This Year, Resolve to Do Less

New year, same you, same world filled with problems. Take it easy, why don’t you?

When the pandemic began, many people took to the internet to share all the things they hoped they’d accomplish in isolation.

“I’m going to write a memoir!” one friend of mine announced.

“I’ll finally have time to work out every day!” another declared.

“Look at all this bread I baked!” said several others.

Across the internet, some people even turned their goal-setting into a cudgel with which to beat others: “I read four books this week and practiced my Spanish every day,” they tweeted. “What’s your excuse?”

When in a state of shock, it’s pretty common to retreat into work. Lonesome and powerless, many of us frantically grasped for a sense of purpose and agency. And in our moralistic culture where suffering is equated with virtue, it’s no wonder a lot of folks wanted to cast a horrifying situation as somehow “worth it.”

In those early days, I fell into a work wormhole, too — developing workshops for newly online teachers, churning out essays about how quarantine might affect each of us psychologically, organizing political calls to action. I wanted to work my way out of despair.

And then, a few months in, I lost the will and drive to go on. Throughout most of the summer, I was a nervous wreck, typing furiously on my laptop outside in the sun, but deleting just as much as I wrote. I put together a vague, unfocused book proposal that I cringe to read now. I over-organized, over-committed, and over-Zoomed, getting nothing out of any of it. I was a cranky little anxiety-goblin until I finally, finally let myself just lie down and cry for a few days.

Now, as the new year settles upon us, I see people once again desperately chasing dreams of productivity and accomplishment. They are resolving to lose their “quarantine weight,” or organize their pantries using clear, labeled containers. They’re opening up novel drafts, redownloading Codecademy, and dusting off graduate school applications.

I understand where this impulse comes from. We all want to believe that we’ve really turned a corner, that the whole sordid affair that was 2020 is over and we can get back to being booked and busy. But by demanding more of ourselves than has ever been feasible, we set ourselves up to be exhausted and filled with shame. It’s never worked before, and it certainly won’t work after a year filled with panic, uncertainty, and death.

Our collective tendency toward compulsive overwork is a product of something I call the Laziness Lie. The Laziness Lie is a belief system rooted in the Protestant work ethic, imperialism, and the legacy of chattel slavery, and it was designed to keep people forever toiling without complaint. The Laziness Lie has three major tenets:

  1. Your productivity is your worth.
  2. You can’t trust your own feelings and needs.
  3. There is always more that you could be doing.

The Laziness Lie thrives in times of desperation. When we’re stuck in a precarious, uncertain reality, the Laziness Lie claims hard work will help us claw our way out. When our plates are full with obligations, the Laziness Lie convinces us to ignore our stress levels and take on even more. When that over-commitment reaches its logical end point and leaves us broken down or burnt out, the Laziness Lie claims we’re just losers who lack the drive to succeed.

“New year, new me!” we cry out, brimming with desperate hope and writing checks our weary minds and bodies cannot cash. Despite a year of disastrous wildfires, attempted fascist coups, police murders of Black Americans, and uncontrolled Covid spread, many of us are still thinking that more willpower is what will get us to the other side of the mess. But while the year is new, the world is not, and all of 2020’s vast, systemic problems are still with us. We still haven’t defunded the police or provided material support to everyone who is unemployed and facing eviction. Americans are working longer hours than ever before, and reporting depression and anxiety at alarming rates. The climate is still changing, debt is still rising, and economic inequality continues to expand. Each of us is trudging forward carrying a massive burden of grief, for the year and the lives that were so unceremoniously lost.

Why on earth would anyone resolve to get more done in the face of all this?

Listen, there is no new you — just the you that you are, beset with all the same worries, set before the same tired, traumatic old backdrop. Why not practice accepting yourself? What if your baseline was always enough?

This year, my only hope is that we can finally resolve to try doing less. To stop blaming ourselves for failing to fix a world that is so stacked against us. I want each of us to learn to rebuff demanding bosses when we can, and tune out friends and family who make us feel guilty for not doing more. I want us to stop trying to transform our bodies, and accept we each naturally have different shapes, sizes, and abilities. I want us to inhabit reality, and accept how much that reality can suck, rather than trying to negotiate our way out of it.

I want us to observe our habits and stress levels neutrally, and assume that however much we are doing already represents our maximum capacity. I hope we can stop treating our emotions as our enemies, and welcome them as protective and informative friends. I hope that when our bodies and brains light up with dread, we listen to that feeling and learn to say no.

I want us to consume less and daydream more. I want us to learn things slowly and playfully, not cram our heads full of fleeting social media ephemera out of some misplaced sense of obligation. I want us to feel good about missing out on some things. I want us to have time for mourning, and for reflection. I want doing nothing to be treated as the necessary practice it is, on par with breathing or blinking. I want us to stop equating busyness with virtue and the constant churn of productivity with doing “good.” I want us to stop producing so much value for people and companies we don’t care about and learn to pour our energy into the things we truly adore.

Most of all, I want each of us to question the nagging voice in our head that tells us we “should” be doing something big and hard and impressive all of the time. You’ve tried to do everything, be everything, overcome all barriers and limits, and it hasn’t worked. It’s just left you tired and feeling like shit. It’s made you expect too much of other, equally over-extended people. It’s eroded your hope in humanity.

All this work isn’t working. It’s time for a change. Doing too much has destroyed our health, our economy, our environment, our relationships, and our spirits. It’s left us without space to grieve all that’s been taken from us. Why not try doing less?