“I feel like all the old stresses are going to come right back,” I mused to my friends over dinner in March as we discussed the quickening pace of vaccinations and the wave of reopenings around New York. That we were eating at Balthazar—indoors!—itself seemed to signify a corner had been turned: The Manhattan landmark was packed, up to its state-mandated 50 percent capacity, giving weight to the fashionable theory that we are on the cusp of another Roaring Twenties. People are raring to grip post-pandemic life with both fists and do absolutely everything they’ve been denied for a year, or so the thinking goes. “What if,” I countered, stirring my cocktail, “the thing we should have learned from all this is that sometimes it’s okay to do nothing?”
Do nothing. The phrase is in the air, in the titles of books such as Jenny Odell’s paradigm-shifting 2019 manifesto How to Do Nothing and Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, published last year. The same theme resonates everywhere from Katherine May’s tome Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times—the November 2020 publication of which happened to coincide with one of the pandemic’s bleakest periods—to author Glennon Doyle’s Instagram, where she’s counseled her 1.6 million followers to “embrace quitting as a spiritual practice.” You can also detect the longing for time-out in the popularity of meditation apps and surging sales of CBD, with its promise to promote calm. But what does it actually mean to quit or “winter”—to do nothing?
“In the simplest terms, I think it’s about finding meaning and growth and purpose in leisure,” says Odell when asked whether the mantra she helped propagate is becoming so amorphously defined, it’s in danger of losing its piquancy, à la “self-care” circa 2017. “As a society, we have a hard time with leisure because we’re so performance-oriented,” she adds. “Whether you’re answering work emails at 10 p.m. or exercising because you feel like you have to look a certain way or, you know, role-playing yourself in order to maintain an online presence, it’s all part of the same value system.”
The pandemic has put paid to so much to-ing and fro-ing, you’d think we’d all be expert idlers by now, comfortably adrift on an ocean of time. But the productivity habit dies hard: I suspect I’m not alone in finding that one of the distinctive challenges of the past year has been the strain to give shape and direction to formless days, a riddle once solved by work and now—for me, at least—addressed by adding inane tasks to my to-do list, like Marie Kondo–ing my cosmetics. “It’s ingrained in us that busyness is our source of self-esteem,” notes Wintering author May. “It’s like, if you’re not busy, you’re invisible—which makes it an act of resistance to say, No, I’m going to stand still.”
It’s important to note that there are people for whom devising ways to fill their time has not been the pandemic’s signature struggle—doctors, nurses, and other essential workers; people who have gotten sick or who are mourning loved ones; the jobless scrambling to make rent. But for everyone else—lucky people like me who can work from home—the bafflement about what to do with ourselves has, over many months, taken on the dimensions of an existential crisis.
“It’s like, who am I if I’m not Jen from Bird, going to Paris to see the Dries Van Noten show?” says Jen Mankins of her decision this summer to shutter her beloved Brooklyn boutiques. “I feel like I’m constantly asking myself, What do I do now?” echoes Charlie Taylor, a freelance celebrity groomer who had recently returned from the set of the movie Black Widow, where she attended to actor David Harbour, when the pandemic struck. “First it was, Do I go back to England to be with my family? Then—oh, my God, what am I going to do for money? And then,” she adds, “after I started getting unemployment benefits, I was like, Well, I can finish all those projects I’ve been putting off.…” Once those projects had been completed, Taylor began asking a follow-up: “Who do I want to be?”
That’s probably the question we all should have been asking ourselves for the past year, while we’ve had the opportunity. But this assumes that we’ve actually had time to think. At the risk of overgeneralising, the national mood has oscillated between frenzy and hysterical boredom, as we’ve homeschooled our kids, posted photos of our home-baked bread, gone from Zoom meetings in our home offices to Zoom fitness classes in our home gyms (possibly the same room), ordered in food, and collapsed onto the sofa to join the collective online shopping and Netflix binge. In other words, we’ve pretty much replicated, at home, the distractathon that life was before the coronavirus.
Yet for all our doing, we’re not getting very much done, according to Georgetown University professor of computer science Cal Newport, Ph.D. His new book, A World Without Email, tallies the tax on focus levied by digital pings we’re conditioned to reciprocate ASAP, lest anyone suspect we have paused, even momentarily, in our hustling. “We live in a meritocracy, where you’re continually having to prove yourself, and the psychological effects are magnified by technology,” Newport observes. “It’s not just that you feel like you can’t switch off—it’s that you literally can’t. The phrase I hear most is ‘I’m drowning.’ ”