When doing less is more

I need to embrace the hammock, not the to-do list.

I need to embrace the hammock, not the to-do list.


This coming Friday — due to some insanely propitious alignment of stars or something —  I have the day off and my kids don’t.

Any parent reading this will understand that I am almost incoherent with giddiness.  I’m simultaneously popping the mental champagne cork and praying that no one suddenly gets sick (knock on the largest tree I can find).  In the middle of all that, though, I’m also faced with a dilemma: how to spend my precious free time?

I’ll just run through the choices here:

1) Go off to a café and work on my latest writing project

2) Hole up with tea and a really good book

3) Dive into a home project that never gets any attention in a normal week (sorting, organizing, scrubbing the tub)

4) Shop/run errands

5) Do “me maintenance” (schedule that long-delayed appointment, etc.)

6) Exercise (if I even remember what that is?)

7) Grade my inevitable stack of papers (sad, but necessary)

Obviously, I have no lack of options here, and I know these options well.  This same difficult choice presents itself pretty much anytime I have a few hours to myself.   So my instinct is usually to do this: Cram in as many things on the list as I possibly can.

Problem is, that do-it-all strategy never quite ends up working out for me.  Even when I lop off the grading and the housecleaning in favor of the enjoyable things, doing too many of them has a cost.  When I’m at the café writing, I’m conscious of the fact that if I want to fit in that trip to Macy’s, I’d better hurry up (a thought that is not necessarily conducive to creative output).   When I’m on that long walk, I’m checking my watch to make sure I’ll still have time to get to the library before picking up the kids.  I end up trying to do so much in a short period of time that I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as I could.

Somewhere along the way, we women have trained ourselves to prize efficiency. And I’m not going to knock it; being able to plan and stay on top of the tasks that need doing is essential in making life run more or less smoothly.  But hyper-efficiency has a cost, I’ve found, particularly on a rare day off.  If I spend my me-time trying to tick off every entry on my mental “must-do” list, I end up distracted and tense on what should be a rare period of rejuvenation and rest.

Years ago, I came across this quotation from Thomas Merton in O Magazine.  I tore out the page and have kept it for all this time.

Some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual …There are times, then, when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing.  And for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all.  The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform. 

Merton was a pretty smart guy, I think.

It is hard to fight against my natural desire to want to be as efficient as possible, to cram as many things — even good, enjoyable things — into a single period of unstructured me-time.  But I’m finding that less is actually more.

I don’t think I can take this Friday and do nothing with it; that’s too tall an order.  But perhaps I can try to do less than I normally would … and enjoy that less all the more?

It’s worth a try.

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