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Doing Less

When you’re retired, you have time to go down those online rabbit holes that start with some newsletter you’ve inadvertently subscribed to and end with you Googling an author or researcher you’d never heard of but now love. Most recently, that means I’m reading articles about Jonathan Malesic, who recently wrote a book called The End of Burnout, Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. I haven’t bought the book yet, because my full nightstand indicates I’m about eight books behind, but I’m very interested. It isn’t the idea of burnout that draws me in so much, but one of Malesic’s points—that we need to spend more time being idle.

Like most things at this age, living in a more present and authentic way is exploring new territory with a different kind of map.

In about a million different forms, I am regularly reminded that life can be much more enjoyable if we do less. Although this makes perfect sense to me intellectually, trying to incorporate this principle is harder than many things I’ve tried in my life. Even in retirement, I find myself judging my day—and myself—by the number of tasks I am able (or unable) to accomplish in a day. It’s almost alarming to me that I assign greater value to a day when I’ve completed a boatload of chores and errands than a day when I’ve “only” read a really good book and played with the dogs.

That said, I also believe that I would feel like I’d really accomplished something if I could get myself to the other side of this very old and stressful habit. When I was a kid, I stayed busy to avoid my mother’s sadness and loneliness. If I had enough going on, maybe she wouldn’t choose me as the person to help her feel better.Although I wanted that for her, it was exhausting and impossible trying to provide it. But my busyness went well beyond the dynamics of my particular family. We are all taught early on that the more we do, the better we are. I realized this most poignantly when I was teaching and discovered that it was often the students with the 4.0 GPAs who were eager to do the extra credit. As the queen of vigilance, I’ve always felt that I was getting away with something, and even breaking a rule, if I just relaxed and took on less than the relentless to-do list in my pocket.

So, it’s a strange pursuit at 70 to encourage myself to do less. Part of me thinks that if I do, I will get older even faster than this screaming bullet train is already going. On some level, doing less feels a little like giving up. If I choose to just do what I honestly feel like doing today—and not much else—does that mean I can’t handle real life? Does it mean that very soon I’ll find myself in a rocking chair on the porch? I know life doesn’t really work that way, but I can feel my resistance to aging in my push to keep doing more.

The flip side of this, though, is the peace and grace I can see in doing less. I know in my bones that I would feel better if I did. I would be able to be more present in what I was doing and saying and seeing, and I think I would be able to start relaxing my shoulders, which have been clenched for as long as I can remember. But “do more” has been such a mantra for so many years that it is taking huge discipline to remind myself not to look for extra things to do every day.

I also think that doing less doesn’t have to mean being less in the world. In fact, I think it can result in a greater connection—with my surroundings and with other people. With this as a goal, I hope to learn more about what is really important to me and what I’m just doing for extra credit. Like most things at this age, living in a more present and authentic way is exploring new territory with a different kind of map.


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