Guest Article: The Art of Nothing



By: Roger Sparvell, Learning and Development Consultant at Hatch Associates

There’s Something about Nothing.

You know, efficiency is often measured by how much you can do in the space of an hour, a day, a life.

It’s a cliché that makes me cringe a little these days, but like many working parents and professionals out there, I live a ’busy life’.  Not as busy as some though. Over the last few years I’ve thought a fair bit about nothing; what it means to me, what it means to my family and my life in general. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing is the most important resource of all.

I think about those beautiful sparse, Japanese pictures where a little sparrow will inhabit a lonely  corner of an otherwise blank canvas. It’s the nothing that emphasises that tough little bird’s spirit and beauty. In more simple terms, if there wasn’t nothing in your car, you couldn’t get in it and drive it away. If there wasn’t nothing in your shoes, you couldn’t wear them.  However, if there’s nothing in your wallet, or nothing on television it’s a cause for upset.

Our relationship with nothing is complex and confused.

To illustrate principles of efficiency, a ‘rocks in the jar’ analogy is used, whereby the big rocks represent the big, important priorities in your day or week, smaller rocks fill the spaces between them, even smaller rocks fill up the smaller spaces and finally sand is used to fill in the smallest crevasse in this jar of rubble.  A jar full of rubble is the analogy we use to represent our lives.

My idea is to leave the gaps, not fill them in. The gaps to me represent a simple thing: potential. The potential to do something I want to do. It doesn’t have to be a huge stretch of time, but it must be there, ready for something, or a little nothing.

What does this mean for the modern, busy person? It means planning for nothing. It means planning to ‘be’, rather than planning to ‘do’.

A ‘weekend’  used to mean rest and relaxation.  It’s true! These days, weekends often involve lurching from one obligation to another; kids’ sport, music, shopping, social activities, chores. Time is our enemy, and if there’s any spare, it’s quickly filled. We don’t want ‘nothing to do’, do we?

When we speak to our workmates about their weekends, their response  is ‘It  was over too soon’ or ‘…it was a blur’ or  ‘I’m exhausted’.  People seem to lurch in an undignified way from one obligation, task or encounter to the next.  We all know that time seems to fly by.  This really began to concern me a few years ago. I reflected those long hot summers of my childhood that seemed to go for years, and those long lazy Sunday afternoons that seemed to be a weekend all on their own. I remember actually waiting ages for the tock of our old clock’s tick…would it ever happen and how could time travel so slowly…and wasn’t it luxurious?

A few years ago, I decided to slow my ordinary working -bloke’s life  down a little. I decided to do justice to myself, my family, my friends and my work.  And it has worked beautifully. This is how I did it, in no particular order, but each item is a winner.

  • Restrict your children’s extra-curricular activities to only one per child.  That’s reasonable. If you have a partner – tag team the events. You don’t have to attend everything, all the time. I understand people attend three or four events per child per weekend and do this for years. The horror!
  • With regards to keeping children occupied ,  apply  a “unite and conquer” practice: if you have one child, borrow someone else’s for a play day/ afternoon/ sleepover. Be honest with yourself:  your kids want to be with other kids.
  • Train your kids not to expect you to drive them everywhere .This is an unhealthy expectation.
  • Train your kids to entertain themselves. Train them to be independent
  • Shop online and have it delivered. You’ll still need to visit the supermarket, but only for a quick trip- not a spirit crushing epic.
  • Chip away at the chores during the week. Cleaning and washing on a weekend is a horrible waste of time. Avoid devoting massive blocks of time to things you hate. Use the chip away philosophy. It works
  • Slow down the schedule. Don’t be guilty about setting your own agenda. Learn to say ‘no’ to invitations in a nice way. People will respect and envy your resolve and you can take it easy.
  • Don’t fall for the con that you must be perpetually online, in contact or be entertained. This is simply not true. Forgo the phone, the computer, the TV and any other ‘entertainment’ for a while. Allow yourself some time off from these distractions.
  • Get another hour’s sleep. Go to bed earlier.
  • Do some exercise every single day.  It’s great solo time. Helps with sleep.
  • Actually do something you enjoy, rather than watching a show or listening to something  and ‘being entertained’. Think ‘output’ rather than ‘input’.  What will you actually do rather than receive?
  • Ride a bike to work if you can, or walk. Ride slowly. If you feel compelled to travel at tour de France speeds, ask yourself “why the rush?” once in a while.  On a good day it will take me 20 minutes to ride to work. On a great day it will take me 40 minutes.
  • If you can, walk to the shops. Try not to hurry all the time. Its stressful.
  • Don’t fill up all the time you’ve saved with more obligations.
  • Do justice to the things you’re doing and the people you’re being with by not putting them on a list of ‘things to do’, that sit alongside other ‘things to do.’
  • Take a little time to reflect on things. Don’t be in a hurry to lurch into the next task.  Evaluate your weekend or work day in terms of the time you’ve spent well, or how you might adjust things to make improvements.

I believe I’m a human being, not a ‘human doing’. It’s not a competition.  I think life should be lived, not processed. Do justice to it.

2 thoughts on “Guest Article: The Art of Nothing

  1. Great article!! …really well written, and a great message.

    When I got to a parent teacher meeting the other night, one of the other parents said “did you see the beautiful full moon tonight”…of course I didn’t, I was in a rush going from one thing to another…endlessly about the destination rather than the delight of the journey…your article helped remind me of this.

    But I must say I’m enjoying riding my bike to work…I’m always taking different routes and discovering new parts of the city, people watching a whole lot more…I like that my choice of vehicle has made this visible, and opened me to a different experience.

  2. Thanks for this amazing article Roger! If only I could ride my bike to work – live way too far to do this! But so many other ‘doable’ tips that I can definitely say YES to! Thanks for sharing your insight!

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