Did we actually slow down during the pandemic? Not really, argues Maya Singer. But perhaps we should.
The value of slowing down. By Maya Singer
“I feel like all the old stresses are going to come right back,” I mused to my friends over dinner in March as we discussed the quickening pace of vaccinations and the wave of reopenings around New York. That we were eating at Balthazar—indoors!—itself seemed to signify a corner had been turned: The Manhattan landmark was packed, up to its state-mandated 50 percent capacity, giving weight to the fashionable theory that we are on the cusp of another Roaring Twenties. People are raring to grip post-pandemic life with both fists and do absolutely everything they’ve been denied for a year, or so the thinking goes.
“What if,” I countered, stirring my cocktail, “the thing we should have learned from all this is that sometimes it’s okay to do nothing?”
Do nothing. The phrase is in the air, in the titles of books such as Jenny
Odell’s paradigm-shifting 2019 manifesto How to Do Nothing and Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, published last year. The same theme resonates everywhere from Katherine May’s tome Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times— the November 2020 publication of which happened to coincide with one of the pandemic’s bleakest periods—to author Glennon Doyle’s Instagram, where she’s counseled her 1.6 million followers to “embrace quitting as a spiritual practice.” You can also detect the longing for time-out in the popularity of meditation apps and surging sales of CBD, with its promise to promote calm. But what does it actually mean to quit or “winter”—to do nothing?
“In the simplest terms, I think it’s about finding meaning and growth and purpose in leisure,” says Odell when asked whether the mantra she helped propagate is becoming so amorphously defined, it’s in danger of losing its piquancy, à la “self-care” circa 2017. “As a society, we have a hard time with leisure because we’re so performance-oriented,” she adds. “Whether you’re answering work emails at 10 p.m. or exercising because you feel like you have to look a certain way or, you know, role-playing yourself in order to maintain an online presence, it’s all part of the same value system.”
The pandemic has put paid to so much to- ing and fro- ing, you’d think we’d all be expert idlers by now, comfortably adrift on an ocean of time. But the productivity
habit dies hard: I suspect I’m not alone in finding that one of the distinctive challenges of the past year has been the strain to give shape and direction to formless days, a riddle once solved by work and now—for me, at least—addressed by adding inane tasks to my to- do list, like Marie Kondo–ing my cosmetics. “It’s ingrained in us that busyness is our source of self-esteem,” notes Wintering author May. “It’s like, if you’re not busy, you’re invisible— which makes it an act of resistance to say, No, I’m going to stand still.”
It’s important to note that there are people for whom devising ways to fill their time has not been the pandemic’s signature struggle—doctors, nurses, and other essential workers; people who have gotten sick or who are mourning loved ones; the jobless scrambling to make rent. But for everyone else— lucky people like me who can work from home—the bafflement about what to do with ourselves has, over many months, taken on the dimensions of an existential crisis.
“It’s like, who am I if I’m not Jen from Bird, going to Paris to see the Dries Van Noten show?” says Jen Mankins of her decision this summer to shutter her beloved Brooklyn boutiques. “I feel like I’m constantly asking myself, What do I do now?” echoes Charlie Taylor, a freelance celebrity groomer who had recently returned from the set of the movie Black Widow, where she attended to actor David Harbour, when the pandemic struck. “First it was, Do I go back to England to be with my family? Then—oh, my God, what am I going to do for money? And then,” she adds, “after I started getting unemployment benefits, I was like, Well, I can finish all those projects I’ve been putting off.…” Once those projects had been completed, Taylor began asking a follow-up: “Who do I want to be?”
That’s probably the question we all should have been asking ourselves for the past year, while we’ve had the opportunity. But this assumes that we’ve actually had time to think. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the national mood has oscillated between frenzy and hysterical boredom, as we’ve homeschooled our kids, posted photos of our home-baked bread, gone from Zoom meetings in our home offices to Zoom fitness classes in our home gyms (possibly the same room), ordered in food, and collapsed onto the sofa to join the collective online shopping and Netflix binge. In other words, we’ve pretty much replicated, at home, the distractathon that life was before the coronavirus.
Yet for all our doing, we’re not getting very much done, according to Georgetown University professor of computer science Cal Newport, Ph.D. His new book, A World Without Email, tallies the tax on focus levied by digital pings we’re conditioned to reciprocate ASAP, lest anyone suspect we have paused, even momentarily, in our hustling. “We live in a meritocracy, where you’re continually having to prove yourself, and the psychological effects are
“It’s ingrained in us that busyness is our source of self-esteem,” notes Wintering author May, “which makes it an act of resistance to say, No, I’m going to stand still”
magnified by technology,” Newport observes. “It’s not just that you feel like you can’t switch off— it’s that you literally can’t. The phrase I hear most is ‘I’m drowning.’”
I can relate. A curious feature of my pandemic life is that, even as I’ve felt time yawning before me, a sense of inundation remains. Send invoice. Pay bill. Call doctor. Call insurance company. I procrastinate about doing these things—this is when I start scrolling Instagram—but I’ve also come to suspect that I prefer them to the alternative, which would be figuring out what I actually want to do. “It’s a numbing reflex,” says Newport. “It seems more relaxing to tune out and hook into the feed than to summon the intention and energy for an activity that requires real engagement, like a hobby.”
Do people even have hobbies anymore? Some do now: One of my closest friends has developed a mania for gardening; others have taken up baking or knitting or cycling. Americans have signed up for MasterClass courses in droves, downloaded Duolingo, and extracted musical instruments from storage. Seth Rogen, infamously, has become a potter. This, ironically, is what writers like Odell mean by “do nothing”—not shutting down, but choosing pursuits that, to use a gauzy phrase, feed the spirit: daydreaming, or playing board games with your kids, or volunteering with your local mutual-aid society, or having a long, meandering call with your dad.
Choosing is indeed the heart of the matter. In his magisterial volume This Life, another cornerstone text of the “Do nothing” discourse, Martin Hägglund, Ph.D., a professor of humanities and comparative literature at Yale, argues that the question What should I do with my time? is the most profound one we can ask ourselves. “Do our social and material conditions enable us to take ownership of that question, or are they forcing decisions upon us?”
A sense of financial precarity underlies the pressure to hustle, as Anne Helen Petersen noted in her mega-viral 2019 Buzzfeed essay “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” So saying no isn’t just a radical act; “it’s a luxury,” points out Taylor. Unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium provided her the freedom to “do nothing” in such a way that she was able to rethink her career: She’s about to launch her own clean-beauty brand, an endeavor she’d previously considered a pipe dream.
Mankins, for her part, is resisting the grind and investing in her new identity as the mother of year-old twins. She still checks in on the fashion scene, on her own terms. “It’s nice to do it because I want to, not because I have to,” she says—and by her own account, she’s still very, very busy as she winds down her business. “But I’m not so preoccupied by the idea that, no matter how much I do, I’m not doing enough,” she notes. “It’s a small adjustment of perspective—but actually, the difference it makes is huge.” @