The art of doing nothing


Sometimes I feel like one of those wind-up toys.  I go through periods of my life when I have bursts of energy and I am ready to take on the world.  I get this funny idea in my head that everything I do has to come from a place of deep devotion and commitment.   I am moving at 90 mph and I don’t want to stop.  

Last week’s rummage sale was a perfect example. As soon as I set my mind on having a rummage sale, I passionately dove into the process of moving, eliminating, and organizing every object in the basement and attic. 

“I really think you are underestimating how hard this is going to be,” my sister warned me.

I proudly replied: “I think you’re underestimating how much energy I have.”

It didn’t matter that it was 90 degrees on the day of the rummage sale or that I would have to tackle most of the project by myself.  Nothing was  going to stop me from finishing the job.

Sure enough the following day after the rummage sale, my entire body ached. I was hit with the most intense exhaustion I’ve felt since the end of finals week.    I hibernated inside my house for the majority of Monday and Tuesday doing absolutely nothing. 

Needless to say I was finally winding down. As much as I wish I  could be that same tenacious girl on a daily basis, there are some days where its necessary that I lye on the coach with a good book and nothing else on the agenda.

In his book, Seven Habitsfor Highly Effective People, Steven Covey reminds us of the value of taking time a side to sharpen the saw.  He gives an analogy of a lumberjack who spends the entire day sawing a tree.  By the end of the day he finds himself working harder and harder to get the job done with few results. 

A stranger comes by and suggests, “Why don’t you take a break and sharpen your saw?" The lumberjack resists the idea at first, claiming that if he takes a break he will get even farther behind.  However, when he finally decides to take a break to sharpen his saw he is able to finish the job in half the time it would have taken him with a dull saw.  

When I reflect upon Covey’s saw analogy, I realize that all too often I have the stubborn mentality of the lumberjack who is unwilling to stop what he is doing to sharpen his saw.  I’m hard wired to push through pain and persevere through adversity.  Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that while this outlook can be constructive in certain tasks, it can also be dangerous.  When I don’t allow myself to take a break from what I am doing, I often end up being counterproductive.  In some cases. I even get physically ill.  I think physical illness is our body’s way of telling us it’s time to stop fighting so hard and allow ourselves time to rejuvenate.

  One of my mentors told me her life changed when she got cancer.  She was a hardworking professor who worked 60 hours each week with few breaks.  After she was diagnosed with cancer her doctor. told her that if she did not take a break from her work she would not survive.  She described the epiphany she experienced when faced with a threat to her very own life, stating: “I finally realized something needed to change.  I had to slow down.” 

I use her story as a reminder to give myself time to slow down and relax when life is at its most hectic.  With this in mind I realize I don’t  need to feel guilty about taking a break to relax.  By taking care of my own needs, I am not only giving myself recovery time that is essential for my health and overall being, I am also  energizing my body and my mind to complete the next task more efficiently.   But no worries because the next rummage sale is not going to be for a very long time.