A boomer’s gentle art of doing nothing

Any of us in the months-long lockdown has had to figure out how to fill our time. And that includes London-based crisis consultant Tom Curtin, who faced his own crisis: how to perfect the gentle art of doing nothing.

Since I was 14, I’ve had a job. I’ve always had something to do. And I was governed by alarm clocks, deadlines, and to-do lists.

Now 55 years later, not only have I had very little to do, I couldn’t do anything anyway.

This is a very strange place for an active person. I always said, “I’ll never quit work, what would I do all day?” At last I’ve found the answer: nothing, or at least as little as possible.

Tom Curtin… doing nothing.

Now doing nothing requires real skill and perseverance. It’s so easy to get distracted. Sure, there are things like food, bodily functions, bathing (once a week does it like the old days), and the like, but staying away from any other activity has taken real skill and determination.

Detective novelist Raymond Chandler had a great system for forcing himself to write, with two simple rules: ‘A. You don’t have to write. B. You can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.’

Nowadays, I don’t set an alarm for the morning. And this is bliss. Think about it: if you set a clock and it goes off while you’re asleep, it means you didn’t have enough sleep. And that’s really bad for your mind according to current thinking.

Now, lists. I was once a list maniac. My life was governed by things to do. When I was doing a number of things at once (multi-tasking is the fancy name), I had a number of lists. Eventually I made a list if my lists: Lisztomania, like the Ken Russell film from the ‘70s of the same name.

I still have a list, but I ignore it from day to day and guess what? Nothing happens. The roof doesn’t cave in. Life goes on and so does the list.

Doing nothing means not getting distracted. It doesn’t mean drifting. We nothing-doers are serious about what we don’t do. So no Netflix. Anyway, after you’ve seen three or four of the better series, like House of Cards, Narcos, Breaking Bad, and a few more, the rest is, let’s be honest, time-wasting fodder.

So what do I do all day? I’ll be honest. Doing absolutely nothing is like pure water (the stuff you get in a lab) – pretty distasteful stuff.

So, when I finally struggle bedraggled out of bed, like a second-year college student, I drink a half-litre of water. That doesn’t really count though as I’ve always done this to rehydrate the essential organs (it’s a good health tip).

Then good strong coffee, bread, and fruit.

WARNING TO SELF: Don’t touch that smartphone even though my arm keeps on twitching and reaching for it like Peter Seller’s mad German scientist in Dr. Strangelove. Now a good long walk with the Bibi, the Hound of Hell, to the newspaper shop to get my daily fix. Having been in the business for years, I don’t believe a word I read, but it beats some of the fiction out there.

A nice light lunch and then an afternoon nap with a crossword— that’s why I buy a physical newspaper.
And my guilty secret: I have one project on the go: ghost-writing the Hound’s book: How to Manage a Human. Check it out at www.train-a-ahuman.com.

A little dinner, microwaved naturally. Then a book (another secret) and bed.

I check my list: yep, I did very little today and I look forward to doing less tomorrow.

Damn, I just did something. I just finished writing this piece. Sometimes we just can’t stop ourselves.

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Tom’s first novel is, Land of the Free: An Irish Odyssey in America.

4 Comments

  1. I envy your commitment, Tom. I find confinement not much different from my “normal” life. I have 2-3 scheduled meetings each week which are now on Zoom. Same with our book club and the monthly programs I host for our library Friends group. Reading the news takes half my day, plus a game of tennis a few times each week and a daily walk. Oh, and making breakfast, dinner and sometimes lunch, occasionally doing a bit of cleaning and laundry. Yes, that leaves not much time for writing a third book. But I do have to have something to read each Monday for our writers group Zoom. Wish I had your discipline.

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