As clarion calls go, a weekend that invites its members to sit around and do absolutely nothing takes some beating. Yet this is precisely the point of the Escape & Do F*** All weekends, held regularly in remote Donard, Co Wicklow, at the Elbowroom Escape.
People arrive on Friday afternoon, stressed and amped from a week on life’s hamster wheel. Many of them are mothers, yanked hither and thither by schedules and obligations. Some are desperate to claw back a sliver of time for themselves. Others simply want a good night’s sleep. Me, I want to see how exactly a weekend of doing nothing happens exactly.
It takes a few hearty gins for attendees to mentally drop into the weekend. The first evening is about sloughing off that feeling of burnout that runs through us like Brighton Rock. But once given the prompt, the doing of absolutely nothing begins.
It's interesting to see what people do when they are given the opportunity to do nothing. Some take to hammocks and read for a luxuriant few hours. Others hike the nearby mountains in the Glen of Imaal. Many sit around with tea and just talk together. My companion, incidentally, takes to bed at noon and sleeps for seven hours. In the wilds of Wicklow life has ground to a halt.
And then, of course, the inevitable happens; a niggling itchiness. The grim unsettling realisation that the doing of absolutely nothing is actually harder than it looks. There’s an expanse of time – well, a few hours – stretched ahead of me, nothing to do with it, and it feels weird. Wrong, even. Opting out, even momentarily, feels like a transgression.
I sneak a look at my phone. There’s a colleague grousing about another journalist, a house viewing to be scheduled, a lunch plan brewing. This doing nothing business is starting to stress me out. Much like with meditation, it takes practice and time to really let go and be comfortable with one’s own thoughts. There will be a moment of resistance as the brain adjusts.
Come the end of the weekend, though, I feel that I’ve somehow slowed right down. After my Saturday afternoon wobble, I’ve genuinely come to enjoy the mindset that doing nothing brings.
"You're definitely a different person," says one of the Elbowroom Escape's therapists Bev Porrino. "When you came here on Friday your energy was really manic and full on."
The Italians have long had the jump on everyone else, coining the term la dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing. And in a world where we are heavily schedulised and super-connected, la dolce far niente is more important than ever for mental and physical health.
Government officials in Gothenburg, Sweden, are even attempting to enshrine a healthier work-life balance in law. In a 2014 experiment designed to increase productivity, a section of employees of the municipality of Gothenburg worked an hour less a day than the seven hours customary in the Scandinavian social democracy famed for its work-life balance. Meanwhile, a labour agreement in France orders employees to avoid checking their professional emails and phones after work hours.
And yet we appear to have difficulty winding down. Holidays stress us out. We balk at the idea of a long-haul flight without wifi. The prospect of time in the remote wilds is downright scary to some. Why do we find it so distressing?
"I think that we do it at an unconscious level, and then enjoy the feeling of significance that it gives us… and then it becomes habitual," says life coach Paula Coogan. "The 'I'm so busy' mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're constantly telling yourself and others 'I don't have the time' or 'I'm up to my eyes' you can almost be guaranteed that you'll find ways to keep yourself in that pattern of behaviour."
New York Times blogger Tim Kreider identified the "busy trap", noting that the dilemma is often self-imposed.
“(People are) busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness, and dread what they might have to face in its absence,” he wrote recently. “Busyness serves as… a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
Psychologist Allison Keating of Malahide's BWell Clinic makes a correlation between mental health and being excessively busy.
"Psychologist Oliver James has written extensively about how mental health has disimproved in the last 50 years, and much of it specifically has to do with women juggling," she says. "From a chemical point of view, the body is constantly on high alert. These days women in particular are under fierce pressure to do more and do it better. There's a sense of purpose, but the big question is, 'can you really do it all'?"
"I think when we become adult we think that our time has to be more utilitarian," says Katrina Onstad, author of The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off.
“Even if we have a hobby we’re thinking ‘how can we monetise this?’ I know someone who used to make ear-rings as a very soothing hobby, and then she decided to put them on Etsy, and there goes the weekend. It’s interesting that we seem so uncomfortable with time that doesn’t produce a badge of success, or doesn’t equate to some kind of gain.”
Some argue that the brain actually becomes more productive and inspired when we simply potter about.
Einstein came up with some of his great theories not in a lab but when he was playing with soap bubbles. Archimedes literally has his eureka moment in the bath. And Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity while sitting under an apple tree.
In her book Onstad notes how we have less time off than ever. This is a uniquely modern-day malaise, possibly fostered by the "Google workplace" culture, where the workday is somehow blurred with leisure time.
“It’s a confluence of factors,” she says. “Our relationship has encroached on our free time. Even if we leave the office on Friday we still take that ‘high alert’ mindset into the weekend. And in these fragile economic times, who we are at work becomes our primary identity.
“The new workplace phenomenon, which originated in Silicon Valley and digital culture, is to have a brightly coloured workplace where you go for paintball parties. It acts as a proxy for actual family. That’s fine and all, but it’s designed to keep you at work.”
The irony, of course, is that in times past it was the venerated upper class who were the “leisure class” and prized their time off. Nowadays the work-obsessed have been anointed with higher social status.
Busyness has also become a badge of honour – according to one Stanford study, busier people are perceived as having higher status – and this leads many to also over-schedule their weekends. It may make us look powerful and popular, but it’s a pressure our adrenalised systems could do without. Making the most of time off is one thing, notes Onstad: quite another is forgetting to decompress.
“I try hard not to sound punitive, but we’re all struggling,” says Onstad. “The big questions I ask are, ‘can we pull back from the grind? What strategies will help us?’ We need to be really vigilant to create true leisure time as it will help us feel rejuvenated and ready for the week ahead.”
For parents too the cult of “Pinterest” parenting leaves little room to truly switch off.
“Doing nothing is a real struggle for families,” says Onstad. “There’s a sense that if you stick your kids in salsa and yoga and anything else that’s on offer it’s the best thing to do. There’s a fear that if you resist that your kid will fall behind.
“It’s like an imposition of the work mindset onto the lives of children, but you can’t measure the success of childhood in that way. I spoke to people who had resisted that culture, and stuck to one activity a week, and factored in lots of unstructured free time to play and follow their imaginations. They found that this is exactly where their kids’ creativity and identity blooms.”
Power of play
Adults can also learn a thing or two from the simple power of play.
“I think people are beginning to realise that the new workplace culture isn’t as great a prize at it looks on the surface,” says Onstad. “Adults can learn from the power of play too. Once you get into a flow state, and things are simply done for their own sake, you wouldn’t believe how powerful that is for the mind.”
And every so often, in the toss up between life admin and doing nothing, the former can wait.
“In terms of our own leisure, it’s worth asking if we can create space on the weekends to be purposeless,” suggests Onstad. “In terms of the practical things like life admin and domestic chores, maybe think about lowering your standards every once in a while. Maybe it can be a little less perfect.”
* For more information on the Elbowroom Escape's Do F*** All weekends see www.the-elbowroomescape.com. Retreats from €199 per person, including 5* hotel-grade beds for two nights, all vegetarian meals. The next retreat runs from March 9th-11th. Katrina Onstad's book The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of taking Time Off is out now.
Three other relaxing retreats
Creacon Wellness Retreat, New Ross, Wexford
Spend two days unwinding with guided meditation and gentle yoga classes, with home-cooked meals and comfy bedrooms, plus access to beautiful gardens and an infra-red sauna. From €450. See creaconwellnessretreat.com
Ard Nahoo, Co Leitrim
Escape from it all – and everyone else – on a solitary retreat in a private wooden eco cabin. A Personal Retreat package includes two nights' accommodation, a welcome pack of organic breakfast foods, Uisce Hour in an outdoor hot tub and infra-red sauna and an organic vegetarian supper delivered to your cabin on one of the nights. From €280pp midweek to €330pp at weekends. ardnahoo.com
Lisnavagh House, Co Carlow
For the ultimate relaxation, Lisnavagh runs Sleep Retreats that encorporate mindfullness, gentle yoga sessions, walks in the ancient woods surrounding the house, and best of all, relaxing sleep in the enormous beds. Wholesome organic meals are prepared for the small group of guests, and you can curl up with a book in the library afterwards. From €350 for a two-night stay. See lisnavagh.com