Anti-Big Day: Do Nothing At All

Anti-Big Day: Do Nothing At All


“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

— Elena Ferrante


Today, in a fit of spontaneity, the girls bugged out for a 24-hour getaway to Vancouver Island. Leaving me at home with all the ingredients for a Big Day of my own: tomb-like silence, a gentle drizzle tea-cozying the house and an Aussie shepherd named Camus quietly snoring beside me (we’re dogsitting). I briefly entertain making it a work bee. A to-do list as long as my arm beckons: Mowing it down promises a payoff of feeling productive and virtuous by nightfall.

And then it hits me. Maybe what’s in order here isn’t a Big Day. Maybe what really needed is a kind of Anti-Big Day. Where instead of doing a heroic amount, I set my sights on doing … nothing at all.

And now you’re likely thinking, What? Ya lazy turnip. Clever move there, justifying skiving off instead of getting down to business. Don’t the Finns have a word for this? Yes. It is kalsarikännit. Literally “pantsdrunk.” “That feeling when you decide to just lie about in your underwear with a couple of beers, with no intention of going out.”

The pandemic turned all of us – or at least those of us not pressed into furious service as essential front-line workers —into pantsdrunkards. But now, you have correctly noted, the pandemic is over. So get real.

To which I respond: That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

The promise is to do nothing, but this day isn’t about doing nothing. Rather, it’s (I’m claiming) about indulging in a high-minded, very personal thought experiment: to stand against our culture’s default state of perfunctory busyness … just to see what that feels like. To give the old stiff-arm to David Allen and Tim Ferriss and their tribe of super-optimized livers. “Make yourself useful”? Today I commit to being useless. On this Big Day, the work isn’t “work” by any reasonable measure. Nor is it leisure, by standard definitions. It’s more like a state of mind. I aspire to savour what Liz Gilbert calls dolce far niente – “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

And “aspire” is exactly the right word. Because this isn’t normal, this dodge, and I don’t expect it to be easy. We humans are verbs. Gotta be goin’, gotta be getting back. We eat the frog, sweat the small stuff, move the needle, ‘git ‘er done.’ Today I will aim to be a noun. I am a sponge, taking the world in through the five (six? seven? eight?) senses.

I brew a coffee and sat in the comfiest chair in the house. Pointedly ignore the to-do list.

Five minutes in, I’m restless.

Experienced meditators know this feeling. They had it in the beginning as well, and they dance with it still. Before they were able to sit retreats for a whole day, or ten, or thirty, it was monkey-mind day at the zoo minute on minute. They trained for years for the kind of day I was coming into cold, like L’il Nas X deciding on a whim to run the NYC half-marathon.

What’s a bit terrifying is that there is no playbook for a day like this, no template for hewing to the ferocious commitment to loaf. Although such a template has been attempted. Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler, spun the idea into a whole book. Here the stations of an empty day (the sleep-in, the nap, tea-time, the ramble, “first drink of the day…” etc.) are laid out in 24 chapters, one for each hour on the clock. How to be Idle didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Idling sounds great, but it cuts against the way we’re wired. We’re built to restlessly amble across the veldt. We just can’t do nothing.

We can’t even do less. In an experiment that University of Virginia engineering professor Leidy Klotz cooked up, test subjects were offered a free one-day bus tour of Washington, DC. That’s awesome, because there’s a lot to see in that city. But the agenda was way overambitious. The tour had 24 stops. You had, like, 20 minutes at the Air and Space Museum, and then you’d be whisked back on the bus and zoomed to the next thing. Clearly, by trying to see everything, you’d end up basically “seeing” nothing. This was check-it-off tourism.

Having been shown the itinerary, the subjects were then asked: How would you change this if you could? The obvious answer was: Do less. Sacrifice a few activities so that the remaining ones amount to something enjoyable. But people couldn’t. They were reluctant to nix even a single stop from the tour. Nothing seemed sacrificable. They moved things around, but that was it. It was FOMO run amok. No one seemed to have heard novelist Lin Yutang’s observation that “besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone… the wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

For most of us, “less is more” only in theory.

This feels like the gluey heart of consumerism: the impulse to keep filling our boots is evidence, maybe, of a sucking lack of Why at the centre of our lives. We run around gathering stuff ballast against the confusion.

I’m getting a little taste of that today. A Do Nothing Day sounds kind of fun as a passing impulse, but when you actually try executing one, you find yourself bumping up against the Why of it. The whole thing feels contrived, an Arbitrary Stupid Goal. When you can’t come up with a good reason for doing something, it’s hard to keep doing it. Clearly, getting through today is going to require a deeper plunge.

The Biblical Sabbath is supposed to be that day of rest given to humans to mimic the day of rest God earned for creating the world. Somehow that mindset fell away – I guess as people gradually stopped going to church. Rabbi Abraham Heschel has said that how folks rest, whether we rest, defines us as moral beings. “What we are,” he said, “depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”

The Hebrew word shabbat means “to cease from.” God ceases from his work because “it is finished.” That may be why a Do Nothing Day is so difficult in this culture. The idea is ingrained in us that our work is never finished, so we kind of never deserve a day off. Until our honeydew list is retired, our inbox brought to zero, we should be working. “To the man of business, there is nothing more offensive than the idea that potentially productive citizens are prone, inactive, staring at the ceiling,” Hodgkinson writes. “Inaction appalls him. He cannot understand it. It frightens him.” If I had a boss, he/she/they would be disgusted by my behaviour. I’m like an underachieving locomotive in those Thomas the Tank Engine books. Sir Tompham Hatt would wave his hand and commission me to the scrap yard.

So be it! I stand against what writer Karen Russell called “the tyranny of the unprofitable moment.” Sir I am not my to-do list sir! Today, like Melville’s beleaguered clerk Bartleby the Scrivener, rising up on his hind legs, my motto is: “I would prefer not to.”

The poets and artists were way ahead of us on a lot of this. They’ve always understand that downing tools needs no justification. “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for,” said Maya Angelou. “Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

“If it’s efficient, you’re doing it wrong,” Jerry Seinfeld once said of creative work, after an interviewer from the Harvard Business Review put it to him that maybe there was a more “efficient” way to produce his TV show than a bunch of writers freestyling in a room.

Creatives have always known it’s not about bearing down. It’s about lightening up.


Noon rolls around. The only thing I’ve demonstrably accomplished is going for a walk. So far, I’m crushing this.

But a niggling admission keeps squeezing in. Doing nothing is … kind of boring.

Here I lean on novelist Ann Enright. “Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.” The mystics say boredom is the starting point. We must sit in boredom until we pass through it into fascination. It all starts with the ability to be bored. The work becomes hanging in there till the adjective falls off, like a leaf from its stem. Then I am bored becomes I am. And now you’ve arrived at someplace new. In his book Man Seeks God, Eric Wiener goes to the Far East to kick the tires of Buddhism. There he meets a mysterious woman who writes a blog called Tao 61. What’s with that title? Couple of things, she says. She likes the Bob Dylan Song “Highway 61 Revisited.” But it’s mostly a reference to the 61st first verse of the Tao te Ching. That’s the one about the female overcoming the male, through stillness.

A meta-theme is starting to emerge here. Maybe what this day is really about is resistance. How we think about it, how we live with it. How we might evolve to engage with it differently.

When I was working on the Olga book, I came to see effort against resistance as one of her anti-aging secrets, practically the secret of life. Resistance is growth. Growth depends on resistance. A kite rises against the wind. The real gains at the gym happen on rep number, ten, the one you thought you couldn’t do. Etc. Resistance is also what overturns tyranny; it’s the necessary work of standing up to bullies in the name of freedom. But it’s also (in the Steven Pressfield sense), an impediment. It’s the headwind we self-destructively steer right into, the obstacle that kiboshes our best intentions. If the Olga example is the Western way of thinking about resistance, the Pressfield example is the Eastern way. Which is more like learning to build up resistance against resistance itself. Taoism says, resistance is like the current when you’re paddling. The way to move upriver is to follow the backeddy near the shore. Where – whoa, never been going slow enough to notice this before – the irises are beginning to peek out.


By evening I’ve found my rhythm. I think I’m starting to grasp the yin-ish virtues of stillness. The sediment is settling out. I’ve had a couple of “rambles” with Camus the rental dog, made a couple of meals. Otherwise, I have put nothing in the books at all.

“Intentional idleness,” if you please. Not every day, but some days.

This is a skill for the 21st century. The one that will separate us from the machines.

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