Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day,
You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town,
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Pink Floyd 1973
The working day requires me to be out of the house by half past nine. A leisurely
alarm of 8:15 affords me the luxury of a few minutes wasted, idle in bed before the
well-drilled morning routine kicks in. Nothing is achieved in those twenty or so
minutes. No great thoughts. No clinging to the drifting threads of a half remembered
dream as the arms of Morpheus recede. No suddenly remembered chore, neglected from
the night before. Just the pure decadence of doing nothing.
My day has been planned for me with little opportunity for deviation. If I were
to leap enthusiastically from bed, the lust for life surging through my body; it
would be no different. I would simply be kicking my heels until it was time to get
in the car. Or, worse still: I would get in the car as soon as I was ready - join
the ranks of commuters in their cages. Then, having completed the drive to work,
I would be confronted once again with those same minutes steadfastly refusing to
be filled. The action of doing nothing consequently now forced on me, not chosen
What a difference it is on a day off. The alarm sounds at the same time but no lazing
around idly doing nothing for twenty minutes now. Oh no – the serious business of
doing Nothing begins immediately as I fly into a fit of complete inactivity, my mind's
eye trained as intently on the task at hand as the eye of the marksman gazing along
the gun sight. Those first waking moments cannot be prized too highly. Lying there
doing nothing allows limitless possibilities for the future. With all that time at
your disposal there's no knowing what might be achieved if only you were to set your
mind to it. The potential for attainment is unbounded. The moment one moves, those
possibilities are restricted. And so you lie calm and content knowing that all you
dream of is within your grasp.
Eventually of course, you have to move and in doing so acknowledge the realities
of another day. It's far from easy – doing nothing. Fortunately, I have had a good
deal of practice. Doing nothing is not just something one can take up and excel at
immediately. To really succeed, the secret, as in so many things, lies in the planning.
Meticulous, thorough, diligent planning. This is not the pursuit of the casual amateur.
Without the necessary planning a confident, optimistic start is certainly not beyond
the reach of the gifted enthusiast. Within a few moments of settling down, one might
find oneself quite naturally and competently doing nothing. A state that is very
easily achieved when one actually has nothing to do. Yet once again, of course, that
state is circumstantial and not a decision made. However in such an instance, after
only a short time, doing nothing can very quickly become a chore. Without the alternative
of things to do, lassitude and ennui set in. A state that can overtake even the most
experienced of idlers. Only the other day I was investing a deal of effort in doing
nothing - I had mused on such issues as “What words one might get on looking up “thesaurus”
in a thesaurus (lexicon and dictionary if you must know, neither of which delighted
me much) - when it suddenly struck me that I was suffering from boredom; disinterest;
lethargy; dissatisfaction; apathy; tedium; fatigue. In short, not only that I had
nothing to do but more importantly that I had nothing not to do. And it is here that
the value of planning becomes apparent. A carefully drawn up list of activities and
obligations is absolutely essential. It is important to remember that doing nothing
should be a pleasure – a pleasure that is not afforded to the majority. And true
pleasure can only be derived from the successful achievement of doing nothing in
the face of having things to do. After several restless moments of having nothing
to do I forced myself into a decision: I would read a book. My task was before me.
And that course of action having been gratefully settled on I was able once again
to lapse into doing nothing with renewed vigour safe in the knowledge that there
was something that I wasn't doing.
For the inexperienced it is all too easy to make the mistake of confusing not doing
anything with doing nothing.
I haven't done a great deal today. That in itself of course, is in no way remarkable.
I have in fact spent many days of my life doing precisely bugger all.
“I'm writing a novel, you know.” C'mon, we all know at least one.
“Oh really,” we respond, “how interesting.”
“Oh yes, I've been working on it for 6 years.”
“Really, that's amazing. It must take such dedication...and a lot of ink... Slim
volume is it?”
“Well I've not actually been writing it, for 6 years, a lot of it has been research
“You surprise me...”
I admit it – I have wasted a lot of my time. Others of those apparently empty hours
have been invaluable. The point I'm trying to make is this: The actions (or inaction)
that characterises those hours will have little to differentiate them. Viewed from
the outside; they seem as redundant as the rest. What makes the difference between
hours well spent and hours wasted is one thing: Guilt. Here's how it works: I must
get some of that novel written (one of several unwritten masterpieces I have on the
go – see above re: “limitless possibilities”). But it's just not in my nature to
get up, move straight to the computer and set myself to work. I need time and space.
8:00am Get Up, feel optimistic about a day of novel writing.
8:45am Make cup of tea.
9:00am Drink tea whilst catching morning news headlines (this is a contemporary novel
9:27am Decide I can't work in an untidy house so wash tea cup.
9:40am Sit at desk for some serious thinking.
9:50am Inspiration slightly elusive. Still the main thing is to stick at it. At least
I'm working – not just wasting time. Ooh - Homes Under the Hammer in 10 minutes...
11:02am Oops.... don't know what happened there... must have let my guard down a
moment... bit of time slipped by. Anyway, no harm done, back to that novel.
11:07am Better turn the telly off – don't want to be distracted by that again...
Well, mebbe just a quick game on the Playstation before I go.
2:30pm Shit. OK – it's off now. Time to work. Bit hungry though.
3.00pm Late lunch. Perhaps a wee beer.
4:00pm Time for some really intensive thinking. Excellent: fifty words written...
just getting a taste for it now.
4:45pm Phone call
6:00pm Back to the computer. Read back earlier effort. Not as good as I thought:
back down to fifteen words.
7:00pm Look out the window and start to see people walking home from work. Clearly
it's time to call it a day. Hungry again now anyway... and feeling just that little
bit guilty. Try again tomorrow...
Tomorrow comes and with it the degree of guilt so carefully accrued from the day
before. And so it goes on... until, in utter disgust and self-loathing, progress
is finally made. The most important thing in all that time is not to allow myself
to be distracted from my work. The moment that happens, the earlier guilt is forgotten...
all that carefully invested time counts for naught and I must begin again.
Time of course is precious, increasingly so as one grows older, as we cling with
ever greater desperation to the hours left to us. Only then does the value of those
seemingly endless days we squandered start to become apparent but days off are not
quite the luxury they seem, not when one has such a close relationship with Guilt.
Generally speaking guilt can be negated by going to work: my brain needn't fret about
what it ought to be doing. I don't go to work to achieve anything but to take my
mind off the fact that, once again, nothing has been achieved.
Time was always going to be a bit of a grand and lofty subject to tackle but the
irony that it has taken my brain quite so long to get to grips with it is not lost
on me. This was never the intention. At one point a genuinely concerted effort was
made to make significant progress. With the luxury of a few days off why not get
away from it all and focus on the writing? Nice idea – didn't quite work out like
that though. It's not as easy as one might hope to escape all distractions and remain
in a literary vein. Though in retrospect the decision to holiday in Porlock was probably
a poor one.
Besides, Freedom sucks. Just ask any existentialist.