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When ‘not doing’ is the most work

If you are like me, you are used to having a to-do list and deadlines and plans, and really more work to do in the day than hours to do it in. Our challenge is getting everything done, being more efficient, ticking things off and moving on. This can be stressful, exhausting, or invigorating. If you have been working in this way for a while, you may have been longing for slower times, times when you can take a break. Times when you aren’t doing so much work. Times for ‘not doing’ things.

And then COVID 19 happened. For some of us, that meant we just kept going at the same speed, perhaps even faster, as we rushed to continue teaching, just online. I’ve recently posted about this, for example about transitioning to working from home, adapting your teaching to Zoom, or shifting your writing group online.

But one of the things I’ve noticed, is that there have been lots of blank spaces while we’ve been under restrictions and social distancing. Times when we used to go out, or see friends, or travel. Times when we used to chat to colleagues in the corridor, or walk across campus or wait for the tram. So people have started to make sourdough bread, play computer games, clean our houses, do jigsaw puzzles or go for walks. Things that we might do, typically, on a weekend or when we are on holiday. So we might assume that we have finally come to those restful ‘slower times…

I doubt you’ve been feeling rested though.

That’s because not doing things can be as tiring as doing things. In fact, not doing things can be harder and more exhausting than doing things.

The reasons for this are circular. Uncertainty is more stressful than certainty. If we are waiting for the outcome of a job application or for test results, then that feels very stressful. We can’t make definite plans to act one way or the other, we have to make lots of different plans for lots of different potential outcomes.

What’s more, when we are stuck waiting for uncertain outcomes, we know we have to be passive: there is nothing we can do right now to influence the results, or even to decide when the results will be known. That means there is a power imbalance between us and our circumstances.

The ‘not doing’ of a holiday is enjoyable because we are free to choose whatever we don’t want to do in the day. You choose how to act, what tasks are not important or enjoyable for you, and that gives us pleasure. In comparison, the ‘not doing’ of being at home sick or unemployed is not enjoyable, because we are forced to be ‘not in the office’, and our decisions about what tasks we would like to participate in has been curtailed. Being able to choose is a huge part of what makes us feel empowered and what gives us enjoyment.

Being unable to choose means we can’t make decisions. It means we are forced to be passive. It means that we are less powerful than our external circumstances. But, we can’t afford to come to terms with our current situation, address it and move on. This is not (yet) the ‘new normal’.

Just as you might have found your groove with teaching online, many institutions are discussing how to go back to face-to-face teaching. Just as you might be learning how to manage, survive, or thrive, in the current circumstances, you also need to be braced for a ‘second wave’. The situation is so uncertain, and anything might happen. So much is unprecedented, we can’t even use our usual heuristics to guesstimate the future. Acknowledging that uncertainty and forced inaction is hard, though… that we can do.

This post doesn’t actually have any strategies for how to deal with the fact that ‘not doing’ can be more stressful than doing. But knowing that something is hard can be helpful–and knowing something is likely to be hard can help you to prepare your disaster scripts, or your self-care strategies. Much of what is going on now is unprecedented. Some of this, we just have to try to live through, messily and with kindness. I hope we make it.

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