When I gave up alcohol four and a half years ago, I found I had a lot of extra time on my hands. Hours that would otherwise have been spent in the pub, slumped drunk in front of the telly or nursing a hangover were now full of opportunity. In the first six months of sobriety I started a new business, launched a slew of new projects, saw a therapist once a week, a personal trainer twice a week, trained for and completed a half-marathon, read most of the self-improvement shelf in Waterstones and really upped my flossing game.
On reflection, I had simply replaced drinking with other distractions. I burnt out, got better and tried to chill out. But craving distraction remains a problem. These days, I am unable to confront even natural breaks in the working day without preplanned diversions. A walk from one meeting to the next has to be filled with a playlist or podcast. I have had to start keeping my phone in the boot of my car to stop me checking my emails at the lights.
I have always found the late December void we are currently enduring to be discombobulating and stressful. I’m neither at work nor am I on holiday. I am supposed to just relax and do nothing. It sounds nice in theory, but by midday on 28 December, usually while watching Mrs Doubtfire on Channel 5, I tend to slip into an existential crisis. When my wife and kids are out of the house, and I have no pressing work deadlines, I become anxious: the nagging thought that I really should be doing something productive but can’t think what, the pressure to absorb myself in something genuinely relaxing. I start half-watching a documentary about veganism on Netflix, while idly scrolling Twitter on my phone and, with my other hand, inexplicably researching the 1980s band DeBarge on Wikipedia on my laptop. Eventually, I go upstairs to lie silently on my bed, having a small panic attack.
This is a real thing, a condition recognised by psychiatrists as relaxation-induced anxiety. A recent study at Penn State University found that naturally anxious people were more likely to feel anxious while being led through relaxation exercises.
A 2014 research project by the University of Virginia asked individuals to sit alone in a room and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes. Should they find the task too difficult, they had the option to distract themselves with a small electric shock. Across 11 separate studies, most people said they hated being left to think. Two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose to electrocute themselves at least once, just to alleviate the boredom.
When I tell people about my inertia aversion, they always say the same thing: “Have you tried meditation?” Yes, I have, I tell them, and I was rubbish at it. Meditation takes persistence and patience, the exact qualities I am currently lacking. It’s a vicious cycle.
What I’m looking for is something even less exhaustive than mindfulness: an ability to be at ease in my own company. No tricks. No mantras. No incense. I just want to learn how to do nothing.
I get in touch with Timothy D Wilson, a professor of psychology and one of the authors of the self-electrocution study. He and his team published recent research suggesting that regular “thought breaks” in the day can reduce stress and might help make you more productive. “Meditation often asks you to clear your mind of thoughts, but I prefer to fill my mind with the right kind,” says Wilson. “You need to learn to fill your mind with pleasurable and fulfilling thoughts. It is another tool in the mental tool box.”
I like the sound of pleasure and fulfilment, but what are the right thoughts to have? In Wilson’s study, people were encouraged to turn their minds to friends and family rather than boring, practical stuff like scheduling.
I am in a hotel room, alone, on a work trip. I am sitting on the bed, writing emails. I have an hour before my next appointment, so I run a bath. I’m usually more of a shower person, but baths seem to be a big part of the relaxation industry. As I lower myself into the warm water, I remember to breathe slowly and deeply. Breathing is part of the relaxation industry, too. I try to clear my mind but it is, of course, impossible. The more silence and stillness in a room, the more scope my brain has to flit about, searching for things to worry about: I have some invoices to submit; I need to catch a 6am train the next morning and book a taxi to get me to the station in time; I am behind on several deadlines (including for this article – it’s hard to find the time to write about doing nothing when you are tied up with trying to do nothing). Thinking about family is stressful. I miss my wife and kids. Other relatives have done various things to irritate me. I get out of the bath. Baths take ages. Now I am worried about being late for my appointment. I am no good at taking thought breaks.
Why can’t I focus? I call Guy Burgs, founder and chief tutor at the Art Of Meditation, which organises silent retreats in the UK, and tell him about my struggle. “When we have nothing to do, all we are left with is how we feel,” he explains. “So we distract ourselves from our unsettled feeling. At some point, we need to learn how to be at peace with those feelings, and we can’t do that if we keep consuming all the time. I use the water analogy. It won’t reach a calm state if you keep throwing things into it.”
I search “how to do nothing” on Google. I find an author called Jenny Odell, who actually wrote a book called How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy. I call her up in Oakland, California. “We are obsessed with being goal-orientated. I suggest doing things that are not goals-driven or results-based,” she says. Odell is a bird-watcher. She took it up as a hobby to help rest her mind. “People become too streamlined in what they pay attention to,” she says. “Changing your perspective can give your mind a break.”
I am strongly attracted to this idea. In winter, robins often land in my back garden. I watch them from the window when I am waiting for the kettle to boil, first thing in the morning. I wonder what they’re up to; what’s their agenda for the day? Odell is right: it’s restful to switch perspective in this way. But can I do it to order? It is easy when my mind is only half operational, and the rest of the family are still waking up. It is harder when you have to press pause on your day and start actively searching for a passing robin.
I shut my laptop and stand at the back window, examining the tree tops for flapping wings, like a predatory cat. Five minutes pass. No robins. “That’s the thing about bird-watching, you have no control over it,” Odell warns. “Learning how to release control over a situation is really important.” I become annoyed with the local bird community. They are too unreliable.
Perhaps a more radical approach is required. Burgs tells me his silent retreats and meditation courses are a form of aversion therapy, whereby people can confront their fear of doing nothing until it eventually dissipates.
“Doing nothing won’t be comfortable at first, however you try,” he says. “You must deliberately put the time aside to do nothing, and have the discipline to get through it, even when it is boring or creates anxiety. You have to sweat it out and gnash your teeth doing nothing for a while, until you learn to cope. The only person you have to live with 24/7 is yourself, so you might as well learn how to do it.”
I am a self-employed dad, and I can’t really justify disappearing to Wales to sit in silence for a week. Isn’t there a fast-track approach? “On a more simple level, you should get used to doing activities that have no end goal and don’t offer instant gratification,” Burgs says. “Like starting a jigsaw you know you won’t have time to finish.”
I don’t want to do that, it just seems silly. “The halfway house is finding something we can get completely absorbed in without distraction,” Burgs says. “Cooking, reading or creating.” An afternoon of careful, contemplative cooking sounds great. But there is work to do and kids to feed by 6pm. Slowly peeling runner beans all afternoon looks lovely when you see an old Greek woman doing it on one of Rick Stein’s TV shows. My reality is more about hurriedly boiling some pasta while arguing about homework.
There is no point contriving artificial situations. I realise that what I really need is a way of doing nothing that won’t disrupt my busy schedule too much. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but might just be possible. I get in touch with psychologist Sandi Mann, author of The Science Of Boredom: The Upside (And Downside) Of Downtime, for advice on how I can learn to embrace being bored. “Most people don’t have an hour to spare to do this stuff, but you don’t really need it,” she says. “When you are standing in line at Tesco, or waiting to pick up the kids, resist the lure of your phone and just let your mind wander a bit. See what you might notice around you. You can achieve a great deal in short bursts of inactivity.”
Author and former SAS sergeant Chris Ryan learned to channel his thoughts in this way during the course of intensive interrogation training. When I call him he is walking his dog in the Florida sunshine, but he remembers his training experiences vividly. “We would be forced to stand in the stress position for 48 hours, deprived of sleep, with white noise blaring out of big speakers,” he tells me. “I would think: ‘Right, I’m stuck here and there is no choice, so I might as well accept it.’ Then I would start to plan a big project in my mind, like building a house. I would draw the plans, then start ordering materials, calculating costs and laying foundations. I would do everything in detail, step by step, in order to distract my mind from what I was actually going through.”
Two days after this conversation, I find myself on a train from London to the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, for work, a journey of roughly two-and-a-half hours. Usually, I would take the opportunity to plug in my laptop and catch up on emails, or get some writing done. Instead, I challenge myself to follow Ryan’s mental survival techniques. This is not quite SAS interrogation training, but it’s close enough: my carriage is packed, my seat is uncomfortable, I am engulfed by a cacophony of other people’s chat, and the air is filled with the smell of fast food and lager. I leave my laptop in my bag, switch off my phone, close my eyes and try to disappear to my happier place.
I have had this place since I was about nine years old. It is an alternate footballing universe where my imaginary team, AFC Thameside, have all the best players and pretty much always win. There are other clubs, too, each of them created meticulously over the past three-and-a-half decades during idle moments just like this one. Until recently, I was too embarrassed to talk about it. Now I realise it is more than just a childish fantasy I failed to ditch in adulthood: it is a sophisticated and powerful psychological tool. It certainly helps me through my train journey (I fall asleep for the last hour, which is sort of cheating, but still). When I arrive at Thirsk, there is a pleasant lightness to my mood. My mind is clear and I feel refreshed (Thameside beat local rivals City of London FC in a 4-3 thriller, in case you’re interested).
Later, on the phone, I explain all of this to Wilson at the University of Virginia. There is a silence as Wilson, sitting on the other end of the line, tries to comprehend the pretend soccer team that exists inside the brain of a 44-year-old man-child in England. Eventually, he says: “I think you’re on to something. Jerome L Singer is considered the godfather of daydreaming research. He had an imaginary baseball team from childhood that he used to distract his mind. It doesn’t matter what you think about as long as it gives you pleasure and takes you away from everyday strains.”
Satisfied, I resolve that I have discovered the mental health equivalent to high-intensity interval training. I practise the same technique on the return journey from Thirsk. I used to spend long train journeys drinking cans of lager. I spend this one with my eyes shut thinking about the imaginary 32-time winners of the fictional All-Star Eurocup. It is not quite the stuff of the Dalai Lama, I admit. And I am not perfect. But it is one more step on a lifetime journey towards – one day – doing nothing.
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