We need to bring back the art of not doing stuff

Some of you may be aware that this week marks the beginning of Lent, the festival that many Christians celebrate — or suffer through — in the run-up to Easter. It commemorates the 40 days and nights Jesus spent fasting and being tempted by the devil in the desert.

Having been brought up by a devout Irish Catholic father, and sent to a convent school, I feel guilty if I do not observe the Lenten period by at least trying to give up some kind of earthly pleasure or vice, as many Christians are encouraged to do alongside the two other pillars of Lent: prayer and almsgiving. And I’m sure some of you will also be giving things up — chocolate, alcohol or Twitter perhaps — even if you have no Christian background or faith, for reasons of self-discipline, health or just sanity.

But we are a rapidly dwindling group. Polling carried out by YouGov this week and shared with the FT suggests that only one in 20 Brits will be giving up anything for Lent this year (though separate polling suggests eight in 10 happily embraced pancake day on Shrove Tuesday this week before the abstinence started). This figure is down from one in 10 the last time the company ran the poll, in 2012. Even in God-fearing America, polling suggests that only about one in six people — and less than half of US Catholics — observes Lent, despite seven out of 10 Americans celebrating Easter itself (often with the consumption of a whole lot of chocolate).

A somewhat larger proportion of people form New Year’s resolutions — about one in five — but these are usually focused on actively doing things, such as “exercising more” or “eating healthier”, whereas in Lent, the explicit focus is on refraining from doing things.

In a world driven by the twin forces of consumerism and productivity, of limitless possibility and endless overwhelm, we seem to have lost the art of — and the sense of value in — not doing stuff. We often ask ourselves “what have I managed to do today?”, but far less often do we ask: “what have I managed to not do today?”

And yet it is the not doing that can be more important, and more powerful. While hurling weights above our heads or pounding the pavements might feel like an empowering way to kick-start a weight-loss programme, research suggests that changing one’s diet — in bald terms, eating less — is a far more effective way of shifting the pounds than exercise. Putting some money into a low-risk index fund might be a good way of saving up to buy a house, but not losing any through gambling is an even better method.

And it is not just in the field of personal development that we should consider assigning more value to the absence of things. It also matters in politics: a dull, uninspiring leader with no new ideas is better than a charismatic narcissist with many dangerous ones.

The idea of thinking more about what we should not do, rather than what we should do, is one that can be applied in other areas too. In the field of diversity and inclusivity, for example, taking the active decision to not exclude any disadvantaged group — by blind-hiring, and ensuring people don’t feel socially or culturally excluded — might have more impact than trying to include every group in a tick-box-fashion, an effort that can never be fully realised given that there are endless ways to divide and subdivide disadvantaged groups.

In our always-on culture, it seems that we are more focused on working out how to fill up our diaries than how to create space in them. Not having things to do can leave us with a void that makes us deeply uncomfortable, so we reach for things to fill this gap, in order to regulate our emotions and avoid difficult feelings. But sitting with uncomfortable feelings can be helpful over the long run, and boredom should be more readily embraced.

Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks, goes further. He says that we should work out not just what we want to succeed at in life, but what we want to fail at, too. “You’ll inevitably end up underachieving at something . . . but the great benefit of strategic underachievement . . . is that you focus [your] time and energy more effectively,” he writes.

I like that idea, though as someone who wants to be good at everything, I admit I have not yet put it into practice. What I have instituted, though, is a “to don’t” list. Even if you don’t feel like observing Lent, perhaps you might like to join me.

If you are in need of inspiration, here are a few ideas: try not to procrastinate; not to spend too much time on social media; not to get to bed too late; not to buy crypto; not to tell lies and just generally not to behave like an idiot. Sometimes the absence of bad is more important than the presence of good.

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