It’s 3:30 pm on a Sunday. I’ve done less than half of the work I planned to do; I’m sitting in my Henle living room, reading a good book, looking out the window from time to time, and slowly drinking the coffee with milk that my roommate made me before she went off to lab.
I am just sitting, not going on an excursion or taking pictures of my latest food exploration, museum expedition, or shopping trip on M street. I check my phone every so often, listen to music and occasionally tune in to my roommates’ conversations in the background. By many standards, I am “doing nothing”– yet I am perfectly content.
On occasion, I find myself fighting against the belief that I have to be doing something “productive” at every hour of the day. When I don’t have a box to check off or an application to fill out, I can feel as though I’ve been plagued by a virus; this ailment needs swift eradication through immersive, intellectually fruitful activity. I run from club to meeting to club again, never stopping to catch my breath. Sitting still is a painfully indulgent activity, and I find myself turning to some form of stimulus (i.e. email, texting, or Facebook) in order to relieve my restlessness.
This is no “revelation” to college students; I am under no illusion that I am the only one experiencing (or commenting on) this insatiable itch to do something, and more of it, at all times. Students find reprieve from this impulsive production in a variety of ways— playing a game of Chandeliers on a weekend, or getting off-campus on rare occasion for a breather. Some manage less ideally, turning to substances, social isolation, all-nighters, and immersement in even more activities.
Sometimes we think we need to do more, to take advantage of the expansion of our horizons and amorphous formation of our identities, by grabbing onto— and holding tightly— any opportunity that comes our way. In many cases, this immersement in activity can be overstimulating; before we know it, we are being pulled in hundreds of directions, just skimming the surfaces of each endeavor without taking a moment to pause and think, “do I really enjoy this?” We become not immersed in any one interest, but splayed out thinly across a network of activities. We may be stressed out, but perhaps not all of our stressors are external.
It took quitting a few clubs, finding my major, sleeping in unexpectedly, and turning to yoga to finally free myself from scratching my idleness itch with the nebulous act of “productivity.” I’ve found that I can now be productive without creating a product. Listening to music, playing an instrument, and even staring out the window are activities that once wasted my time, but now help me create it for myself. Life does not have to be a series of events, one right after the other. When these events are interspersed throughout the day, we not only value them more, but we also get time to “charge up” for our activities, much like a neuron reaching its action potential. Too little stimulus, and we fall short; just the right amount, and we reach out into our communities, delving deep into our academic and extracurricular practices. Humans need a period of productive recovery— staring out the window, meditating on a moment, or sharing a meal with friends— in order to reach out fully. These endeavors cannot be seen as wastes of time; they are precisely what allows us to spend our time most meaningfully.
Of course, I don’t take my advice to mean I can stare out the window for five hours unproductively. However, a balance can be found by loosening our schedules, if even around the edges. Sometimes the best parts of college are those that peek out through the cracks in our schedules, the little moments we breathe in when we sit with ourselves and dare to stay a while.