Lessons in Doing Less: I'm Learning to Relax More

Somewhere in the past 25 years, I learned to associate relaxation with indulgence. I am aware that this is ridiculous.
Publish date:
November 27, 2013
stress, relaxation

Somewhere in the past 25 years, I learned to associate relaxation with indulgence. I know that this sounds ridiculous, but whenever I sit down without an assignment in front of me, my brain starts to panic, and I begin to feel incredibly guilty, like there is something I should be doing somewhere else.

Twenty free minutes? Great, I will work on a freelance project. No project? I will get a head start on tomorrow's workload. Tomorrow is Saturday? I will organize the linen closet. What's that? I don't have a linen closet? Well shit, I better build one because what are we going to do with all of our linens?!

This way of thinking is exhausting, and it has also turned me into a big ball of anxiety riddled stress.

Stress doesn't feel good, it doesn't make people want to spend time with you, it causes cancer, and on the vain side of things, it gives you wrinkles and makes you look sort of scowly. And so, I am trying to unlearn this relaxation/indulgence association. I am trying to teach myself that sometimes, it's OK to do less. It's OK to slow down. No one is going to die if I take a nap today.

This inability to relax is a learned behavior, or perhaps a hereditary one. My mother is, and my grandmother was, the type of woman who can't sit still. I had my mom over last week and she sipped her tea while doing my dishes. At some point she managed to sneak off -- maybe feigning the need to pee? -- and secretly scrubbed my bathtub. That was very sweet, but someone who is always buzzing around can be very overwhelming, energy wise. You just want to take them by their shoulders, shake em and say “Sit down Nelly, before you throw out your back.” Or something.

My grandmother passed away two years ago, and she went happily and relatively pain-free. During the week preceding her death, she was bed-ridden and pumped full of morphine. All of her family came to be with her. We fed her big fat Hershey's chocolate bars and pizza and glass bottled Coca Cola -- whatever she asked for.

She Skyped with her high school best friend, also 92, who she hadn't seen in four decades. It was a really special time. When asked whether she was frustrated about not being able to get up and paint or varnish furniture or weed the garden, she laughed and said “No way, if I'd known how much fun dying was, I'd have done it years ago!”

I am sure that was the morphine speaking, but I don't want to be on my death bed before I figure out how to relax.

So I have been attempting to unlearning this association. Here are a few things I have been trying:

Putting my phone away. Far away. Even farther.

I was late to the smartphone party, because I knew if I had access to email I would never cease to be in work-mode. Eventually I relented, and fulfilled my own prophecy. Now, I have six email accounts, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and Facebook at my fingertips whenever I feel the need to fill a few spare minutes. To undo this urge, after 7 pm I force myself to put my phone far from my reach, so that I can sit and talk to my manpiece or watch a movie or cook dinner, uninterrupted.

Do nothing.

I don't meditate. This should be obvious as I just spent the last 500ish words talking about how I can't sit still, which is the direct opposite of meditation. Sitting still and doing nothing for me is a huge struggle. So when it's 5 pm and I realize I have been at my desk since 5 am, I have to literally force myself to go sit on the couch -- or stand, because sitting will kill you, apparently -- and quiet my brain by thinking about nothing. Nothing at all. I will just stare at a wall for 5 minutes. I will lay on the floor and roll around to stretch out my back.

This is difficult, because my brain fights back, rattling off my to-do list and just being an asshole in general. I have to remind it that it's OK to do nothing for a little bit, in fact, it's necessary to prevent spontaneous combustion and keep me from becoming the type of woman who reorganizes the magazines while waiting in line at the grocery store. Since I started doing these little brain breaks, I noticed that when I do get back to work, I am calmer and more focused. Ha!

Get out of the house.

I work from home. Sure, this means I can work in my underpants, but it also means I can work whenever I am home. And I am home a lot. I spend at least 20 hours a day in the same 800 square feet of space. So when it comes time to relax, I force myself to leave the house. If I am near my workspace, it's too tempting to just...check...one...email. I go for a walk. I eat lunch outside. I ride my bike. I just walk into my yard and stare at the grass for 10 minutes. My neighbors probably think I am losing my right. They're probably right. But at least I'm relaxing while doing so.

Zoe is trying to do less on Twitter and Instagram.