START AT 4:00 AM a Saturday, a throbbing, incessant pain behind the left temple. I try to go back to sleep, but I can’t — the second track lost — and around 6:00 in the morning I face another work day on the weekend.
It’s the fall of 2020 and I’m at risk of losing my job at ESPN. Two decades working with other people, writing books and organizing a podcast, among other activities, and feeling proud of friends who say, “How do you do everything?” it has convinced me that now I have to do even more. I should find solace in all the skills I have developed to support my wife, Sonya; our three children; and my mother-in-law, who settled when she retired. I do not.
At noon, I can’t concentrate or have to lie down. I am soon hyperventilating as the burning pain spreads to my stomach and then to my toes and toes, suddenly inflamed and too sensitive to touch anything. In the emergency room, Sonya speaks for me as I undergo a CAT scan that fortunately rules out a brain aneurysm.
The bad news, says the neurologist, is that he is seeing more guys like me, for whom the pandemic accentuates the stress that is ignored until his anxiety levels increase so much that they double.
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According to a Cleveland Clinic survey, seventy-seven percent of us say we are much more stressed now. Fifty-nine percent say Covid’s quarantine has done more harm to our mental health than the 2008 economic crisis. Yet 66 percent of us live the old habits of masculinity and rarely discuss the pain and impact the pandemic has had on our mental health.
“And that’s how you’ll end up here,” says the neurologist. Your advice? Don’t come back.
The stress I feel: I decide to do something about it.
Lesson 1: Identify when there is no need to hurry
I DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING. This is what I decide with my therapist: to incorporate unemployment into my day. “Rest will relax you,” he says. A few weeks later, I received a call from my boss with an HR executive who fired me.
Now the crisis is real. I can feel the anxiety and fear of the impending indigence that pushes me towards a more insane productivity, fueled by the eagerness — principal and real — to provide. My therapist recommends me to start with a walk.
It’s not the prescribed thing — I still don’t mock anything — but the walk will separate me from everything I carried on my laptop. I leave it short, I stay on the shady street of my quiet suburban neighborhood, listening to a biography of Douglas MacArthur because, hey, I won’t be productive. But in fact, I feel calmer and energized when I come back, which makes me curious. Can doing nothing be a productivity hack?
It turns out that Thomas Edison and his employees would spend hours doing nothing but reflecting. It resulted in some of the team’s best ideas. Bill Gates takes a long time what he calls a week of thought, during which he goes alone to a remote area to read and think simply. This inspired many Microsoft victories. These days, Stefan Sagmeister takes a full year once every seven years. He has made his New York-based design company one of the most sought-after in the world because, as he says in a TED Talk, each “sabbatical year” provides unparalleled vision and enthusiasm for future projects.
Staying true to form, Sagmeister rejected my request to speak to him, saying, “During this unusual time, I try to minimize the time allotted in front of the screens and on the phone.” This is dancer.
I take my directions from these entrepreneurs and literally plan the stop using the calendar I have full of projects. Some days it is the half hour walk that my therapist recommends. Other days it’s a waking dream when I publish a diary about projects I might one day pursue. I sometimes coach my nine-year-old twins while they learn distance learning. As with everyone, downtime produces real results for me. During a waking dream session, I got the idea to create a paid online community to help creative types learn from each other in a way that they can’t do through social media.
A small business is born.
Lesson 2: Rely on the power of idleness
IN MY EMERGING REST TIME, I’ve read books like Andrew Smart’s Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, which articulates a theory of why disconnecting is so important. When brain regions “do nothing,” Smart tells me, they’re actually “organizing for later use.”
This neural recovery has a name, the resting state network (RSN), and also a function: to encourage creativity. According to the neurologist who laid the groundwork for the study of RSN, Marcus Raichle, MD, of the University of Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis. Louis. Colleagues thought Dr. Raichle was crazy in the early 2000s for connecting people to MRI and observing what happened in the brain when the subjects did nothing physically.
“They would just stretch there,” Dr. Raichle says. But he found that “there is continuous activity in the brain all the time,” suggesting that neural rest is never rest. “Problems are being solved,” he says, even without us knowing it.
Whether it’s Isaac Newton under the apple tree or me on a walk, Dr. Raichle argues that we are often at our best creative moment when we are most relaxed. This is true for me. I’m happier, I think more clearly about my scheduled downtime. Even though I have more work than ever, I am less stressed. I realize I’ve been working the wrong way for twenty years. I don’t need to fight, set and govern the hours of each day. I can move in with them, enjoy them for what they are. I find chunks of time for more downtime.
Lesson 3: Do less to feel more
AT A CERTAIN POINT in the spring of 2021, I feel bad to say that I use rest as a guide for optimized productivity. I am beyond the pirates of life. I am now developing a worldview, with unemployment – which has not been prescribed for a long time – as a fundamental principle.
As artist and author Jenny Odell says in her recent book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, “nothing can be tolerated.” [by modern society] because they cannot be used or appropriated and do not offer deliveries. “Odell connects the ideology of less, with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who established a garden and a school of thought with the premise that the good life comes from studying up close to everyday life.
One day, I call Tom Hodgkinson just before he leaves the office early so he can properly observe his vibrant city on the bike ride to his apartment. Hodgkinson directs The Idler, which is a mentality as much as a magazine published in London: his team hosts events and even a full academy to teach the art of simple pleasures, which some see as an indolence, but in reality is a higher intelligence. . “People feel — men feel — that they have to act responsibly, that is, that they have to enslave the office to care for their families. But then they get to 50 and their wives hate them and their kids are big and they don’t know them, “says Hodgkinson.” That’s irresponsible to me. ”
We’re talking about Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal project that tracked Harvard students from World War II, from the time they were sophomores to the day they died. The main finding, over decades and career strata? Happiness is a byproduct of the relationships you maintain, with your friends, but even more so with your family.
“Happiness is love. Endpoint, ”wrote one of Harvard Grant Study’s leading researchers.
“Exactly,” Hodgkinson says.
Lesson 4: Nothing + Nothing = Everything
HOW THE WEATHER IS HOT, I quit my job to teach my daughter how to skate. I try to keep up with my twins while they play Just Dance 2021 on Nintendo Switch. My walks lengthen and I leave the phone behind. I see how the rising sun limits the line of the trees. I distinguish the singing of birds. Back home, I answer fewer emails and start praying, something I haven’t done since childhood. It is both an act of faith and a quiet communion.
I haven’t had a headache in weeks, but I hope we can all be, as Hodgkinson says, “evolved and superior people.” We still have time, even when the world reopens, to remember where that world of employment will take us. “Look where it’s taken you,” Hodgkinson says.
“Exactly,” I say.
It has led me, ultimately, to realize that unemployment is not laziness. I’m still doing a lot. But the things I program every day edit and streamline all the things I pursue. Things focus not only on my work, but also, as Epicurus would have had, on the granular outdoor life: the multitone silence of dawn while I’m in the kitchen at the moment before coffee; the high-pitched cries of laughter at night when my kids and I play games together.
Lately, every afternoon, I have walked the trail that leads to a river that runs behind my house. One day I meet a photographer who points to a swan and tells me he is rarely seen in our part of Connecticut. That’s why he’s brought his camera: capturing what seems prosaic, disposable, nothing, but to trained eyes it’s beautiful and even transcendent.
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