobody cares about productivity. They care about outputs–they never see the inputs. Just make sure you have a good *product*, and don’t worry about *being* productive.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      That’s a great point, eva. It’s not the process so much as the output. Along that line of thought, too, nobody really cares how you deliver so long as you do — so why do we beat ourselves up for the occasional detour along the path to our goal?

      Great comment! And great insight. :)

  8. Jeanna says:

    I must admit, when I wake up on raining mornings like that, relief is the first thing that spreads over me… of course it is eventually followed by that guilty pleasure feeling, but learning to enjoy it is very important! Rainy days are so few, definitely take advantage of them!!

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Exactly! The guilt seems to sink in sooner rather than later, so it’s worth reminding ourselves to just enjoy it for as long as we can. :)

      And the next day, of course, when the sun is shining and we’re being sucked back into productivity, we’ll be glad we did!

  9. Grace kelly says:

    Great post Matt,
    So true, I have found it really difficult to slow down and do nothing. In fact last week I had an accident to ensure I “slow” down. Finding it hard to be at this alien pace in frantic London but will practice as I have to, I burn out easily here but am taking steps to simplify my life!
    If you are in LA do you know Cafe Gratitude…..you may like them?
    Gratitude, Grace
    http://www.citygirlconfidence.com
    “Live life Gracefully”

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      I haven’t! And I’m sad, now, as they had one of my favorite artists in town to celebrate the grand opening of the new LA branch. :) Thank you for the link! I might have to check it out and report back, as the menu looks pretty interesting.

  10. I especially appreciate the ‘permission’ to recharge. Sometimes we need someone else to say it before we can heed that internal knowing. Thanks Matt! :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      My pleasure, Caroline. :) Thank you for leaving a comment! I’d discovered your blog (and the wonderful work you’re doing there) a few months back, but your comment came as a reminder to dive back into it again. I’m looking forward to it!

  11. And this comes after my No TV post. hahahaha

    I’m one of those people guilty of going on a vacation and coming back tired, in need of a vacation. I really could use some lessons on doing nothing at all and relaxing.

    ~James

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      It’s a hard lesson to learn. :) I still get restless when I have those ‘off’ days, but reminding myself that I don’t always need to be running myself ragged tends to help!

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  13. Very true.

    No one can drive themselves 24/7 but we live in a culture and a time that’s ruled by machinery and its imperatives. Our phones and laptops have charge cords. So do we — naps!

    http://broadsideblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/naptime-the-joy-of-zzzzzzs/

  14. Nina Yau says:

    I love doing nothing at all; you need that time to rejuvenate and recuperate, to find inner peace and harmony after being out there in the world. This is all to say, I can be a hermit and I don’t give a damn what people think. Wooh!

  15. Pingback: Would You Rather Be Productive Or Creative? « Broadside

  16. Patricia says:

    Thank you for this post. I don’t think it’s limited to Los Angelinos: I think there are people who are compelled to always have things on the go: I’m one of them. And I definitely feel guilty if I had things to do and instead took some time to myself to relax. Burn-out is my most common illness, so it’s good to be reminded to slow down sometimes to be more productive.
    Ta

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      You and me both, Patricia. :) Glad I could provide a reminder to take it easy sometimes — and to enjoy yourself when you do!

  17. Bill says:

    This is interesting you know. What I do to relax and slow my life down is to do nothing but look at the clock for 15 minutes. It is amazing how long 15 minutes are when you do nothing but watch it go by.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Agreed, Bill. There’s a lot of value in just trying to sit for a spell. That reminds me of the running challenge: can you sit and watch an entire YouTube video (5 minutes or longer) without doing anything else? It’s harder than it sounds. :)

  18. Melinda Rusaw says:

    I’m not at home. I don’t have internet service at home. but I do here. I write by myself every morning. when I don’t i feel lacking. I just came across you when i was checking out blogs and I feel less alone. Thanks

  19. I got here via another blog article on productivity on Broadside Blog (http://broadsideblog.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/would-you-rather-be-productive-or-creative/). Both are wonderfully well-expressed, and really connected with me. I, too, am the type of person who always has to be productive. Always. Slowing down and – gasp! – doing nothing do NOT come naturally to me. I’m actually most comfortable with two things going on at once (I even brush my teeth and pee at the same time). My cats actually help me to slow down and stop. I’ll be crocheting and half-watching mindless television and one will come up to me for attention and I will stop and lavish affection on him for a bit. I think just to sit in the quiet with a cat lying on you is therapeutic. For some reason I can stop everything at my mom’s house. She has a big picture window that looks out on the backyard, where she has feeders and suet for the birds, and I will put my feet up, call her cat to come lie on me, and just watch the activity in the backyard with no thoughts in my head and no desire to do anything. It’s bliss.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      That does sound wonderful. :) Thank you for coming by, Deina!

      I know what you mean. I had a realization the other night as I brushed my teeth (you and I are alike!): “We can’t even brush our teeth anymore without trying to do something else!” That’s a strange thing, I think, but very much a product of how fast-paced the modern world can be.

      Sounds like you might need to visit your mother’s house more often. Or give your cats even more love and attention. I may look into volunteering at an animal shelter myself. ;)

  20. Rich says:

    Hey, thanks for posting – food for thought:)

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  22. Misc Bliss says:

    I love this post. I feel exactly the same, and constantly fight with guilt over relaxing a little, even when I know it is good for me. It’s absurd, but true. I love the message of your blog, and this post inspired me to write a similar one on my blog. I think we would all benefit from less guilt and burnout, if only we let ourselves have a break. I’m adding you to my blogroll now :) Thanks for a great and insightful read.

  23. mickydee sangma says:

    Love this Post!!

    I really love to do nothing when it’s raining…
    well not really nothing, i love to laze around in my bed with soft music on and just dream about whatever i want to….
    sometimes its good to just feel the rain on your skin….
    next time , why don’t you try it out?? :)

  24. Excellent article! I will be posting an excerpt from this article (with a pointer to this page) as one of the daily features on my Website later today. I hope it generates some traffic for you. People need to read this.

    Janet
    CuriositiesByDickens.com

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