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Surrender to nothing

The rewards and challenges of putting all the projects aside.
A small stuffed shark, crocheted by the author, is shown sitting on a blue sofa cushion.
Finn the shark.

The rewards and challenges of putting all the projects aside.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

From Christmas Eve until January 2, my plan was to do nothing. We weren’t going anywhere, Tone Madison was on break, and while I would need to freelance a bit after, the gap between Christmas and New Year’s is notoriously slow news-wise.

And I knew I needed to do nothing. My attention span was dwindling. Focusing felt like a fight for my life. And as we closed out 2022, after years of overwork in stretched-thin newsrooms under some of the most trying circumstances, I no longer felt like I was in burnout, but I wasn’t recovered. 

While my plan was to do nothing, I could feel the specter of expectation, of goal-setting, creeping in. A running family joke is that Lieffrings have to have a “project.” It’s not hustle culture per se; on principle, we are allergic to monetizing said projects. Adulthood for me was a long stumble through my hobbies to figure out which ones I could exchange for money (this one, writing). 

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For my break, though, I had to have an honest conversation with myself: I would not be able to play ukulele/play violin/study Spanish/clean/learn to crochet/learn to paint/hike/read every day and actually get some rest. 

Coincidentally Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing became available on Libby, the library e-book borrowing app. Despite the title, the book isn’t a how-to with instructions on logging off social media or breaking up with your phone. Instead Odell, an artist and teacher, walks us through her meditations on attention and distraction, the roots of the attention economy, and the impact it has on us psychologically, socially, economically, and philosophically.

The book has layers of takeaways, but one that I applied immediately was to intentionally do nothing during my break. Not “do nothing” in the most literal sense, unless you count the (many) naps and time spent staring into space (often leading to another nap). 

Instead, I focused my attention on the moment, without any expectation or pressure to be productive. Some results were expected: I slept until I was no longer sleepy, I cooked when I was hungry, and I went on walks when I was restless (it was too cold for outside walks, but Target counts). Instead of setting out to clean, I would notice parts of my home that I had seen but not seen for months, and organize them. Same result, but different intention. 

Focusing my attention on the moment also opened up time for new experiences. I reached out to friends when I thought of them. I made tea in my fancy pot from China and slowly sipped it from small cups. I called my sister just to chat, which led to her and my mom sending me kits for learning to crochet, something I’d been trying to teach myself for months. Turns out that when you have the right tools, focus, and time, it’s much easier to learn a new skill. By the time this is published, I’ll have finished making a stuffed shark.

A friend hosted a New Year’s Day gathering. After socializing, everyone was invited to the east side’s Madison Circus Space (MCS) for juggling and other circus activities. I had taken an aerials class months ago, and while it was cool, it wasn’t my thing, so I was feeling lukewarm about going to MCS. My husband nudged me into it, saying we should check it out and we can always leave. We tried juggling, which was OK, then a levitating wand, which was fun, but what really clicked for me was when my friend rolled out the German wheel.

If you’re unfamiliar, it’s two wheels connected by a set pattern of bars, foot-rests, and handles. It has just enough weight to provide resistance, and momentum. It’s up to you to use physics, your strength and weight to control it without crushing your fingers, or worse. My husband quite reasonably looked at it and said “no thanks,” but after only two informal lessons, I’m hooked. Running on a treadmill for more than five minutes requires constant self-bargaining, but give me a human-sized hamster wheel and I’ll happily roll around for over an hour.

As work slowly ramps up, I have to be intentional about not going back to my chronically overwhelming, overstimulating, doom-scrolling habits. My mind feels clearer, rested, and focused, and I want to hang onto that for as long as I can. The past few weeks have been a lesson in how much better life is when I slow down and pay attention. As a wise man once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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