Clearing Off The To-do List So I Can Think About Nothing

Ever wonder what makes some people accomplish so much while others just sit around waiting for life to happen? I used to wonder until I became one of those people who do things.

When I was at university I learned very quickly that you didn’t need to go to classes or do all the readings, all you needed was to do well on the exams, tests, assignments and you’d get a good mark. I was lucky enough to be able to do well on these things without having to work very hard. Instead of investing any of this un-spend effort potential on something worthwhile, I worked hard at doing nothing, literally NOTHING. I watched Law and Order on A&E, Simpson’s reruns, sat around drinking with friends talking about a future that we’d one day get to. Looking back I sort of wish I had done something, take a dance, art or music class, start indoor climbing or mountain biking, go to the gym or even go to the library and learn something that I cared about but wasn’t going to be marked on. It would have been nice if I had done something for its own sake instead of doing nothing for the sake of it.

Well school ended, I got a job and life got going. Now instead of doing things because I was getting marked for it, I was doing things because I was getting paid for it, but all in all I was still doing very little. I remember back on my mid to late 20’s as a miserable time in my life. I had a high paying IT job and could buy all the things that I wanted, but I was still used to doing nothing so I found myself not wanting anything. I kept drinking with my friends and I discovered a love of eating in restaurants. I had taken up smoking so even when I was sitting there doing nothing, I felt like I was accomplishing something because I was having a cigarette. Talk about your life preserving fictions!

In hindsight, it was the IT crash of the early 2000’s that was responsible for a big shift in the way I looked at the world. The company I worked for went belly-up and I was laid off. I hated the job so I wasn’t that unhappy about it, and because I was laid off, I was able to go on EI. I was collecting a pay cheque without having to go to work. This was, in my view, the best of days. It wasn’t of course as I was still very unhappy and completely unmotivated to do almost anything. I didn’t find or look for work and had to move back into my parents place because the money ran out.

This was the beginning of the end for the old me. My parents didn’t drive me to get a job but they did need to see me doing something “productive”. Since they didn’t give me any specific instructions, I took it to mean that if I could improve my mountain bike riding they’d be happy. I bought a trail pass at Kelso Conservation Area in Milton and started riding there daily. This was fantastic because I started to get better. I was able to ride tougher and tougher sections without clipping out and I began to enjoy climbing hills. I developed a passion for riding and with my improvements I became more and more confident. At the end of the summer when I took part in a 24 hour team relay race my improvements were noticed by my teammates and my improved confidence allowed me, for the first time ever, to feel at peace with what I was doing. I had set the goal of improving as much as I could by focusing on my training and I was enjoying the success of achieving that goal. It was the first time in my life that I had wanted to do something and had actually worked to attain it. It was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t feel like I was doing NOTHING.

The switch was flipped and things started to change very quickly after that. I began setting goals, planning how I was going to achieve them and then setting that plan in motion. It was fantastic and addictive. What replaced the feeling of apathy and fear towards the world was a sense of excitement and empowerment that I had some impact on what I got out of life. I learned that I could do things and that I would feel better after I did them. I think it was around that time that I discovered that the voice inside my head that reminded of all my failings would go quiet whenever I was working on something or had just finished something. That was a huge step forward in my development because I hated this voice and welcomed anything that would make it go away. The problem now was that I was working to get rid of the voice. Well, it isn’t so much a problem because I was getting a lot done, it’s just very annoying to have to listen to it at all. While doing things is a great way to silence it, the voice is still there to remind me that I’m wasting time.

At 33 I accept that I did this to myself. Whatever environmental influences there were, they play only a legacy role in who I am and how I create my present understanding of the world. However, the antiquated role they play still impacts me today. For example, back when I learned to do nothing, a part of me felt shameful or guilty for it. If the voice spoke to me and told me that I was being a failure, it was absolutely correct. If I had continued down that path I would have ended up dead very early and never accomplished anything with my life. The voice served a very important function, it warned me that I was wasting time and it created a sense of urgency to drive action. But because I left it untested for years, it is a part of who I am today and it will fire-up whenever I’m wasting time. The problem now is that I hear it even when I have the right to take some down time, which makes taking it easy and doing nothing extremely difficult. I blame my tendency towards overtraining on this characteristic. I think in time I will learn how to get back to doing nothing and not feel bad about it, but it’s going to take a while.

Today I need to clear off my to-do list before I can relax. I guess it’s good because when I wasn’t like this and I never got anything done. Now I can’t get around to wasting time if there’s something pressing on my mind or if someone is waiting for my input. I can’t because my mind won’t let me. It requires my action to silence it and I’m only too happy to oblige it.