Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

An Ode to Doing Nothing: Burnout & Beyond

I wouldn't have learned to slow down if I focused on doing recovery “the right way”.

A couple months ago, I was coming out of my first iteration of The Abundance Circle, my paid group coaching program.

I was in this weird purgatory where I wasn’t exactly sure what I was working on next. Feeling anxious, and coming off the back of learning about recovery and burnout along with my clients, I was eager to learn how to do recovery “the right way”.

I attended one of Charlie Gilkey’s Momentum Calls, author of the book “Start Finishing”, and as I asked him what I should do in between projects, he had a knowing smile on his face.

I was looking for a formula for rest, and he knew there wasn’t one.

He said something on that call that changed the course of the next month for me:

“Joyce, the question you need to ask yourself isn’t, ‘ What do I need to do?’ but ‘What do I need?’”

Stunned, I realized it’d been a long time since I’d asked myself that question. Like many other women and Asian Americans I know, I was always focused on how I could give and what I could do.

“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.”

― Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

A Month of Rest

The program wrapped up at the start of February.

For the first half of February, I flailed ineffectively to continue my posting cadence on Instagram.

After failing to get my ass moving to create a few Instagram posts a week or to publish a blog post successfully, I gave myself permission to just not work on anything.

Instead, I focused on the Research and Explore phase, two mental states that David Kadavy describes in his book Mind Management, not Time Management.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: In these two phases, you focus on taking in information and giving your mind the ingredients it needs to generate an “a-ha” moment… but all without actually having an a-ha moment.

What I mean by this is this:

While you’re taking in information, be okay with not making any forward progress. This isn’t an excuse to sit around and eat Doritos in your underwear until a brilliant idea comes to you, but sometimes it helps to know you only have one focus at a time, i.e. while you explore and research, you don’t also have to be creating a finished product at the same time.

While I was in the Explore state that month, I did a few things like:

  • Interview clients who went through my course
  • Flexed my photography skills in downtown Dallas for no goddamn reason, which sparked a tiny home photoshoot with my mentor (and ended up replacing all the images on my website and beyond).
  • Discovered magic reads like the book “The Midnight LIbrary” and stayed up late reading under the covers like when I was a kid
  • Explored apartments in new areas of town

Learn to Empty Your Cup

I wouldn’t have learned to slow down if I focused only on doing recovery “the right way”.

Instead of putting deadlines on my work, I just tapped into the child inside of me that remembered what play and exploration looked like.

Like Tiago Forte mentions in his book, Design Your Work, learning can often be about forgetting what we have learned, kind of like Bruce Lee’s quintessential quote, “ Empty your cup so it may be filled.” Often, we already have an expansive source of knowledge inside of us, and it’s actually the cluttering of “knowledge” and “experience” that can take us away from the truth of who we are.

As an adult, I wanted to learn recovery “the right way” but what I had to do instead was remember what it felt like to play as a child, because children don’t need to be taught how to play; they just do.

Lessons Learned

I learned that doing nothing is a lot harder than one might think, and it took rolling power outages to teach me what solitude really looked like, i.e., I didn’t have access to power, cell service, or internet for 6+ hours at a time. (Just because unplugging from technology seems doable doesn’t mean it’s actually easy when it comes down to it)

I learned that there’s actually a lot of value in doing things for the sake of enjoyment without being focused solely on survival value, i.e. Stuart Brown’s definition of “play’”. Instead of engineering my life to “get shit done” and feeling the immense pressure of meeting deadlines, I allowed myself to use time “wastefully”, which meant working on things that fascinated me but didn’t have any visible benefit to my business.

I realized indulging myself in guilty pleasures like Netflixing and ice cream is sometimes okay. For those of you that have been following my work for a while now, you’ve heard me say “Recovery is not self-indulgence”. Although I think there may be more effective ways to recover than simple “self-care”, sometimes it’s okay to just indulge. When you give yourself time to unplug from your work, your mind may mysteriously give you the insights you’ve been looking for (It’s also why “Recharge” is an essential part of Kadavy’s routine, where he does everything from getting a massage to meditating an hour every day).

I had so much more passion for life when I connected with my needs and playfulness. I wrote because I wanted to, not because I had to meet a deadline (which actually kills your creativity, according to this study reported in the Harvard Business Review). I didn’t publish everything wrote. Not all of it led to a life-changing epiphany, but I discovered aspects of myself I hadn’t tapped into since I was a kid. I wasn’t quite as morbid as a child, but letting my brain do whatever it wanted led to this vividly gruesome sketch in my daily #100wordhabit.

A Call to Action Stop Taking Action

Cal Newport, author of the book Digital Minimalism, writes about solitude deprivation and how today’s society really struggles to truly be alone. He talks about solitude in the sense of being completely alone with your thoughts, which means not just physically alone, but mentally alone too. That means: No podcasts, shows, books, etc.

As you ponder what that might look like for you, I’d like to pose this question:

What happens on the other side of boredom?

What happens when you push through the discomfort of being alone, as the power outages in Texas forced me to do?

Now, instead of feeling guilty every time I binge some Netflix, I’m able to see that all of our experiences fuel creativity, even the ones that may not seem related at first.

So, how will you take time for yourself these next few months?

For example:

  • When’s the last time you took yourself on a date to explore a part of town you’ve always been curious about?
  • When’s the last time you did something for yourself, and no one else? (This doesn’t have to be expensive! It could just be telling the people in your life that for one hour a day, it’s your time to do whatever the fuck you want – your partner can watch the kids for an hour – please & thank you.)

Many of us feel guilty for doing things for ourselves. We feel guilty saying no when people ask us for help. We don’t think it’s important to take our own time and space to be free, allowing ourselves to be who we want to be.

What does it look like for you to plan to do nothing this next month? Do you need to put it in your calendar? Or are there conversations you need to have with the people in your life?

What are your thoughts on being alone? Is it something you do often? What benefits have you seen from being alone? Let me know in the comments!

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