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In Defense of Doing Nothing
A Former Multi-Tasker's Manifesto

Text by: Jerie Jacobs

I make lists. Long ones. It started years ago. We had four busy kids at home, a dog or two, nearby grandparents, my part time job, and chronic volunteerism all jockeying for position on the calendar or in the carpool. If it didn't make the list, it didn't happen. The Sacred Holy List (hereafter referred to as the "SHL") quickly became an appendage, like a college-ruled third arm. Think epic - the Odyssey of checklists. Several years ago I came to a sheepish realization: The SHL had taken over my life. I woke up every day and headed straight for the list much in the same way normal Americans head for Starbucks. The morning cobwebs in my head cleared, as my eyes ran down the List. That whiff of purposefulness, the elusive aroma of productivity wafting off the SHL had become an addiction of sorts.

If I were to be honest about the source of the SHL's mysterious power, it boiled down to one thing — The Check-off. Every item I crossed off The List represented an accomplishment, a validation of my indispensability. Confession: I have even stooped so low as to add a task to the Sacred Holy List after I completed it just so I could cross it off. Pathetic, I know. Days passed in a blur, as I checked one item after another off my to-do list. Down time? No way - there was always something to be done. I couldn't afford to do nothing. But the more I accomplished, the less I enjoyed.

It seems many women struggle with the propensity to over-schedule, over-commit, and over-fill every day with "stuff" to do. Media goddesses promote "multi-tasking" as a desirable, if not essential, skill. Trouble is we keep up such a frantic pace that we don't have time to identify what truly matters to us personally or savor the things that have genuine meaning. We allow our days to be driven by adrenaline, competition, or a sense of "must." Before we've even finished one task, our minds have raced ahead to items two and three on our list. The wonder of being present in each unfolding moment gets trampled in our headlong rush to do something

The mentality reminds me of the Play-Doh Fun Factory that held my interest for about fifteen minutes on Christmas morning the year that I begged Santa for it. I crammed the Factory full of the artificially-colored dough and pushed the handle as hard as I could. Voila! A uniform and utterly useless rope of Play-Doh extruded from the other end. Period. That was it - a finished product that was neither meaningful nor beautiful. Sound familiar? Do we cram our days full of "stuff" and squeeze as hard as we can, wringing every moment for maximum "productivity"? Is it any surprise when the outcomes are neither meaningful nor beautiful to us? Luckily we have a daily opportunity to examine our priorities and realign ourselves with what we value most. We can stop, take a breath, and live deliberately. That measured approach to life doesn't always come naturally, so I give myself these three mental reminders: Focus on the process, let go of lesser things, and be still.

1)   Focus on the process: A nubby, blue almost-scarf I started knitting it in 2007 sits in my bottom drawer. I'm OK with unfinished. Our culture tends to focus solely on outcomes, but I prefer to pay attention to the process. I will never finish knitting that blue scarf, but it reminds me, like a snapshot, of my brave friend, Joan, and her fight with cancer. During her final weeks of life, I sat next to her hospital bed while she patiently taught me to cast on, knit, and purl. The business of guiding my awkward hands distracted her from pain and the fear of dying. My knitting was never about the scarf, not even a little bit. As we worked the yarn, Joan would talk about the things she loved. We laughed, and we wept openly. Eventually Joan came to peace. For a month, the scarf took shape, but it never mattered. The process mattered. Still does. I exist to become, not merely to produce. When I focus on the process and the people along the way, I can accept and embrace unexpected outcomes, and I lose all desire to wrestle life for control of every eventuality. I can breathe.

2)   Let go of lesser things: My yellow lab Caleb can't help himself. He's a Labrador retriever after all; hard-wired to fetch anything I throw. Sticks, Frisbees, tennis balls - you name it, he'll chase it. For years Caleb never tired of the game and would run back and forth indefinitely, as long as anyone would play. We only knew one way to make him stop; someone would throw a stick, and while he bounded off to fetch it, we tossed a Frisbee his way. Stick in mouth, he watched longingly as the disc hovered above him. The Frisbee was his favorite, but he refused to put down the stick. If we lobbed a tennis ball or two into the mix, it pushed the dog over the edge. Sprinting back and forth across the yard, he would try to get his mouth around all the items without letting go of any of them. Impossible. Eventually he would simply give up and lie down on the patio in defeat. He tried to have it all and ended up with nothing. Caleb's comical chase made us laugh, but something about it hit close to home for me.

Too often I chase after every opportunity, every distraction that flies by. Though I know I can't pick up everything that life offers in a day or a week, sometimes I try to do it all—frustration guaranteed. Every day I must decide to lay down the things that are less important to me in order to hold on to the things that matter. Taking time to evaluate my true priorities becomes essential, as I sift through the demands and possibilities of any given day. Then I can pick up the ones that reflect my deepest desires. Once I have unburdened my life of the unnecessary, and of the distractions, I feel the satisfaction of trading my time for things I value. I can stop worrying about what I'm not getting done and focus on being present in the moment and connecting with people. Life ceases to feel like an interminable checklist, and I recapture the spontaneous joy of living.

3)   Be still: iPod. iPad. Ear bud. Bluetooth. Touch screen. Express lane. Drive-up, drive-in, drive-thru. Overnight. While you wait. Instant message. Fast food. Rush order. We live in a frenzy-friendly culture that encourages hurrying. Gadgetry allows us to connect 24/7 to global noise and news. The background noise of our generation has become so omnipresent that it fills our minds without our conscious awareness. Chests pounding, heads ringing, we feel ourselves swept along on a swift current - going where?

Often, at the end of a busy day, we feel drained and empty. We may have conquered a staggering checklist but have felt little fulfillment. Our attention to "doing" has left no time for simply "being." Maybe it's time to master the art of doing nothing. Sadly, as adults, we look at "downtime" as wasted time and equate inactivity with slothfulness. My efforts to let go of lesser things have led me to a realization: Doing nothing is something important. Carving out quiet spaces in my day has become essential to my equilibrium.

Every morning, every evening, and at some point during even the most hectic day, I dedicate a window of time to being still. As I meditate briefly on the things I'm grateful for and let go of deadlines and to-do lists, a lovely clarity overtakes me. With the stillness comes an enhanced sensitivity to beauty and an awareness of joy. My feeling of well-being expands, and I can then return refreshed to the demands of my day. Small inconveniences and irritations don't upset me when I have sought serenity.

Even so, it's not always easy to invest the time to be still. When I'm tempted to jump out of bed in a dead run, I remind myself of the butterfly day. Butterflies, hundreds of brightly colored butterflies, are flitting above our heads. A surreally-beautiful green moth rested on a leaf near the concrete path through Butterfly World, slowly opening and closing its velvety wings. I had driven a carload of fourth-graders on a field trip. Ten-year-old, Maddie, wore a bright yellow shirt that day, and as she stood quietly, a Monarch alighted on her arm. Two small, white butterflies came to rest on her back. "Why don't they land on me?!" the other fourth graders in my group asked enviously. They jumped up and down impatiently. "Be still," I suggested. "Get quiet, and let them come to you." The children quieted themselves and the butterflies came.

The principle applies beyond Butterfly World. I can jump and grab at beauty and happiness, pursuing productivity with energetic determination, but that approach to life usually leaves me exhausted and empty-handed. When I still myself and stand quietly, beauty and contentment alight softly on my shoulder, and I marvel at the exquisiteness of existence. I can see clearly which endeavors have meaning, the relationships that will endure, and the pursuits that will nourish true happiness.

So maybe today we'll allow ourselves a little space to be still, even if we have to put "Do nothing" at the top of our checklists. It seems a small price to pay for serenity, for the inner stillness that makes everything better. In spite of the old adage, it seems you can get something for "nothing" after all.