Why can’t I relax and do nothing?

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I remember some years ago a work colleague mentioned to me that she had gone to bed early the night before because she was bored and couldn’t think of anything else to do.  At the time, my diary was crammed full of social engagements, gym classes, work drinks and blog events, and (naively – smugly even?) I remember thinking that I couldn’t remember the last time I was bored.  It felt like I was always running from one place to another – taking three bags to work to cover the PT session before I got to the office and the change of clothes needed to go for dinner with a friend afterwards – and that I never got a moment to myself, let alone a moment where I wouldn’t have known what do with a pocket of free time.  I did start to implement ‘keep free’ evenings but even this would be tightly organised and used for blogging, cleaning or ‘life admin’.  I would go through phases of ‘slowing down’ but never for long; there was always something to be planned or a new shiny penny (a class, project or hobby would catch my eye).  I craved being busy but life was stressful and tiring and the balance never seemed to be quite right.  I was either burned out or frantically cancelling everything in my diary, only to wonder what to do when I did have free time.

These days, life is very different.  I’ll have plans maybe one or two evenings a week, and maybe one or two weekends a month.  My commute is much shorter and I work from home a couple of days’ a week and have the flexibility to work around other commitments.  Up until him going back to his second home last week, my exercise regime was predominantly just walking the dog and I haven’t seen the inside of a gym for months.  If there are ‘after work drinks’ that take place at my current workplace I’ve not been invited (ha!) and blog events tend to be the odd complimentary dinner every couple of months (and I’m usually in bed by 9pm).  It’s fair to say that I have a lot of free time.  And yet, I can never, ever relax.  I simply do not know how to do nothing.

At almost 30 weeks’ pregnant the fatigue is really starting to set in, and I know my body is telling me to rest.  At the moment I’m so uncomfortable at night that my Fitbit is telling me I’m averaging about four hours’ sleep.  My heart rate is always high, I’m always out of breath, and some days after I’ve got up at 0630 to walk the dog and got myself ready for work I’ve wanted to cry at the thought of sitting on the motorway for half an hour and then spending a whole day in the office in and out of meetings.  The logical thing would be go to bed early, to minimise activity in the evenings and to use my free time to rest and relax.  I want to do that, genuinely I do.  The Sunday before last I had planned to tidy and clean the house and then to go to a second-hand sale for baby things, and yet an hour before the sale was due to start I hit a tiredness wall where I just knew I wasn’t up to leaving the house.  I lay in bed for half an hour feeling so guilty – I had talked about the fact I was going and I thought there might be some bargains there and an opportunity to tick some things off the baby shopping list.  I felt lazy and flaky for not going (even though I was going on my own), and not going ultimately opened up two hours of a Sunday that I then needed to fill with something.  Instead of going to the sale I worked my way through the to-do list (lots of washing and cleaning), took the dog out for a second walk, did a grocery shop and did some meal prepping for the week.  Of course by the end of the day I was even more tired, and by the time Monday morning rolled around I didn’t feel like I was starting the week feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

I started to think about why it is I can’t just sit and relax, and I realised that when I try and do so I’m battling some inner voices and paradigms about relaxing that dominate my thinking and stop me from doing so.  They are:

  1. All time should be optimised and used in the most productive way.  It is not efficient to ‘single task’ – for example whilst watching TV you could be ironing, whilst taking a shower you could be cleaning the shower screen, whilst reading you could be stretching (or listening to an audiobook whilst walking the dog).
  2. Life is short, so to spend time doing nothing is a waste.  You don’t exist just to live and work, so you must do things in the evenings and weekends in order to ensure work/life balance.
  3. All evenings and weekends should be filled with things of ‘meaning’.  It’s embarrassing to come to work on a Monday morning and say that you’ve done nothing.
  4. It’s lazy and unproductive to get up late, and you should feel ashamed of doing so.
  5. It’s chaotic and stressful to leave time free – things might pop unexpectedly so it’s better to have control over your time and keep things organised.
  6. Everyone else is getting on with things and coping better than me with being pregnant.

I know logically, reading these things back that they are ridiculous, and if a friend made any of these claims to me I would tell them off!  But I also know that the inner voice is loud and these ideologies are hard to shake.  Even physiologically I don’t know how to relax.  I get fidget-y, my Restless Leg Syndrome kicks in and I can’t get comfortable.  My mind wanders (usually to the to-do list) and I have to get up and busy myself.  The guilt creeps in and things feel out of control – to then go and do the washing up, or put a wash on or organise some emails makes me feel instantly better and more in balance.  I even feel better having written that sentence – it feels reassuring somehow to write a list of things that could be done to make things more in order.

The problem of course is that I’m really, really tired.  When my alarm goes off in the morning it feels overwhelming.  I feel emotional and sensitive because I’m so tired, but the only way I know to feel better is to get that little dopamine hit of having ticked something off the to-do list or organised something in the calendar.  I wish this was a blog post with a lesson at the end, because that would feel neat and conclusive, but it isn’t.  I don’t know the answer, and I need to, because I’m worried my body is not going to react well to continuing to be pushed (and yet typing that, number six on the list is flashing at me in glowing neon lights – come on Rosie, most other people manage to be pregnant and still hold down busy lives!) How do I relax and do nothing, without feeling guilty? How do I overcome all of those things on the list and tell myself it’s okay to just REST. How do I ignore the washing pile? Why am I so afraid of simply doing nothing?

img credit from banner: Cody Black on Unsplash