The Washington Post Column

Doing Nothing? Nothing Doing.

Last Sunday I had nothing to do. I’d run all my errands on Saturday. My children were away, staying with their grandparents. There was nothing happening in the outside world, or at least nothing I’m responsible for writing about. Energetically, I set about tackling what had seemed an insurmountable backlog of weeding. But when I’d finished, it was only 11 a.m.

Not that long ago, having nothing to do on a hot, dryish August day was a pretty common experience. Carson McCullers spun novels out of empty summer days. George Gershwin wrote music about them. Nowadays I suspect that it is a lot more unusual, even peculiar, to find oneself unexpectedly confronting an empty afternoon, particularly for people who live on the work/family/commuting treadmill that appears to be the norm in this part of the world.

The statistics support my suspicion: According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work more hours annually than anyone else in the industrialized world. Moreover, whereas people in other countries are working fewer hours every year, here we work 36 hours more per year than we did 10 years ago. The change is even more dramatic when looked at over a generation. In 1969 couples ages 25 to 54 jointly worked 56 hours per week. By 2000, this had increased to 67 hours per week.

But this is only part of the story, because along with working hours, commuting times have been going up too. On average, a one-way commute now takes 24.4 minutes. In Maryland and the District — which report the longest commute times of any state except New York — the average was 29.2 and 28.7 minutes respectively. Add an hour a day per person to the work statistics, in other words, and you get couples working and commuting an average of 77 hours a week.

Even that doesn’t reflect everyone’s reality, of course: One in eight workers commutes more than an hour and a half every day, and if 77 hours is an average, some couples are working a lot more than that. But even if we leave out the two-hour commuters and the 10-hour workers (most of whom seem to be people I know), that still leaves the average couple out of the house — unable to run errands, play with children, paint the bathroom, cook dinner or weed the garden — nearly eight hours a day during the week, and therefore forced to cram all of the above into evenings and weekends.

Yet even that doesn’t, I feel, present the full picture. For even when not at work, there’s always something one ought to be doing these days, aside from chores. Quite a lot of attention has been paid of late to the overscheduling of childhood and the psychological damage that hyper-parenting inflicts on children. Few have reflected on the psychological damage that hyper-parenting does to parents. Those hours spent driving to distant soccer practices, attending Suzuki classes, executing multiple school volunteer activities, coaching the tee-ball team — they add up. Even in the summer, the demands are relentless: Day camps now have Parent Visiting Days, and you’re a bad mother if you don’t show up.

All of that has led us to this unexpected new cultural moment: When we have nothing to do, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. Maybe I’m alone in no longer feeling certain of the proper way to fill unscheduled time, but judging from the reams of advice now available, I don’t think so. A recent issue of Washington Parent magazine suggested “cloud watching” (“lie on your backs on some nice grass, or on lawn chairs at home”) and “rain watching” (“have enough comfy seating for everyone to snuggle up together”) as well as “neighborhood walks” (“take a walk around the neighborhood just to take a walk around the neighborhood”). For those who are still confused, or who selfishly want to fill time without simultaneously enriching their children, books are available (“The Art of Doing Nothing”) as well as Web sites (www.doingnothing.com). Surely it won’t be long before Doing Nothing becomes an obligatory activity, another thing that we will all have to cram into our ludicrously busy schedules alongside Back to School Night and doctors’ appointments.

In the end, it wasn’t that bad doing nothing. I sat in the sunshine for a bit, looking at my newly weeded garden. Then I gave up, went inside and looked up the statistics I’ve just quoted. In other words, I went back to work.