Making Time for Nothing

“So,” I said to Michelle during our first session together, “if you were living your ideal life, what would you do today?” It’s a standard opening I use with almost every client, and Michelle gave me the standard response. 

“Nothing.” 

“Really?” I asked. “Nothing at all?” 

“That’s right,” Michelle said, nodding wearily but emphatically. 

“Fantastic!” I said. “Let’s get started!” Then I shut my mouth, settled back into my chair, and surreptitiously looked at my watch. Michelle lasted longer than most. We enjoyed nearly 15 whole seconds of stillness before she became unbearably nervous. 

“What is this?” she asked. “What do you want me to do?” 

“Nothing,” I said. “We’re here to get you what you really want, and you want to do nothing. So…” I shrugged and fell silent again. 

Five seconds. Then Michelle protested in a voice halfway between exasperation and fear, “Well, I didn’t mean right now.” 

This, too, was typical. My observation of people in general, not just my clients, is that we desperately want to take a break from our hectic, overscheduled lives—but not right now. Try it: Put down this magazine and do nothing at all for ten minutes. No planning, no worrying, no activity of any kind. Just ten minutes of empty time. 

Did you do it? 

I thought not. 

If I’m wrong, if you seized those few minutes and thoroughly enjoyed them, congratulations. If you’d rather undergo oral surgery, welcome to the vast majority of the human race. Empty time is a powerful medicine that can make us more joyful and resilient, but it’s strangely hard to swallow. In our culture, the very word empty has negative connotations: loss, need, desolation, hopelessness. Our ambivalence toward doing nothing creates what psychologists call an approach-avoidance response: We yearn for a powerful source of liberation that is right under our noses, and we’ll do almost anything to avoid it. 

Doing Everything, Accomplishing Nothing

The result of this unconscious psychological arm wrestling is that we fritter away our lives. We don’t do the things that would bring our dreams to fruition, but we don’t embrace emptiness, either. Instead, we play a hundred games of computer solitaire or stay on the phone with anyone—friends, family, wrong-number dialers—just to fill the time. 

Twenty-seven centuries ago, the philosopher Lao-tzu pointed out that while we join beams to make houses and mold clay into pots, the spaces inside are where we live and store our treasures. “We work with being,” Lao-tzu said, “but non-being is what we use.” The same is true of our daily schedules: They are most useful when they hold open stretches of time in which the joy of being can occur. When we don’t honor that perspective by spending time with emptiness, we tend to forget it altogether. Our lives become an exhausting sprint with no finish line, no real purpose, and no way to win.

Why We Don’t Empty Our Time

Generally speaking, a packed schedule is seen as the sign of a happenin’ life; empty time is for losers. We don’t say things like “That day won’t work for me, I’ve got a lot of empty time scheduled” or “Listen, Bob, I need to cancel. Some empty time just came up.” Part of the reason is our culture: According to the Western perspective, filling every moment with “value-added” activities is a sign of virtue and significance. 

There’s an even deeper reason we may avoid empty time: For us, it isn’t really empty. It’s full of demons—grief, rage, anxiety, guilt, regret. In fact, when someone like Michelle tells me she feels empty inside, I suspect her insides are actually overstuffed with unprocessed psychological pain. Those of us who feel most victimized by busy schedules are probably keeping our time full to distract ourselves from the demons. We have more immediate, pressing concerns, such as folding our towels in perfect thirds or reading every word in every day’s newspaper. That’s what any responsible person would do, right? 

Not in my book. Personal experience tells me that never emptying our time is like never emptying our garbage cans, our bladders, or our digestive tracts. Do those images disgust you? Good. I want them to. The archetype of the virtuously overbusy person is so ingrained in our societal mind-set that it takes strong language to knock it loose. 

Signs Of Empty-Time Deficiency Syndrome

Vile though the image is, I truly believe that constipation is the most accurate metaphor for perpetual overscheduling. When part of me starts lamenting about how stressed I am by my overflowing agenda, another part of me knows that I’m full of…

So anyway, the more we fill our time with tasks that aren’t real requirements of our best lives, the more blocked and uncomfortable we feel. If you have three or more of the following symptoms, you probably need to, um, flush: 

  1. Irritability, feeling “frayed”
  2. Boredom (oddly enough)
  3. Feeling disconnected even when in the company of others
  4. Being unable to unwind at night or on vacation
  5. A sense of not being, having, or doing enough

Clients who have these symptoms always tell me they “need to do something about it.” The truth is, they need to do nothing about it. To heal, they need to empty some time, then feel whatever arises. As these feelings are consciously experienced (a process that allows them to teach us necessary lessons), they go away. 

One caveat: Some emotions can’t be off-loaded without being told to at least one compassionate witness. Counseling of any sort is really just hiring someone to hold a stretch of empty time for a client, during which she can experience the pain she’s carrying and feel understood. If you can’t handle empty time, find someone—a friend, relative, professional—who can hear about your pain. Then feel it, express it, and watch it disappear. It will. No matter how frightening your demons may seem, their goal is never to hurt you. They only, always, want to leave. 

How To Get Empty Time

Key words: prioritizing, protecting, and promise keeping. 

Prioritizing 

Try this exercise: First contemplate the to-do list you’re carrying in your head or your planner this very day. Now imagine that you’re reading the list many years from now, moments before your own (peaceful) death. Which of the items on the list will you be glad you did? Which will mean nothing? 

If you’re not sure, recall a few incidents in your life when you felt loved and loving: the glance that told you a friendship was becoming something deeper or a time of great grief or joy when you sensed something infinitely powerful and benevolent at work in the universe. Compare those memories with your to-do list. If nothing on today’s schedule offers the soulful nourishment you recall, write in some empty time. Add just a few minutes of nothing to your daily schedule, and empty time will begin to work its magic. It will reconnect you with your core self, the source of pure joy you felt in your sweetest memories. 

You’ll have to take my word for this until you begin to feel it, but soon the restorative power of empty time will become self-evident. You’ll make it a high priority for the same reason you make breathing a high priority: It keeps you alive. The little dribs and drabs of sustenance you get during your “frittering” activities are nothing compared to the crisp, clean oxygen of really empty time. I give my daily minutes of empty time an even higher priority than sleep, because I know I need them more. I can feel this. You will, too.

Protecting 

In our obsessively busy society, you may be hard-pressed to convince family and acquaintances you need empty time. My advice is, don’t bother. Don’t explain to the refrigerator repairman that he can’t come at ten because you’ll be doing absolutely nothing. Just excuse yourself, firmly, unapologetically, with minimum information. Say, “I’m sorry, I have an appointment at that time” or “Nope, I’m booked” or “I need 15 minutes alone.” Even when my kids were toddlers, even with needy clients, even when I’m pushing a deadline, I’ve gotten excellent results with these simple, straightforward statements. Memorize them (or write your own versions), and practice saying them out loud. They’ll roll off your tongue more easily in real-life situations. 

Promise Keeping 

Once you’ve given empty time its rightful priority and practiced protecting your boundaries, make a daily, ten-minute appointment with empty time. Write it down. Give your core self this brief period of attention, and it will connect you with your real thoughts and feelings, your passion and purpose, the life you are supposed to live—but only if you keep your promise! Finding yourself doesn’t require that you fly to Tibet, join a convent, or build a meditation room. Just consistently keep a minimal commitment to empty time. 

Of course, if you want the help and have the money, you may want to hire an adviser: a yoga teacher, a headshrinker, or a coach (comme moi). Michelle did. Despite our prickly first session, she kept returning, slowly learning to tolerate empty time in my office and at home. One day in the middle of a session, she fell silent. I checked my watch. Ten seconds…20…30. Finally, I gave her a nudge. 

“We still have a few minutes,” I said. “Is there anything you want to do? Anything you want to talk about?” 

Michelle sat quietly for a beat, then gave me a peaceful smile and an answer that let me know our work was finished. 

“I suppose,” she said. “But not now.” 


Got a Minute?

When we’re not prepared to use empty time, finding ourselves in the midst of it — waiting at the dentist’s office, snowed in my a blizzard, stranded by a canceled flight — is frustrating and boring. Preparing to use these experiences wisely can make them delightful, like finding a room littered with paper, then realizing the scraps are thousand-dollar bills. Here are some ideas that can turn enexpected free time into treasure rather than trash.

If you have one minute…

Go limp. Settle into the most comfortable position possible. Inhale deeply, hopd your breath a second or two, then relax your body — especially the muscles in your face — as you exhale. Become aware of any physical sensation you’re feeling. Your body will repay the gift of oxygen and relaxation by becoming calmer and more energetic.

If you have five minutes…

Forget everything. Jot down a quick to-do list, and let it be your “task memory” so you can let your mind roam free, like a toddler exploring a room. Patiently and non-judgementally, watch where you mind goes, what it says. Then go back to your to-do list. You’ll find that you feel as if you’ve had a brief but refreshing vacation.

If you have an hour…

Find a reason to laugh. Read a funny book; call your silliest friend. If you’re too stressed or sad to laugh, let yourself cry. Both behaviors release physical and emotional tension, connecting your mind, body, and circumstances. Laughter, in particular, has been shown to improve immune function, strengthen relationships, and brighten your mood in almost any situation.

If you have a free afternoon…

Disappear. Don’t call on the people you “should” visit. Don’t do the cleaning project that would make you the perfect homemaker. There will be time later for doing; this afternoon is for being. Roam your favorite places: shops, libraries, parks, country roads. Drink in all the beauty you find. Tell no one.

If you have a whole day…

Live it on purpose. Start by reminding yourself what you want your life to mean. Take one small step in the service of your purpose. Then give yourself a gift (a wind chime, a lipstick, a dance to your favorite song). This will remind you that receiving and giving are inseparable and put you in the zone where you simultaneously forget your ego and remember who you really are.