What can you do during the not-doing?

There’s nothing like exiting your comfort zone for discovering more aspects of your character you’re either ashamed of or annoyed by.

Last week’s startling revelation and accompanying, out-loud mea culpa regarding my self-loathing seems to have unlocked some secret chamber of my darkest heart, from which has tumbled (or, in some cases, oozed) all kinds of earthly delights: My bottomless well of impatience! My race to judgment! My predilection for check-out assistants #1, 2 & 3 (Internet, TV-on-Internet and booze, respectively)!

There are a hundred, thousand ways I choose to brutalize myself. What’s fascinating is when I choose to stop brutalizing myself with them, either one at a time or in one giant cudgel of Acme©-sized weight and volume, and just look at them: Well, now, those are certainly a lot of things. Yes, they are!

This is a new practice for me, what I’ve taken to calling the not-doing. I’m a fix-it kinda gal, so when leaks spring, I like to grab my toolbox and go go go, or, better yet, head to the Home Depot and find me some newer, shinier tools.*

Even talking about the not-doing is difficult. I guess by nature, the not-doing would prefer that you, you know, not do. Sit. Maybe observe. But mostly, sit. It is, after all, not-doing, and it would like its season, too, turn turn turn.

But since there is no point to writing (for me) unless I’m going to be at least one of the three big things I’m always squawking about (useful, supportive and/or entertaining, if you don’t feel like clicking any of those links), and since writing is one of the things I not only allow myself during the not-doing but that the not-doing actually demands, I’m moved to share what I’ve observed and understood well enough thus far to be able to somewhat illuminate; if it doesn’t work for you, so be it, it will serve as a record for myself once I’ve moved on to a different part of this endless motherf*cking journey I’m on.

Not-doing will not come naturally if you are a do-er.

Sorry for that brief message from Captain Obvious, but the whole discussion needs to be grounded in this, if only to prevent any wonderful souls who are good with the not-doing or who have extensive experience in the not-doing to urge well-intentioned-but-not-useful-right-now help upon us. If do-ers could meditate, we would be not-doers, or at least, we would have a passport to not-doing, where we could visit other not-doers and have not-tea and not-cakes as we shared not-stories about all the not-doing we were doing. Er, not-doing. You get it, right?

There are myriad wonderful modalities for do-ers, and even for advanced not-doers. Meditation, for example, I hear is excellent. It makes me itch. I’ve personally had good luck with shiatsu, some yoga (until the Yoga People namastéd me right out of the studio), the relaxation exercise used in Method acting, hot baths, walking, naps, hypnotherapy and, lately, Nei Kung. Reading helps, too.

Here’s the thing about not-doing: you’re always doing something. Always! Surprise: not-doing is a zen koan, and the zen joke is on you! Even meditation is doing something until you’re doing it to the point where you’re just being.

So what is not-doing for do-ers?

It is not racing to a thing, frantic. (No spiritual Home Depot for you, Little Miss Do-er!)

It is sitting there, in your damned mess, and saying, “Hey! Look! Mess! How unbelievably awful/uncomfortable/unusual/(your-reaction-here) it is to sit in it and DO NOTHING.”

Then and only then do you do something. Which generally looks like going about your day, truth be told.

But the first doing of the not-doing for doers is, apparently, observation. A doing, to be sure, but not one we’re used to.

My not-doing involves a lot of writing and cleaning.

This may seem confusing at first: how can not-doing involve writing? Isn’t writing a big, fat Doing?

It is; this is. This kind of writing: writing to illuminate outwardly, is a big-time Fatty McFat Fat Doing. It is the one Doing I’m allowing myself during this planned three-month (so far) hiatus, other than a very, very minute amount of teaching.**

Rest assured that for every long-ass essay or article you read here***, there are thousands upon thousands of words being spewed, vomited, hurled or otherwise shed, either privately, in various .txt files and notebooks, or semi-privately, via communications with trusted friends and paid associates. Some weeks, I think Dave Seah and I may crash Google’s servers all by ourselves with our “little” Wave experiment.

The cleaning I do because, like walking, it is a rote activity that occupies my body without overtaxing it, gets me off my ass and away from the keyboard and, like a lot of mindless, repetitive physical activity, helps free up thoughts.

Also, unlike walking, you can do it in bad weather and at night, plus it offers the amazing side benefit of de-crud-ifying the house.

My not-doing works better with themes.

Your mileage may seriously vary here, but I am one of those people who likes naming things. Or rather, it’s one of those childhood Habits of Awesomeness I found myself picking up again when I hit my 40s. I find that naming things makes me care for them more, which I guess makes me kind of a label whore. Oh, well. All I know is that when I remind myself to call my car “Betty,” I drive more carefully, which is exactly why I named a 2,000 lb. hunk of metal and fiberglass after my beloved paternal grandmother.

My friend Pam Slim has a wonderful tool she uses called her High Council of Jedi Knights, a panel of people you select as a kind of inspirational/motivational backboard to bounce things off of. (I finally created one this year as part of my Best Year Yet goal-setting process, although I’ve dubbed it my High Council of Goal-Crushing Awesomeness because it’s my panel and because, you’ll remember, I like naming things.)

Somehow, my lab partner and friend Dave Seah and I got into the naming thing with our Google Wave Experiment, too. We’ve set themes for each week based on what we’d like to focus on; you can see the list so far at this excellent post Dave wrote about what the Experiment has taught him about continuity, something he was interested in focusing on with the project.

Not-doing ain’t as bad as it’s cracked up to be, not-doers!

Like getting over those first three days of not-smoking or that first horrible decade post-breakup, it not only gets easier the more you give into not-doing, it actually becomes rather enjoyable. The best thing I can liken itself to is conducting a comprehensive, in-depth study on yourself, where you’re student, teacher and lab rat.

The second-best thing I can liken it to is taking a vacation, which is a loaded thing for me: I’ve never really been big on vacations as most people seem to define them, either full of recreation or full of nothing. I have come to enjoy and appreciate the idea of vacation as change, removing oneself from one’s routine, and that’s more of the approach I’m looking at this not-doing as. I am usually a do-er; for now, I am mostly a not-doer. It feels strange and awkward. It feels tense, sometimes, and relaxing or invigorating at others. In the way that some people use travel, changing their context to see themselves more clearly, I am using not-travel. I am seeing and experiencing and learning new things by changing my context.

Is it always enjoyable? Of course not! Neither is travel. But I am starting to sense a shift of some kind.

I’m not willing to name it just yet, but that, too, will come with time. And maybe a little more regular not-doing…


*Nowhere is the desire to manage from the outside in stronger or more laughable than my endless attempts to Improve Productivity: with the money and time-as-money I’ve blown on shareware, books and blog-scouring, we could provide water to at least one small desert nation, freeing up massive amounts of well-meaning but let’s face it, pretty annoying bandwidth on the social media circuit.

**Hey, you cheat by stealing an occasional Oreoâ„¢ or drag off a cigarette, I’ll cheat by stealing an occasional chance to talk about stuff I love with people who want to learn about it.)

***Or via my newsletter, which, according to open and click-through rates, not to mention actual feedback, has been kinda kicking some ass lately. My mess is your gain! You should, therefore, consider subscribing, if you have not yet.

Image by Reverend Barry K. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Okay, I think my head just exploded trying to figure out the “not-doing”. I’ve cleaned up the mess and I think I know where you’re going. I’m going to take some baby steps and start observing first – and hopefully, it won’t be seeing the kitchen floor in all its dusty beauty that I’ll then have to get up and sweep.

    Oh, and thanks for using the word “myriad” correctly.

  2. Not-doing?! What *is* that? As soon as I start to visualize it, my mind veers into this empty white space. Ohp, and there’s the doing again. All big, bad, and nasty.

    Sigh. If one day I’m even half prepared to not-do, I’ll give myself a prize.

  3. Sitting in my damned mess is SO DAMNED HARD – thank you for normalizing that here, and for letting me know I am not alone!
    I agree with you re: vacations, and also meditation.

  4. Oh man, my heart goes out to those who cannot “not do”. I live with the other challenge … my dreamworld is just fabulous, a great place to linger! Fortunately, my dearest friends are doers, so I channel them when need be.

    Vacations with my ‘opposites’ are quite fun as we tend to behave differently on trips. I get excited and prepare my famous trip binders for whatever region we are visiting, and my focussed friends relax and let their brains ooze out. My best recommendation for a happy road trip is a good chatty pal, a start and end date, and then just drive to the towns that have the nicest names. You’ll enjoy wonderful hikes, great pie and relaxed conversations with total strangers – it’s addictive!

    Best wishes on the doin’ nothing!

  5. Colleen, do you know the book Sweeping Changes, by Gary Thorp? (It had the great misfortune to be published, apparently, on 9/11/01.) You might like it. I loved the quote from Library Journal which I just saw on the Amazon page: “Writer and research scientist Thorp’s lighthearted book has a curiously familiar feel, as though it must have existed in the collective imagination before he wrote it.” Yes. Exactly.

    Years ago, while my father was dying of cancer, those of us in the immediate psychic neighborhood tended to fall into one of two camps, what I called the fixers and the sitters. The fixers couldn’t rest; they had to keep beating the imaginations and experiences of everyone they knew, and of everyone those people knew, and so on: looking for second opinions, and first and second opinions about the second opinions, and so on. The sitters were the passive ones: “Let nature take its course,” “What’s done is done,” “It’s all in the hands of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” and so on.

    Each of the two camps tended to drive each other crazy at times. But the important thing is that Dad — and we — needed each of the two camps around him. And that’s echoed, I think, within each of us lucky (?) enough to live in an early 21st-century Western civilization.

    Personally, I love reading about both your doings and your not-doings. (And, heck, your done-tos as well, ha!) I think to myself, “That’s one healthy lady there” — a hard conclusion to draw when the subject is always in motion, eh?

  6. Jo – Good luck with that. Also, clean kitchen floors are highly overrated (unless you really do need to eat of off them, in which case, you know.) Also-also, usage nerds, REPRESENT.

    Sarah – Not that I’m an expert, but just looking at not being good with not-doing, or wondering about it, is also good. Just sayin’.

    Lindsay – You’re welcome. Also, I read “meditation” as “medication.” Which says a lot. Ha.

    Anne – I have hung briefly with not-doers myself. When we can manage, it’s good for both parties. When we can’t? Well, you know. Not so pretty. Awareness is good, though. Sounds like you have that in abundance, so you probably do well with your doers.

    Jes – Book noted, and thanks. I have a much keener appreciation for balance, not coincidentally, I’m sure, since I’ve started studying Nei Kung. The hardest part of the practice is the part after each pose where you just hang out and let the ch’i goes where it needs to. We’re always trying to help, us do-bee-do-ers.

    I’m heartened that you can see some not-doing going on with me.

  7. I’m heartened that you can see some not-doing going on with me.

    Yeah, well, the first time nuclear physicists dive down into the subatomic level they’re always surprised to find all the empty space down there. :) You may be doing a lot more not-doing than you think!

  8. I have been thinking about this exact thing lately.

    I think you would really like Are You Ready to Succeed by Srikumar S. Rao. It’s got a hokey title (and book jacket design), but one of his basic premises is that, to succeed in life (in a truly meaningful way), we must shift from “frantic doing” to “calm being.” Trying to make the shift in even small ways has been difficult for me, and it’s also been really interesting to see the resistance I get from fellow “frantic doers.” What I’ve basically found is that I frantically do things in order to avoid sitting with myself, and facing all sort of things in that sitting. It’s one of my many advanced avoidance techniques, when I get right down to it.

    Anyways, this is a long way of saying that I love hearing your perspective on this.

  9. Thanks, Lauren, for the reco & thoughts & very kind words.

    I’d agree: plenty of doing is fine, but it can edge into frantic doing and man, you are seriously into diminishing returns.

    I’ve proven I can do; what’s left to see is if I can do the opposite: do without OVERdoing.

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