By Aruna Sankaranarayanan,
As another year approaches, we are tempted to use this temporal marker to affect change in our lives. We update our To-do lists, resolve to alter our habits, undertake new ventures or renew our relationships. A desire to improve ourselves is the foundational impetus that drives these behaviours. Whether we wish to be more productive at work, or more regular at the gym or a more caring partner, we are motivated to progress or move forward. Conditioned from childhood to rely on metrics to exhibit our growth or onward momentum, we continue to evaluate our lives by the amount of money we make, the aggregate value of deals we sign, the number of calories we lose or the size of our social networks.
A capitalist view of productivity not only dictates our work lives, but seeps into our leisure hours as well. We count the number of steps we take and post pictures of cakes we bake, hoping they garner sufficient Likes. By measuring and evaluating, we believe we can project our progress and steer our successes across varied domains. Though the pandemic has a punctured a hole in our sense of control over our destinies, we continue to plan, assess and strive to improve our lives, both personal and professional. While having goals and a sense of purpose are linked to our overall well-being, we need to pause and ask whether we need to account for every moment, assess every aspect of our lives and achieve all the time. In other words, does productivity have to be the driving force that impels every action or every second?
In an article in Harvard Business Review, best-selling author Peter Bregman urges us to resist this untiring quest for productivity by doing nothing, for at least some time. He exhorts us to embrace ‘willingness’ as opposed to ‘willfulness’. Instead of assuming control over every second of our day, we may just give into the present without trying to achieve anything. Rather than regimenting and directing every experience, perhaps, we can just allow the present experience, whether it is sitting on a couch or strolling down a lane, to subsume us.
Doing nothing is harder than it seems, especially if you are a compulsive list-maker and an efficient scheduler. If you are disciplined, driven and diligent, doing nothing can seem like a herculean challenge as we inhabit a culture that tries to optimize every facet of life. In her thoughtful and thought-provoking book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist and writer, Jenny Odell urges us to question our utilitarian perspective on life and challenge our notions of productivity and progress. In fact, she even coaxes us to transcend our individualist conception of ourselves to encompass the ecosystem around us.
In today’s hurried, harried and hectic world, time is a precious resource. Given our paucity for time, we believe that every minute has to be invested in some productive end. The idea of doing nothing thus shakes many of our fundamental assumptions which we take as truisms. However, if we make it a deliberate decision to disengage and disconnect from our wired world, both literally and metaphorically, we may discover that our sense of reality actually expands as our senses become sharpened.
Odell reminds us that doing nothing doesn’t engender passivity, lethargy or ennui. On the contrary, when we step off the productivity treadmill, we may find that we perceive the sights and sounds of the world differently as we learn to see and listen with a renewed focus. In our hackneyed world, taking a real break usually implies a change of scene or location. But when we are on vacation, our assumptions and worldviews travel with us. A true retreat entails a break from our entrenched notions of progress wherein we deliberately choose how we spend our days without being sucked into the vortex of our digital devices.
Odell reminds us that when we start paying attention to how we pay attention, we realize the untapped breadth and range of our attentional faculties. She likens attention to breathing. Most of the time, we simply inhale and exhale without noticing the flow of air through our bodies. But if we pause to notice the breath, we realize that act of breathing entails multiple levels. Deep, purposeful breathing is a vastly different experience from the shallower, more rapid kind we normally engage in. Likewise, our attention and perceptual abilities also expand when we direct our focus in more deliberate and less conditioned ways.
As we come to the tail-end of a tumultuous year on a panhuman scale, perhaps, we can reset and recalibrate our goals to encompass doing nothing. This might, indeed, turn out to be a balm for not only for our tired souls but our depleted planet as well.
The author is an avid blogger. Her forthcoming book will be released by Rupa Publications. Views expressed are the author’s own.