Doing nothing - musicians take a quick nap on a bridge in Paris

Doing nothing on a Parisian bridge.

Doing nothing, adding nothing to the GDP, no to-do lists, no meetings, no quick phone calls (that are never quick). That is vacationing. And make no mistake, it is harder than it sounds.

By doing nothing I mean anything from actually doing nothing – sitting in a cafe, sipping a drink and watching the world go by – to doing things that are not work related. We need, actually need, time to do nothing.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. The other day a woman told me that she uses her accrued vacation to take three-day weekends throughout the year. Yes, of course she would love to take a week, maybe even two, but it is just too hard. There is all the work you have to do before you leave, and then all the work you have to do when you get back just to catch up! Besides, knowing all that? It just makes it impossible to relax.

I hear this song, or variations of it a lot. As a society, the majority of us suck at doing nothing.

Another story I got last week was the harried assistant trying to figure out if his boss had an international calling plan. She was going on vacation with her family to Europe, and there were a slew of meetings she was going to “have to” take. Then it was making sure she could access her email because she had to keep up on that.

There were a dozen other things that needed to be done so that this poor woman could work while she was on vacation. It didn’t sound like much fun, this trip she had planned. Not for her and not for her family either.

Taking a vacation seems to have become a lost art. Unplugging from the business of business and recharging. Doing nothing but just relaxing is unheard of anymore.

What doing nothing means will differ from person to person. For example, I get bored really fast, so lounging on a beach isn’t for me – even with a good book I am going to last about an hour, tops. However, I know folks who could do nothing but hang out by the water all day long and never get tired of it.

Doing nothing for me generally means meandering through the streets of some new town. I love to wander somewhat aimlessly to see what I can find. I have been rewarded with fun little shops, unexpected peaceful courtyards, funny scenes, and spectacular views. On occasion I have met interesting people and had some pretty great conversations.

I’ll be honest – I have done the take work with me thing as well. I once planned a three day off site meeting and did most of the finishing touches while I was in Amsterdam and Bruges. Yep. I got up early (but I always get up early – at least that was what I told myself to justify it) and went through emails, approved contracts, tweaked details and sent out invitations.

It was fine, I was done by about 9 am each morning and free to do my own thing after that. Still, I found myself thinking about that ever present to do list throughout the day. Gorgeous museum! Remember to check on the menus. Lovely afternoon in a cafe, did I get the final count for rooms?

And so it went until I was standing in a shop in Bruges, towards the end of the trip. I was getting a gift for some co-workers and as the shopkeeper finished wrapping up my purchases I was checking off items in my notebook.

“Americans.” she sighed as she put the last of the chocolates in a bag. “You never stop, do you?”  Her tone was a bit sad, a bit pitying.

I decided then and there that vacationing meant stopping. It meant doing nothing. At least doing nothing that was work related. The office gets a goodly portion of our lives for a goodly portion of the year. Surely they – an us – will survive if we take two weeks of uninterrupted time off.

Time to do nothing. Time to perfect the art of vacationing.

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