Dr. Wall Says

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How To Do Nothing Like A Pro

How to do noting like a proIt’s mid afternoon on a Monday. The day is hot, that dry kid of heat that has you feeling toasty and comforted. All around me the song of summer time insects – cicadas, beetles, bumblebees and bees – sets the rhythm of this lazy day. There is warm breeze in the air that carries with it the smell of flowering plants and shrubs. In my right hand I hold a cold, fresh drink. Two ice cubes clink in my glass and the beads of condensation form on the outside of it keeping my hand cold, if not slightly wet. In my left hand is a book, a work of fiction I have been meaning to read for months now. Somewhere in the garden the kids play, but honestly I’m not quite sure what they are up to. I spend my time both reading, but also sometimes just staring in the distance, basking in the wonder that is il dolce farniente. I have no pressing obligations, no urgent matters to attend to, I am free to just sit here and be.

Okay, maybe I’m not doing all those things on this particular Monday. Maybe I’ve been hard at work since 9 AM, and just finished lunch, and now instead of enjoying la dolce vita I’m working on a post for Life in Focus.

It doesn’t change the fact that the version of reality I just painted for you is not outside of the realm of real possibility. As a kid I lived in France and spent many a summer at my grandparent’s place in southern Italy. In that life the things I described above were common not just for us children, but for our parents too. The fine art of farniente was not a lost one. It was practiced most days, and unlike today was met neither with a sense of guilt nor anxiety, for lack of productive activity.

Farnient literally translates into ‘do nothing’ – il dolce farniente means the sweetness of doing nothing, and I’m telling you, it’s about time we practice this skill again.

Learn to do nothing
Summers in Italy as a little kid

Granted it’s easier to unplug and unwind when we leave our homes, desks and to-do lists hundreds (thousands) of miles behind, and travel to some foreign location where the pressures of modern life don’t threaten us daily. However, since most of us have neither the time, nor the job security, or money to up and leave on a European vacation for a month at a time (I swear America is backwards when it comes to quality of life) we’ll just have to figure out how to do it in short and efficient bursts (a very American way of approaching life).

Doing nothing is so hard

First let’s talk about the barriers to farniente

#1 Anxiety: Ain’t it silly, we get nervous at the idea of doing nothing. People get anxious when you tell them you want them to try actively be unproductive for any period of time. There are a variety of reasons why this happens (mostly explained in #2 and #3), but if you want to address this first roadblock, my recommendation is simple: admit to yourself that your anxiety is SILLY!

There is nothing wrong, bad or possibly harmful that will come from taking an hour or less to yourself. Therefore, act despite your fear.

#2 Guilt: Blame you parents, blame the protestant founders of our great nation, blame the industrial era and factory policies, blame the globalization of business markets, and your friends’ social media posts for this one. We feel guilty about disconnecting and taking time for ourselves. We have been brainwashed into believing that if we are not being productive then we are worthless leeches, weighing down society. We are implicitly, and sometimes explicitly told that if we are not doing something, using our time productively, and chipping away at the multitude of items on our to-do list, then we are baaaadddd boys and girls! Well screw that!

When did we decide that being productive was the meaning of life? Whose great idea was it to make us believe that all work and little to no play (or relaxation) was any way of living?  Sure success of any kind requires work, lots of it, but working yourself to death and giving up living at the expense of making a living is ridiculous.

[bctt tweet=”Ditch the guilt! You’re not doing anything wrong by spending a few hours a week doing nothing. #summer #relax #live #thrive” username=”lifenfocus”]

#3 Fear: You didn’t know you were afraid to relax did you? But you are! Why do you think you feel so anxious at the thought of sitting your ass down in a chair and staring into space? What are you afraid of? Tons of things:

  • Falling behind all your friends, competitors and colleagues
  • Feeling anxious
  • That you might just be a bad person, a failure or worthless if you’re not busy
  • That everyone else is doing something and, therefore, your lack of activity means you are less than them
  • Most of all, your greatest fear is facing your own thoughts and feelings, and what they might tell you about how you are actually doing.

As much as we bitch about it, all this business about being busy allows us to avoid a ton of things. We don’t have to ask ourselves if we are happy, if we’re satisfied with our lives and choices, or whether the things we spend our time on are things we actually want to be doing. Take the busy away and suddenly there is a lot of empty time in which to consider these things. Terrifying!

The best way of overcoming a fear – the way psychologist help people with phobias overcome their fears is to face it. Learn to endure it and come to realize that that which you fear is in fact nothing!

How to do nothing really well!

Now that we’re done with that silliness, let’s practice some dolce farniente

Clearly the barriers to living a healthy, calm and kick ass life are non-negligible, that doesn’t mean you can’t slowly flex and build your awesome self-care muscles. Here are  nine (9) ways of easing into the easy life, and building your own dolce vita (I wrote them in order of difficulty, base on my work with clients).
  1. Practice the fine art of doing nothingthis is practice that involves daily periods (starting with two minutes and then going as long as you can) where you sit and stare into space. The goal is the challenge your anxiety and to build up the benefits and ability to sit still. When I started two minutes was hard. I am now a master at this, and can stare into space for hours (literally), and still manage to run a family, and two businesses without any real issues.
  2. Take five (5) minutes out of every hour to do NOTHING but stare into space. I take five minutes to break every 25 minutes using this system, which was created by …. an Italian of course!
  3. Limit your to-do list to no more than 3 items on any given day – including weekends.
    How do you choose what three things to put down?
    For each of the first two tasks, ask yourself if you only got this one thing done in your day would you feel satisfied?
    Choose the third item based on how much time you think you’ll have left. Remember you are trying to cultivate il dolce farniente, so don’t allocate every minute of your day to completing your tasks.
  4. When you first walk through your door at the end of the day spend 15 minutes to yourself – no music, no tv, no other humans.
    I used to prescribe this one to busy parents. The families would make a deal that the first 15 minutes anyone came home were theirs and were not to be interrupted unless someone’s life was at stake. The kids were just as happy as the parents to be free of the dreaded ‘how was your day’ question the second they got home.
  5. Subscribe to a magazine or give yourself a reading quota to meet every week, and make yourself meet that quota by sitting quietly somewhere (garden, park, coffee shop, quiet room…). If you’re not much of a reader select an album, audio book or podcast you’ve been meaning to listen, then sit and monotask.
  6. Summer in Italy as adults
    Summer in Italy as adults

    Embrace your inner Italian or French for a day. Pretend it’s a national holiday, in Europe all the stores are closed, there is nothing for you to do except lounge about and enjoy life. What do you think your european alter-ego would do? Now do that for a whole day. Enlist the help of friends and loved ones, make it a Roman Holiday kind of day.

  7. Be a little kid again. When you were a kid the last thing you wanted to do were chores or whatever it is grown-ups seemed to be complaining about. As a kid you just wanted to be left alone to listen to music, explore the back yard or your neighborhood, or play with mud, bugs or anything messy that would gross out adults.
    These last two items might be some of the most important in helping you achieve any continuity in your efforts to live la dolce vita. They are also very difficult for most people. Please try them, you might struggle in the beginning, but the pay off is HUGE. 
  8. Create a media free period everyday and/or on weekends. Penalize anyone who transgresses with a shock using a dog’s shock collar … or any other kind of reasonable deterrent.
  9. Be picky. It’s not just work and chores that get in the way of la dolce vita, it’s our tendency to pack our schedules full of activities, even fun ones. Try to give yourself a half a day or more a week were you’re not committed to anyone but yourself.

How do you feel at the thought of doing nothing for a little while? Which of these nine things will you try? Share in the comments!

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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