This article first appeared on Forbes
How many minutes do you get to yourself in a day? In a week?
I mean truly to yourself. This doesn’t include getting a manicure or a hair color touch up. That’s fixing yourself.
Nor does it include the time you spend perfecting your presentation or cleaning up the kitchen after putting the kids to bed. That’s fixing too.
I mean the time you spend being idle. Doing nothing.
The very idea doesn’t sit well with many of us. We live in a culture that prizes busy-ness. “Busy” is a normal and admirable response to “How are you?”. And “Relaxed” is only acceptable if you’ve proven yourself to be a busy achiever the rest of the time.
As women, we often don’t think we have the privilege to do nothing. We’re the chauffeur and the cook. The employee or the boss. The tears wiper, the tantrum tamer, the story teller. The planner of the summer break, the scheduler of doctors’ appointments, the driver of pickups and drop-offs.
There’s more. We’re also caring and conscientious. When we aren’t busy doing, we’re busy worrying about our aging parents or a struggling child. We’re ruminating about what others said or downgrading ourselves for not measuring up or not doing the things we want to do. Believe me, it’s a full-time job.
I’ve often marveled at my husband’s ability to spend hours with nothing on his mind. I’ve often asked him what he’s thinking. He says “nothing”. It used to sound like a foreign concept to me, but I’ve come to believe that he truly means it.
I’ve also seen how the need to be busy is a common thread that runs through the lives of many high-achieving women. As a coach, I’ve heard their frustrations—“I can’t relax and just be,” or “I have to be doing something,” or “I just don’t know how to shut off my mind.”
I’ve known this dilemma well. It wasn’t until my psychological research on women’s confidence in the workplace that I understood a key reason it exists. As women, many of us arrive at mid-adulthood, strangers to ourselves. And our need to be busy is a subconscious attempt to define ourselves through it.
This disconnect with ourselves often begins in our very early years. Even as little girls, we reject parts of ourselves which our caregivers disapprove of, or wear the pink dress to “make mommy happy”. We then choose the subjects (or friends) they approve of, the career they value, the partners who’ll make them happy. We never get to know the person we are, or we hide her away because she reminds us that we’re broken and inadequate in some way.
No wonder what a friend says about your weight will occupy your mind when your worth comes from being fit or slim—the messages we grow up with. The feedback your boss gave about your presentation will shut you down (or make you terribly angry) when your work is your source of self-worth. Even something as subtle as seeing how well your colleague is managing her home life will make you feel like a failure—if your sense of self comes from being the perfect working mom.
It’s natural to want to feel good about our appearance, work or parenting. But when we use these to feel good about ourselves, as symbols of our worth, we’ve set ourselves up for a lifetime of misery interspaced with moments of short-lived joy and yo-yoing confidence.
If you relate to any of this, here’s the good news. Get comfortable with idleness. With doing nothing. And thinking nothing. German psychologist Marc Wittmann writes about time and self being intertwined. The more you give yourself the gift of time, the better you get to know yourself. Because it’s in those moments that the past, present and anticipated future fall into place and your autobiographical story begins to surface. Isn’t that the greatest gift of all?
Here are 3 ways of doing so
- You can start a regular mindfulness practice. Not one where you control your mind but one where you allow unanswered questions, hidden memories and misplaced fragments arise without resistance. Where you watch them move before you like clouds or rise and fall like subsiding waves.
- Or, you can choose to do this mindful observation in moments where you feel agitated or have the urge to be busy and do more. As you watch your thoughts arise without judgment or reaction, you’ll be able to see that experiences you’ve suppressed have stalled the passage of time, and you’re invariably reacting to the world through the black and white thinking of a younger brain.
- And finally, you can gift yourself idle time by being present in the stillness of the night when the house is quiet and there are no more chores to attend to. Or in the wee hours of the morning when our minds are more attuned to the bigger questions of the soul. Resist the urge to grab your phone and check your social media accounts. Or to plan your day and send out emails to your team. There will be a time for that too. But right now, your consciousness is awake, and like a wild animal, it’ll stay only until the noise of the day scares it away.
How we spend our time determines how well we make sense of our lives.