You might imagine that escaping from your everyday life would involve relocating to a Hebridean croft or attending a series of rejuvenating retreats. But, according to Emma Gannon’s new book project, A Year of Nothing, it could be as simple as staying at home. “I did nothing,” writes Gannon. “I stopped replying to emails. I used my savings. I slept. I borrowed a friend’s dog. I ate bananas in bed. I bought miniature plants. I read magazines. I lay down. I did nothing. It felt totally alien to me.”

For Gannon, the sabbatical was enforced after she experienced burnout, caused by chronic exhaustion from occupational stress. “All the while, I was keeping diaries,” she says. “Writing down the ‘nothingness’ of my days. I journalled all the things I noticed, the stuff I usually ignored, the people I met, the kindness of strangers, the magical coincidences – the smallest, tiniest uplifting glimmers.”

Am I alone in feeling a surge of envy reading Gannon’s litany of aimlessness? It’s not even as if I’m in need of a break. Recently I went on a relaxing holiday to Málaga. I admired the Pompidou Centre, stared out to sea at the distant blur of Morocco and guzzled bitter-orange-filled dark chocolate from the supermarket. In other words, bliss. On my return after two weeks, I plunged back into my working life recharged and raring to go. But, inexplicably, days later, I found myself intensely craving more time off, and experiencing a low-level discontentment that only intensified in the following days.

Was I having some kind of existential breakdown? I turned to the psychologist Suzy Reading, author of Rest to Reset: The Busy Person’s Guide to Pausing With Purpose, for advice. She suggested that, like many people, I probably struggle to identify what kind of rest I need. “For people who do a lot of socialising and interacting with other people for their work, they might find that what they actually need to replenish is silence and solitude.”

This definitely struck a chord with me, an extrovert who gets energised from being around others, but I was sceptical that spending time alone could possibly be rejuvenating. “If you are struggling to recharge, a good place to start is by thinking about how you normally use your mind and body. Ask yourself, what kind of environments are you in on a daily basis?” says Reading. She cites the example of a teacher who spends all day guiding and directing others. In that case, taking a break might involve allowing someone else to make decisions, even if it’s just where to go for dinner.

“Many people often confuse rest with sitting down quietly. But given that many of us spend our working lives sitting, staring at a screen, for some, a better form of rest might involve listening to music or doing some form of movement. For some people, rest might involve embarking on a creative project, which allows them to express themselves in a new and different way.”

Taking a very large chunk of time out, perhaps a year, is obviously not financially viable for most of us. But the good news is, it’s not necessary. “The key is to allocate some time out from the hurly burly of life to reclaim some headspace,” says Reading. “If we make time to step away from our routines, it gives us a chance to realise what we can’t wait to get back to. It can help us to appreciate the things we actually enjoy.”

This all sounds great but my Calvinist work ethic is too strong to take more than a day or two off. “Even though my book is called A Year of Nothing, you can just do a weekend of nothing,” suggests Gannon, although she warns that doing so may provoke pushback. “People are always asking me what I’m up to at the weekend and I regularly say: ‘Nothing’. The response is often: ‘Surely you have some plans’, and I reply: ‘Nope, none.’

Indeed, some people find that taking time out prompts a surge in productivity. Tamu Thomas, the author of Women Who Work Too Much, believes that, as a society, we do not value rest. “We need to understand that it is what fuels everything else in our lives. There’s an American sports coaching maxim that states: ‘The rest is just as important as the race.’ It’s so true.”

A former senior social worker, Thomas was conditioned from a young age by her Sierra Leonean family to value productivity and achievement over relaxation. She began researching the mind-body connection of taking adequate rest after she experienced a severe panic attack before giving evidence on a high-profile case. “I discovered the work of physician and researcher Saundra Dalton Smith. Her Ted Talk explains that we actually need seven different types of rest: physical, mental, emotional, sensory, creative, social and spiritual.”

Thomas observes that for many of us, particularly women, emotional rest is often the one that is most overlooked. “For those of us who are conditioned to over-function and who believe that our value comes from caretaking in every sphere of our lives, emotional rest is one of the most necessary types of taking a break. In order to address that, you need to start identifying the people that compromise your emotional wellbeing and then make choices about whether you want to carry on engaging with those people.”

It can be helpful to make time away from your responsibilities a regular part of your life, even if that presents logistical challenges. Shirley-Ann O’Neill, an art adviser and director of the Visual Artists Association, organises her life around taking a reset week every seven weeks. “I intentionally leave my diary open without firm plans, allowing for spontaneous moments of rest and rejuvenation. I enjoy a leisurely morning with a cup of tea, going for peaceful walks in nature to clear my mind, engaging in creative pursuits like journalling or painting, and having impromptu outings to explore new places or try new cuisines. I’m a busy mum of three so this really helps to rest me. At first I felt guilty; now it’s an absolute must.”

Sometimes it takes a traumatic life event for someone to realise that they need to step back and reprioritise. When she lost her mother, and then a close friend, health mentor Sophia Husbands decided to make 2023 a reset year. “Circumstances meant it wasn’t appropriate to go jetting off somewhere,” she says. So she took radical steps at home. She used her savings and scaled back her freelance work to allow herself to re-evaluate her life. She reviewed her core values (a coaching exercise favoured by personal development authors such as Brené Brown) and conducted a relationship audit. “I looked at all the people in my life and asked myself whether they were making me feel neutral, depressed or uplifted. I analysed both old and present relationships and determined who was not making me feel good. I decided to cull people who were not serving my best interests, and felt much better.”

I decide to try a reset of my own, and plan a mini sabbatical one Sunday. Unfortunately, I soon realise that unless I impose a structure of aimlessness from the start, I’m liable to just loll around doomscrolling. I go back to Gannon, who suggests: “Look at your diary and ask yourself, what can you get out of doing? Find things to cancel. You might be surprised because a lot of the stuff we feel obliged to do, we don’t really need to do at all.”

I find this surprisingly difficult. I don’t like letting people down but I press ahead anyway, although I do justify it because it’s for an article. “Sorry, I can’t make it, I’ve got to work,” I tell a family member, and then a good friend I was looking forward to seeing.

I go for an aimless walk to a park that I rarely visit. It’s a dreich day yet it is surprisingly beautiful. I sit on a bench and watch the world go by, then head home and wonder how on earth I am going to spend the evening.

I do more ironing than I have done for the rest of this year put together, then I go through the laborious process of repotting a snake plant. How can it only be 7pm?

In truth, I go to bed early with the sense that this has all been a massive time-wasting exercise and feeling pretty grumpy. Next morning, though, it’s a different story. For once, I’ve slept soundly all night and have had an unusually vivid dream that has provided the answer to a problem I’ve been grappling with for some time. That morning, I have an idea for a new project. As I go about my day in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood, I realise something I’m sure wise sages have always known: doing nothing much can be surprisingly productive.

A Year of Nothing, a two-book special by Emma Gannon is out on limited release until 4 June through the Pound Project.

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