When it comes to summer vacation, there’s no such thing as wasted days. Doing nothing is good for you, but it’s time we relearned how to do nothing properly. Our aversion to conspicuous leisure is deeply embedded in the puritan work ethic, yet it’s necessary, now more than ever.
Concern about finances is only second to work worry, the leading cause of stress: According to Statistics Canada data for 2017, 73 per cent of working adults are reporting that they are stressed because of their jobs. Here, we don’t have Europe’s enviable minimum of three weeks of summer holidays (permanent workers in Canada get a minimum annual leave of just 10 paid vacation days). Leisure is maligned, misunderstood and thorniest of all in an era of constant accessibility to pings and prompts. So, how do we shed the Pavlovian response and be away, so that we can come back refreshed?
Herewith, a guide. I promise it’s the only homework I’ll give you this summer.
Tedium is not the same as boredom, so your goal is to shake off the shackles of the former and embrace the promise of the latter – and I learned this through reading about (although not watching or listening to) baseball, the quintessential summer sport. “Boredom is fertile. Boredom is potential,” author Andrew Forbes argues, and “boredom is the basic element of all baseball’s drama.” With a minimum of 162 games per team, each at least nine innings, “baseball can make you feel like you’ve got time to burn – these days that’s a precious feeling.”
Late capitalism, he writes, is “the Golden Age of Distraction and it’s rewiring us with hair-trigger attention spans.” Because the sport features what Forbes considers an exaggerated ratio of crescendo to diminuendo, any peaks ratchet up the excitement factor and make the valleys that much more broad, deep and, frankly, grand.
“Boredom, in the baseball sense, is a synonym for lackadaisical: It’s the only proper response to all that green grass and blue sky.” No one is in a hurry, not in the stands nor listening to the game at home – it takes how long it takes and the enjoyment is in the deliciously slow passage time.
Don’t catch up on must-see TV
“Aspirational class productivity spills over into all facets of life,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett says. She studies the consumer economy and, as the author of The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, studies how cultural capital has lead to lifestyle shifts. Currid-Halkett says that aspiration even extends to watching television, be it Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale or HBO’s latest prestige epic, whatever it may be. It’s “about being part of the cultural zeitgeist. How else can an individual seem informed at a dinner party if … not spending free time doing things that make them seem smart and culturally aware?”
But here’s the thing: When members of the aspirational class (raise your hands if this is you) become productive, even within their limited leisure time, they lose sight of what a luxury it is to spend time this way, Currid-Halkett says, and quotes economist Robert Frank: “It seems rich people now want a return even on their leisure time investment.”
Don’t be like rich people. And admit it, you’d probably rather watch the cottage VHS copy of Dirty Dancing one more time.
Structure tech time
Technology puts entertainment and communication convenience at our fingertips, and it seems preposterous to go backward. But as the boundaries between work and play become more permeable, we are constantly being nudged by our devices to a set of choices between conversation or virtual distraction. Andy Crouch, in The Tech-Wise Family, suggests “10 commitments” that help put technology in its place, and one of them is use those insidious nudges to your advantage to create better patterns of life. “Because technology is devoted primarily to making our lives easier, it discourages us from disciplines, especially ones that involve disentangling ourselves from technology itself,” he writes.
Take a cue from Crouch’s “one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year” tech-free formula: Take everyone’s devices at dinnertime, and set them aside. That’s one nudge in the direction of habits that will help you get to know one another again.
If structuring time away from tech sounds radical, that’s exactly why you should do it.
Of course, time away is freeing, but so is the niggling dread of the inevitable return, and wondering how much e-mail will accumulate. The solution? Crouch suggests setting up an inbox rule (or filter) before leaving the office that sends every last incoming message to an archive, for the duration of your time away, and generates an automatic reply to that effect.
In the event of a true emergency, a trusted colleague can be deputized to telephone on work’s behalf. Most will think twice before intruding on that cottage party line and chances are it isn’t that urgent. Few people are truly indispensable.
Plan to be spontaneous
The Italians have expressions for everything that’s to be desired: sprezzatura, the fashion of studied carelessness, bella figura, from the term artists use for “good form,” as in making every aspect of life as beautiful as possible, and (my personal favourite) il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.
“I think the doing ‘nothing’ is two-pronged, from a sort of physical neuro-physical point of view calming down your nervous system in a really deep way when we have those lives in the city,” says Kamin Mohammadi, a former editor at Condé Nast U.K., abandoned her stressful London life and moved to Florence a decade ago. “It’s going to take more than one yoga class a week, you really to train yourself to be slightly different. So as much as you can put those moments in your day, sit down for your coffee, take a breath and be right there.”
Paradoxically, doing nothing takes some doing. It requires a little planning and some new habits. Don’t make plans two days in a row. “You have to allow that time,” says Mohammadi, who called her new memoir of finding meaning – and herself – by slowing down Bella Figura. “And if your life feels about schedules and diaries then you need to diarize it to prioritize free time.”
But, she adds, “you [must] give space for things to happen, for stuff that you didn’t plan.” It advocates openness, seeing where the day or hour takes you and who you meet along the way. To prolong the feeling when you return from holiday, keep one “no plans” day every week.
Sightseeing: Do less of it
It sounds counterintuitive. You’ve paid for airfare and accommodation and there are so many wonders of the world that the temptation is to rush around ticking items off the list. “I spent many years being a guidebook writer and had an absolute mania of everywhere I went, having to see absolutely everything,” Mohammadi commiserates, recalling how she reached an “I don’t care” realization with some girlfriends at a villa, and just decided to hang out. “Slow down your travel if you can,” she counsels.
It’s hard because when you have a limited time you don’t want to “waste” it, but that’s not a vacation, that’s a homework assignment. “You can’t do everything, so when you travel somewhere do a little but then try and feel a bit more about what it’s like to be in a place rather than just visit it.” That applies whether it’s a weekend at a friend’s cottage or a few days in a European city.
And on the eighth day
That oft-cited Finnish study from a few years ago pinpointed the eighth day of vacation as the moment when we experience peak benefit. It wasn’t a comprehensive sampling – fewer than a hundred vacationers were studied – but it still sounds about right. It takes that long to let go and give in to the rhythm of a new, all too foreign feeling: relaxation. But it’s also an attitude.
Practice these tips that offer a change of pace, if not scenery, and you’ll come back from a day, weekend or fortnight off knowing you have accomplished something after all, which is, of course, nothing.