The Art of Doing Nothing

Me at the beach
You may not be able to see because of the camouflage, but I’m actually in this picture.

Despite what BBC3 say, people rarely just do nothing. 

We wile away time in-between moments of activity, we kill time waiting for friends or have ‘time to ourselves’ to break up the monotony of work life and interaction with other humans. But these periods of inactivity are always bookended with something purposeful like work or breakdance lessons. To be faced with a day where if you don’t plan anything, nothing will happen, and to have that notion potentially continue for the foreseeable future – say 3 months – without any threat of responsibility rearing it’s ugly head, is oddly daunting.

The ability to switch off entirely and be content to sit with your own thoughts is quite rare in our modern society that is so saturated with overstimulation we can’t even wait for a friend to go to the toilet without having a cheeky scroll through Insta. I don’t believe it’s a generational thing either, I’m not sold on the whole “kids today are glued to their phones” gripe as I believe it’s merely a trait of the times we live in. My parents – both in their sixties – have iphone 6 pluses and spend as much time staring into the OLED abyss as the average teenage girl, albeit they aren’t Tweeting their Snapchats to Boomerang. But just because their version of a distraction involves flicking between Solitaire and the weather app, it doesn’t change the fact that they too struggle to be complacent without some kind of diversion.

In most other nations – and I’m not just talking about developing ones – people are much more satisfied to just, sit. You can walk the streets of any Mediterranean town or Caribbean island and you will see all manner of shopkeepers, children and street vendors reclined in chairs or lent on counters staring into middle distance, perfectly at home paddling around in a pool of their own thoughts. Anyone who has known me for more than five minutes is well aware of my tendency to zone out or go off on my own irrelevant tangents in all manner of inappropriate situations, and yet I really quite struggle with this notion of fully switching off. 

It’s here I should probably make an unpopular confession: 

I don’t care for the beach. 

I’m not going to get all Anakin Skywalker on you, I actually quite like sand, but I find beaches to be well, boring. Firstly they’re all a bit same-y. I do fully appreciate the beauty of a white sand beach framed by crystal clear waters but if I showed you a picture of the white sands of the Whitsundays in amongst my holiday snaps of Isla Mujeres, at no point would you notice. Secondly, there’s just not a whole lot to do. Granted I am not really a big fan of water-based activities and am less of a water baby and more what my friend Ginge would describe as a Land-Gremlin, therefore my particular views on this are a bit biased. But if you’re not surfing or conducting banana boat rides from a stolen speed boat then your aqua activity options are probably the same as mine, and messing around in waist-deep water is fine for a day or so but gets real old, real fast.

At the beginning of my trip in Mexico, when José and I actually did go to Isla Mujeres for the day, that is exactly what he did. For hours. And it fascinated me. After we’d explored the island in style by golf-cart we decided to wile away the rest of the day on the Playa Del Norte (North Beach). We buried each other in the sand by the shore, made grotesque sand people, and laughed hysterically at the American wedding party who tried to release a chinese lantern at the end of their ceremony only to have it fall over and catch fire. If that’s not an omen I don’t know what is. We then chilled out on the sand and José went and dicked around in the water for an impressive amount of time for a man who can’t swim (I’m not the only one Ginge, fuck you) and I sat on the beach and struggled to switch my brain off. I watched José for a bit, people watched for a bit more, tanned my back, tanned my front, eavesdropped the Maid of Honour’s speech which totally wasn’t full of bitterness at all, read my Lonely Planet cover to cover, started this blog and mentally defended the coastline from various waves of ninja, drug lord and mermaid attacks. Essentially I really struggled to just sit there and enjoy the beauty of it all. I found myself checking the time, fidgeting, wondering what time the last boat back was and if José’s boyish fascination with trying to catch fish with his bare hands would ever wain. It didn’t. The whole afternoon was a real demonstration of my English brain’s inability to switch off, verses José’s Argentinian mentality of enjoying the moment, and his way looked way more fun.

A beach.
I’ll give you a tenner if you can tell me which beach this is.

I’ll tell you what I do enjoy: walking. I bloody love a walk. I think it’s because going for a stroll is the illusion of doing something productive without actually really achieving anything. It’s the perfect balance between switching off and tricking my brain into thinking it’s achieved something. I will walk if the bus or tube stop is particularly crowded, I’ll go for a walk if I’ve got over half an hour to wait for someone and on nice days I’ll even walk home from work, which when I lived in Clapham, would take the best part of two and a half hours. These are the lengths I will go to avoid sitting around at home with seemingly nothing to do but smash through Rick and Morty on Netflix for the eighth time, but in reality both activities achieve as little as each other.

Walking is not a legitimate use of time. It’s a means of transportation. It’s a way of getting from A to B and on weekends C. People who enjoy walking as a past-time are the type of people who like to watch the microwave spin around; they’re the people who like to put the mouse cursor on the edge of a progressing loading bar to see how fast the download is moving. They are the connoisseurs of “productive” procrastination. Even my methodology of writing this blog is overly laborious: I handwrite it into my notebook somewhere I’m bored (i.e. the beach), I then copy it onto my phone into my notes before I transfer it to my WordPress app, format it and add pictures. It’s probably the most unnecessarily inefficient process since the Subway sandwich line and is one that lends itself to many spelling miscakes.

It’s been over two months since that day on the beach with José and I am getting slightly better at doing nothing. I’ve spent days on Caribbean beaches, afternoons hungover at hostels and seemingly weeks sat at bus stations, and the ability to switch my brain off is improving as I become more comfortable with the lack of control I have over my own timetable and more at ease with the idea that I don’t have to know what I’m doing every second of every day. That being said I know I still have a long way to go as my overstimulated, western brain still niggles at me during these times of inactivity. I still can’t sit in a hammock without getting pins and needles in my feet, I won’t spend time in a cafe that doesn’t have adequate wifi and I still have no idea what the hell you’re meant to do on the beach without a beer in your hand. Luckily for me I’m pretty sure that the research and practice for this particular branch of knowledge just involves sitting and doing nothing, so I suppose that’s what I’ll do.

I think I’ll go for a little walk first though. Just to clear my head.

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