Just Five Minutes

I have a little problem with cleaning. A few months ago, a couple of friends gave me some good advice: spend fifteen minutes a day cleaning and the house will be in shape before guests arrive. I shortened it to five. Then things got a little out of control.

I liked the idea so much that my list of five-minute-a-day tasks would now take approximately 28 hours to complete. And no, I never even did the cleaning part.

Trying to be hyper-productive, useful, scheduled, and organized doesn’t really work for me. (The results are well and hilariously illustrated on Hyperbole and a Half.) I know people who are naturally this way, and surprisingly I like these people. But when my five-minute-a-day list starts to grow, I am likely trying to make myself OK by achieving all my goals right now. Which means, of course, that whatever I am now is not OK.

Albert Einstein supposedly said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The extreme five-minute-a-day approach definitely stays at the same level; it reinforces the not-OK assumption and buys into the achievement myth big time.

Playing, relaxing, praying, and being grateful truly change my thinking. They don’t have much use for not OK because they’re pretty excited about how amazing and fun life is.

When I picture my fully-achieved life (cue background music of heavenly choirs), I feel content. I used to think content was a bad word because it meant stasis and complacency and sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching endless TV, but maybe it’s just a change in thinking. Maybe it’s gratitude run rampant.

And maybe I should practice it now so that on that day when my kids happily inhabit my clean house and my novel is published to great acclaim, I won’t be taken too much by surprise.

Escaping Achievement

Saturday was a Day of Planned Non-Productivity. Translation: I stayed in my pajamas until an hour that cannot be mentioned publicly and proceeded to do nothing at all. On purpose. It was fantastic.

box of popcorn and film with movie framesPlease do try this at home. Instructions: Rent as many movies as you can comfortably watch in a day. Comfortably is important. This is a day for floating not for becoming an expert on the history of film. Documentaries or dramas about the world’s problems are not allowed. This is not denial—it’s a break. I highly recommend renting the night before so you don’t have to leave the house if you don’t want to.

I chose a cartoon, a romantic comedy, and a supposedly heartwarming slice of life. Warning, save Mike Leigh films for productive days: they will likely teach you something about somebody’s problems.

Suspend all obligations and attempts at self-improvement, including those eternal ones such as, “It’s a nice day. I should go outside and enjoy the sunshine.” Remain vigilant: obligation creep is insidious and can disguise itself in cunning forms, such as the door knob you’ve been meaning to fix for months or Great Aunt Mildred who is 92 and recently bought an iPad and has sent you a week’s worth of emails you have not yet answered.

Lie on the couch in your pajamas and watch the movies. Eat cereal for three meals, or frozen pizza, or popcorn and hot chocolate. Only eat vegetables if you enjoy them as much as you enjoy ice cream; do nothing for the sole purpose of being healthy—“being healthy” is code for obligation and self-improvement all rolled up in one. Scary, I know.

Guilt may tempt you. We Americans have a productivity addiction problem. We measure our days by how much we accomplish rather than whether we enjoyed what we did or were kind to the people we met. We don’t consider it odd to answer the question, “How was your day?” with “I got this and that done.” We are accustomed to confusing doing and being.

Planned non-productivity takes this mentality into account and transforms doing nothing into an accomplishment. You don’t have to change all your unhealthy cultural norms to take a day off; you simply make relaxing a goal and voilà! an answer to that voice in your head telling you you should be doing something.

I confess that Sunday Night Guilt, second cousin of the gunk monster, caught up to me when looking at the piles of unwashed clothes and the pot rack still covered in paper two weeks after painting. (Yes, seriously.) But Saturday itself was a rare event for me, a day during which existence sufficed without any attempts to mold it. Let’s hear it for cartoons and popcorn.