Buy “Runway”



Bisy Backson: The Unsung Value of Idle Time

Happy Independence Day! And congratulations to the winner of the How to be a Writer in the E-Age give-away, Sara Renae. Thank you to Anne Allen for a wonderful guest post last week and to everyone who took the time to comment. I am eager to read Anne’s book, and I encourage you to pick up a copy, too.

This week, I want to talk about idle time and how important it is to our physical and mental health as well as our ability to think creatively. We often hear about how we need eight hours of sleep, but no one has come up with a number for how many hours a day, or week, we need to relax, to spend idle time doing something we enjoy with no goal in sight. There was a time when Sundays, or Saturdays, were a day of rest. No more. Now we work and work and work day and night, weekday and weekend. We’ve learned that the more we work, the more money we can make, and the more money we make, the more things we can do and buy.

For example, I really want to send my kids to the French school, which costs a fortune, but in order to do that I would need to increase my income by quite a bit. I’d also like to replace the old windows in our bedroom, so I could sleep with just one duvet instead of two during the summer months. I’ve been dying to go to Hawaii for about five years, and I’d really like grass in our backyard, so the kids can play in their kiddie pool without creating a mudslide. But I’m not willing to sacrifice my writing career in order to make those things happen. I save money by teaching and editing books and doing social media consulting. And I hope, soon, to make money by selling my first book, and my second, and my third. But the result of my trying-to-do-it-all is that when someone asks me how I’m doing, the answer is almost always, “Busy. Good, just really really busy.” Which is why, when a colleague of mine at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto shared this wonderful essay about how important idle time is to writers, it gave me pause. Here is an excerpt of “The ‘Busy’ Trap” by Tim Kneider for the New York Times Opinionator blog:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy. It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.'”

I am not proud to be so busy. Much of it is wonderful (to work, to spend time with my husband and kids, to exercise, I am grateful for all of these things). But oftentimes the busyness overtakes me, and the result is anxiety. (How fitting that Kneider’s essay was written for the New York Times’ Anxiety series.) Sometimes I get so busy I have nightmares. A couple of weeks ago, I dreamt that I was running from a tsunami. A couple of nights after that I dreamt that someone was trying to kill me.

I don’t like anxiety. I do like idle time, and I miss it. I miss lying in the grass watching the clouds. I miss lying in bed doing nothing at all, not reading, not watching television, just thinking. I miss walks (not runs) in the woods. I miss long, hot baths. I miss spending hours drinking tea with friends. And I’ve found that the few times I have managed to escape from the rat race for a few days to a writing retreat in the woods, things happen. With more sleep and minimal Internet and long walks, my mind opens up. I can think more clearly. I write better. I come up with ideas that have probably been brewing under the surface of my conscious for weeks, unable to fight through the noise. I even had an epiphany last month, something I plan to include in a future book.

This week I’m making it my goal to spend as much of my time idle as possible. Today I went for a bike ride—not a strenuous workout bike ride, but a slow, easy stroll on a flat bike path with my daughter trailing behind me. We sang songs. We stopped for ice cream. We watched butterflies float above the trees. I didn’t have any epiphanies, but otherwise it was a perfect day. I know that when I return from vacation I will jump right back into the busy trap. It’s my nature. But I plan to spend at least a few minutes each day doing nothing. Maybe even half an hour if I’m feeling indulgent. It’s not much, but it’s a start. And maybe it will keep the nightmares at bay.

What about you? What do you think of Kreider’s “‘Busy’ Trap” essay? And where does idle time rate in your list of priorities? Do you take time to smell the flowers, or are you too busy blogging and tweeting about them to enjoy them?

22 comments to Bisy Backson: The Unsung Value of Idle Time

  • I try to take time out. But these days, even when I am doing nothing, I feel like I'm still going a million miles an hour. I sometimes wonder if I've forgotten how to relax, even though I have goofing off down pat.

    • meghancward

      I know what you mean about forgetting how to relax. I spent time on a beach in India back in '94. It took me a good two to three weeks (when most people are heading home from their vacations) to relax, to stop feeling like I needed to be doing things and going places. But man, once I got into the groove of doing nothing all day, I did not want to go home.

  • annerallen

    I tweeted that article all over the place–while I was busy being busy. I haven't really had a day off in over a year, and I sure related. Of course most people don't publish 6 books in less than nine months. (I do not recommend this–do not try this at home, people.) And you know what I'm going to do for Independence Day? I'm going to declare my independence from the Internet for 12 whole hours. Yup. I'm going to do it. Really. I might even get some idyll/idle time.

    Bisy Backson, Christopher Robin!

    • meghancward

      Anne, I can't even imagine how busy you are. My life is crazy, but much of it is spent doing kid-related things and not writing/social media-related things, which can be both more fun and more exhausting than sitting at a computer. I hope you give yourself some time off soon. You deserve it!

  • I am so stuck in this cycle right now. I'm actually under deadline and need to start my next book , but I've been so busy with other stuff (including two new releases a month apart) that I haven't had the quiet time to *think*. Once I start a book, I get in a flow and can write where/when I need to But to start something fresh, I need quiet brain time and I can't seem to get it. So I'm in a holding pattern with this book because my life is so cluttered. My goal is to shut everything I can out next week and let my creativity breathe. *fingers crossed*

    • meghancward

      I hope you're finding that time to breathe this week! I know how hard it is. Really, the only thing that really works for me is to get away – to get out of town without the kids or husband and just shut myself in a room and write for a few days.

  • Kristan

    HAH. When I saw the title/subject of this post, I was like, "Ooo, I know just the article to share with her!" Guess what article it was? 😛

    My friend Mengfei sent me "The Busy Trap" a couple days ago and I adored it. I agree with so much of it, and even though I know I'm very privileged already (in terms of work/life balance) I would like to be sure that I'm really present in my idle time, instead of spending it thinking/worrying about the things I should be doing instead.

    • meghancward

      When I read the excerpt my colleague mailed out about how the author spends his evenings with friends, watching movies, and reading books, my first thought was, "This guy doesn't have kids!" But once I read further, I realized that he addresses the kid issue, too – that so many parents and children are overscheduled. My favorite part was the line about idle time allowing the brain to free up to have creative thoughts. I find this to be so true when I'm writing in a quiet cabin with no Internet.

  • Meghan,

    I was just pondering this exact dilemma last week and decided I would have one "technology-free" day each week (by technology I mean the internet :-). I chose Sundays because football season is coming and I love to sit around all day with my dad and son eating chips and dip and watching the games.

    I've also found myself stopping to enjoy litlte moments here and there, such as watching my son chase a butterfly around our backyard.

    I do agree that idle time is good for the soul.

    • meghancward

      There's nothing better than watching your son chase a butterfly around the yard! Although I love blogging and love connecting with people online, it doesn't compare to times like those when I really feel like I'm living "in the moment."

  • flashmemoirs

    I know I'm succumbing to busy when all I'm doing is retweeting your fabulous posts versus living my life and creating some of my own. 😉 The sign that I'm too busy and not leaving enough breathing room is more griding thoughts and fewer inspired ideas. Here's to the reminder to make room for inspirational white space!

    • meghancward

      But please don't stop retweeting my posts. 🙂 And yes, here's to more white space in our lives!

  • Great post on an important subject to writers … and everyone else, Meghan! With the ability to be constantly "plugged in" to the Internet-in-your-pocket and twenty-four-seven cable news (I'm a news junkie, and I think I need an intervention), we don't even remember to TRY to have quiet moments, and I think that's bad for us.

    I recently posted about a concept called "active inactivity" that I learned about years ago, in a small but powerful book, 'Zen and the Martial Arts' by Joe Hyams. Doing nothing on purpose is harder than it sounds, but active inactivity can tame wild mind-monkeys. And it’s a gift you can give to yourself, with a little practice.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • meghancward

      Thanks so much for the link to your post, Rob. I'm definitely curious to learn more about active inactivity.

  • I saw that posted on Facebook .. my thought at the time was that often when I tell someone I'm really busy, (which I do try to avoid saying, as it IS totally annoying) I'm really just not interested in doing whatever they are asking me to do. It seems like a polite white lie .. but maybe I need to rethink that. : >

    • meghancward

      I've been trying to avoid saying I'm busy since I read that article. I really mean it as a complaint, not a boast, but I don't want people to take it the wrong way 🙂

  • My sis instructed me about your internet website and also the way excellent it is. She”s correct, I am actually impressed with the writing and slick style. It seems to me you”re simply scratching the flooring when it comes to that which you may accomplish, nevertheless you”re off to a perfect begin!

  • “When you’re first diagnosed, you may find yourself reading books, watching videos, getting more and more information on your options. If required, the radiologist will help usually the come know significantly tuberculosis, pain actually are who tended to finally root for this particular underdog. For more information visit the American Heart Association or the National Institute of Emergency Care (Philadelphia).

  • Whilst you will then be stored when they appear and stop you from any other materials that consumers
    may provide a free Estimate. We’re available 24/7 consumers with a quality construction. It
    addresses drainage problems or issues that could affect the people you know, or an employee claim
    that the National Association of Home Depot. For professional roofing contractor for
    your business through referrals from there.

    my blog post; web site (Tammara)

  • Top grade, triple A quality excavation contractor helps prospective client, and
    we discuss your requirements. A written estimate from a dream coming true.
    You have to coordinate with the laws the state run bonding

    My web site homepage (Arielle)

  • I can answer your dui attorney question in the legal limit or the
    administrative license suspension. Do not ever need
    a clear record. A professional attorney stands by you all of the worst of all the penalties will depend on your page, making
    it less hazardous and more. Even with a reprimand and a great Attorney you can call the Nellessen Law Office today.

    Also visit my site … see it here

  • The significance of education is paramount and it is making the lives of students and societies very comfortable. The role of assignment writing is increasing the knowledge of students. The students are becoming very productive for the society.