In Praise of Doing Precious Little

A recent suggestion from Lifeline Australia suggested keeping a TA DA list.

Why? Because when we keep long TO DO lists, they can contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed. The practice of noting the things you have done and taking a moment to reflect on completion, may be a simple remedy for better mental health.   A TA DA list is easy to keep if you know how to cut and paste and change a sentence to the past tense.

I am a TO DO list tragic. I like the idea of having goals and I don’t want to rely on my memory every day.  And besides, Dr Seuss told me as a child that; This was no time for play, this was no time for fun. This was no time for games, there was work to be done! He wasn’t the first person to point me toward the Protestant Work Ethic. These days we are also treated to a great deal of fridge magnet philosophy telling us to go for it! This day matters! You can do anything! How we spend our days is how we spend our lives!  

I have no argument with this kind of message generally.  Life is short and I don’t want to waste it, but recently my eyes were drawn to a contrary title from Jenny O’Dell called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.   

What is the attention economy? In short, our attention is a resource.  We only have so much of it. And we now live in a world where information has become more abundant and immediately accessible. Our attention is the limiting factor. We select and we discard. Sometimes we even act. 

I picked up this book wondering if the writer was trashing the Protestant Work Ethic. Did she read a copy of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and feel the sudden urge to lean out? It is an ironic title, because writing and publishing a book is a far cry from doing nothing. I searched for pictures of Jenny O’Dell in yoga pants and learned that she was a very young lecturer at Stanford. I don’t think the term ‘slacker’ really applies here.

There is nothing new under the sun and Jenny O’Dell is hardly the first person to advocate taking time to be silent and reflect. It should not be revolutionary to suggest to others that they consider stopping and doing nothing, but Ms O’Dell writes about the radical act of reclaiming time and space for the self, to reflect, to escape from our digital addiction and the tyranny of the To Do list. For Ms Odell, this is a form of political resistance. That’s a wee departure from the norm.  

Ms O’Dell is no fan of social media’s impact on our lives and its capacity to “… keep us in state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” She’s not alone. Nicholas Carr, in his book, ‘The Shallows; How the Internet is Changing the way we Think, Read and Remember, writes ‘Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.’ The more we use the web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly but without sustained attention.’ Deep reading, the pursuit of a story and the thinking that it will inspire, is being trained out of us.    

O’Dell acknowledges that doing absolutely nothing is a luxury. She is not advocating a life of leisure or turning into a couch-potato. She simply suggests finding a way to create a third space in the attention economy. Her advice is to take control and wilfully create time to oneself with the phone hidden, avoiding social media, TV and whatever else demands our attention. Then we should use the time to breathe, to sit and stare or read something longer a twitter soundbite. In Ms Odell’s case, she watched birds.

Sound flaky? Well, it may do, but I check my phone device too often. The average is reportedly 35 times a day and I suspect I am close to that number. I am old enough to know better. I am conscious of the distraction of the phone when I am reading. And further, I am not comfortable saying that I’m doing absolutely nothing. I recently stayed with a wise friend who quietly reminded me, that a truly great gift in life, is time and the realisation that you can say no to a lot of things. The last time I stayed with her, we walked on the beach. This time, I was in too much of a rush. My loss.

Money and good health are established holy grails and we are very fortunate if we have a bit of both, but I have lately been asking myself if time is not the greatest lottery prize of all. Free time that is not frittered on watching anxiety fuelled news or social media feeds, but spent noticing the world around us, to walk and think and read.

Free time should not be a daily guilt trip, to be eased by looking busy. Time is a gift. Time is the stuff that life is made of.  I write this, and yet I struggle with it.

But as Dr Seuss also said; You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. And those feet do not have to be peddling on a hamster’s wheel.  

So, I am going to set some simple, do-able resolutions for myself this year. I will try to be better at doing precious little. I will be more conscious about the phone checking habit, especially when I have picked up a book. (Let’s face it, I would not run out to the post box 35 times a day). I’ll always make To Do lists, but I’m going to keep a Ta Da list as well. And like Ms O’Dell, I will watch out for the birds a bit more often.  I have purchased a second bird bath and just yesterday, three fat kookaburras held my attention. It’s a start. None of this will kill me, whereas the hamster wheel just might.

Happy New Year everyone.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Doing Precious Little”

  1. wise words indeed. Most phones provide a VERY detailed breakdown of your screen time activity, including how many times you pick your phone up and what you spend your time doing on it. In my case its always much more than I think it will be, and that’s not including iPad and laptop. I’m working up the courage to leave my phone behind next time I go out for a short time!

  2. I also am a ‘to do’ list person so feel your pain. These days this functions mostly as a memory aid! A guilty secret is that I have been known to realise I did things that were not on the list, then write them on to get the satisfaction of immediately crossing them off! I suppose that is me seeking some ‘ta da’ moments. I no longer make new year’s resolutions, but more quiet time and less phone checking are worthy aims for this year.

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