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Life Lessons

I Give You Permission To Do Nothing

A woman reclines on the sand at the beach. She has her eyes closed and looks very relaxed.
A model wearing a striped cutaway swimsuit reclines on the beach, circa 1973, which probably was the last time anyone who wasn't a billionaire knew how to relax.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

It became clear to me just a few months into the pandemic that saying “How are you doing?” was no longer the ideal way to start a conversation. Admittedly, perhaps it never was. It’s the type of question you are supposed to ask at the risk of seeming rude, but it’s also not one you are really supposed to answer honestly. You say I’m fine or great or I’m hanging in there in an ever-so-slightly-but-not-too-aggressively chipper tone, maybe throw in a small chuckle, and then the conversation moves on to whatever it’s really about. Whether fine or great or I’m hanging in there is the truth, or even within the realm of possibility of truth, doesn’t matter. There is no follow-up. Instead, it’s understood that this is a small lie you tell to start a conversation in the name of not sounding like that jerk your great aunt warned you about. 

The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has obliterated, at least for me, the ability to ask “How are you doing?” with a straight face. Whatever thin veil once allowed the lie of I’m fine to persist in the past is gone now, as far gone as workplace-casual clothing, or hanging out indoors on a whim with people you barely know, or going to the grocery store for just one lemon. 

At some point, and I don’t recall exactly when, I began asking a different question to start most of my conversations, especially with people I don’t know very well: Are you just tired all the time? Because I am. Usually, the person laughs and says, oh yeah, they too are tired all the time, and then we have a good chuckle at our shared perpetual state of exhaustion and maybe share some tips that we’ve developed for not napping all day, before diving into that actual conversation part of the conversation. I’ve done it enough times now that “Are you tired all the time?” has become my go-to ice breaker. I say it as casually as I used to say “How are you doing?” Everyone answers. 

At first, I just took this as some sort of marker of the type of person I am, or maybe just the type of person I end up talking with: Someone who likes working, but maybe at times too much, someone with a perfectionist streak, someone who gets called the reliable one. But over the months, as I said it to more and more people, it became clear that either everyone was just like me, which seemed highly improbable, or that nearly everyone I talk to is also struggling with some level of burnout, which seemed like a bigger issue.  

To be clear, this is not a deep or original observation from yours truly. The media is littered with stories about burnout. On CNBC, you can read about the possible solution of the four-day work week. On Fortune, you can read about burnout warning signs. The Los Angeles Times says parents have burnout, Axios says teachers have burnout, and WFSB says children have burnout. Doctors, veterinary techs, and retail workers also have burnout. The Guardian has recommendations for movies, books, music, and more to help anyone struggling with burnout; they include the movie Seconds, reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and listening to Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op. 132. You could say burnout has become a beat, the same way journalists reliably churn out stories about sports teams, mayors, legislatures, and the White House. I have no metrics on how these stories do but, given how many I have read, I am going to guess they do pretty well. It is easy to imagine them finding a broad audience of burnout sufferers puttering about online, all or some of whom are eager to read stories about burnout, and then share them on social media feeds—all of which, I suspect, does nothing about burnout.

I am not a licensed certified expert in burnout. I am only a person who has been working in journalism, an industry always prone to burnout, for a long time. I have struggled on and off with burnout. Even before the pandemic, I had quit jobs over burnout and I had told other people to quit their jobs. And it means, even when I am reading yet another article about burnout, that I actually do know the solution to burnout. Or, anyway, I know what has been, at least for me, the most reliable cure for it in the past—doing nothing. 

Well no shit, you reply. No fucking shit. Did I really pay $79 a year for you to tell me the solution is doing nothing? There was already an entire New York Times-bestselling book called How To Do Nothing! It costs much less than a subscription to this website!

Before you send an email asking for a refund, hear me out. Because, of course, you know the answer to burnout is doing nothing. I know the answer to burnout is doing nothing. Your roommates know this, your spouse knows this, your family knows this, and so do your friends. Your pet has a PhD in doing nothing, which is one reason why they are so happy and stress-free all the time. Everyone knows this and yet, here you are, online reading this article that I have written when we both know we should be doing nothing, or at least doing less. 

I know, but indulge me in a funny little mental trick that has worked for me in the past. Sometimes, you need someone to give you permission to do something. I don’t know why this works. I only know that if someone else asks me or tells me to do something, I am much more likely to do it than if I just sort of feel like doing it on my own. Sure, I’ll take a day off, but I am much more likely to take a day off if Tom Ley tells me to take a day off, or my spouse tells me to take a day off, or one of my best friends tells me to take a day off. I trust them. Or, perhaps, I know that if they are saying something, then it must be serious. 

So I give you permission to do nothing. Let me be that person. I am telling you to do this! It is an order! Yes, you might be reading this while working, or during the five minutes of downtime you have during parenting, or on the bus on your way to the job that is definitely burning you out but you can’t quit because the rent is still due every month. I understand you might not or probably cannot do nothing right this second.

But just think about it. What is the little pocket of time this week in which you can do nothing? It’s there, somewhere. It can be five minutes, or maybe a whole 10, but I promise it is there. When you find that time, instead of opening social media for the 10,000th time or reading an article about burnout—another one, I mean, this article is almost over—why not just sit down in your favorite spot and do nothing. It’s OK. You won’t get in trouble. Nobody will rat you out to the gods of productivity or the overlords of career advancement or the idols of being engaged online. I have given you permission to do nothing and, therefore, it both can and simply must be done. And although I wanted to spend 15 more minutes coming up with a better kicker to this blog, instead I’m going to do nothing myself. It’s fine. I have declared it so.

Correction (6:42 p.m. ET): The price of subscribing to Defector.com has been updated to reflect that price is $79 a year, not $80 a month. The author will not blame this mistake on burnout.