The Importance of Doing Nothing Important

By Rhonda Collins, I Start Wondering Columnist


My Flowery Shadow  photo by Rhonda Collins

When I decided to retire, I was so excited about my life transition. The possibility of doing many things that I didn’t have time for when I was working full-time fueled my enthusiasm.


I enjoyed brainstorming a pre-retirement list of tasks that I wanted to complete during my first six months of retirement:


  • Sort 40 years of old photos and put them in scrapbooks for my grandkids.

  • Write a book.

  • Explore several businesses and launch one.

  • Clean out all my closets.

  • Put in new flower beds.

  • Research and commit to several community volunteer positions.

  • Organize the old files in my home office and find places for all the things I brought home from my work office.

What I checked off my to-do list during the first four months of retirement:

  • Nothing (well, nothing important).

The realization that I had done so few planned activities led me to feel discouraged by what I perceived as a lack of productivity. I did take care of more mundane and routine tasks – collecting and compiling tax information, paying bills, writing several recommendations for students, sending birthday greetings to family and friends, and writing my I Start Wondering columns. I kept the house clean and made dinner most nights. But I did those things before retirement, too, when I also had a full-time job!


Beyond the routine tasks, I mostly filled the first four months of retirement with reading books and magazines and watching TV. I played several online games every day. I went for walks with no particular place in mind to go. And some days, honestly, I just stared out the window at a nearby rooster.


Let There Be Guilt!

How did one-third of a year pass by with me accomplishing so little?! My parents were Great Depression survivors, steeped in the Protestant work ethic. I was raised to always be productive, to identify sources of income even without a job--and to never, ever sit on my behind and “do nothing” (i.e., watch TV or read), unless it’s for a short time at the end of a very productive workday.


Yet, when I thought about the planned sorting, organizing, and writing endeavors, I just couldn’t seem to garner the interest or energy required. I had little self-discipline and no motivation to research possible new ventures, much less to actually take on a new business, volunteer work, or household projects.


I began to hear my mom’s voice inside my head, saying, “Why haven’t you done more?” and “You need to be working harder!” I felt terribly neglectful and unaccomplished.


Despite my internal mother’s guilt trip, I continued to accomplish little. I wasn’t depressed, but I did feel disoriented. Each day, it simply felt like the best thing to do was nothing important.


The Fallow Periods

I was ashamed of myself for not doing any of the things I said I would be working on post-retirement until I read an article about the value of having times of rest in our lives. The article made the point that just as farmers will allow a plot of land to lie fallow (be unused or unproductive for a time), humans need to have fallow periods in their lives, as well.


“To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” is a familiar aphorism from Ecclesiastes in the Bible. I believe this is saying doing nothing important – lying fallow – is a valid choice at times.


In discussing his commitment to certain research projects, Dr. Leonard Aldeman, a noted computer science researcher, from the University of Southern California, says “Sometimes it's important to lie fallow for a time waiting for the 'right question' to appear, rather than to engage in uninspiring work and miss the important opportunity when it comes.”

Bowl of Oranges Photo by Rhonda Collins

The notion of having a fallow season seriously resonated with me, as I was living in California’s fertile Sacramento Valley at the time. Every day, I saw orchards of thriving walnut, orange, olive, avocado, and almond trees alongside empty, unused fields.


As an anthropologist, I am familiar with the concept of crop rotation. I used to teach about small farming communities in my Peoples and Cultures of the World class, explaining that to get the best crop yield over time, fields would be burned and then allowed to lie fallow for several years before planting crops again. In subsistence agriculture, the well-being of the community is tied to the well-being of the crops.


I began to realize that my well-being at the moment was best served by being unproductive. Just as a piece of land is left unworked for a time to increase its fertility, I also needed to let my mind be quiet and my hands be still, in order to be more productive later. My spirit was being prepared for new opportunities that would later require my full focus and increased energy.


What is productivity?

Furthermore, I began to see that although I was not experiencing productivity in the way I have defined the term most of my adult life, my body and my mind were working in new and different ways. During those first few months of retirement, I lived in a small cabin on a winery.


Photo of Chicken by Rhonda Collins

This natural setting allowed me to experience a diverse natural habitat, including groves of fruit trees and grapevines, as well as a chicken coop that offered a stage for the complex interactions of these fascinating birds.


Across the street from the winery was a large creek with public-access levies and trails where I walked almost daily

and observed salmon running in the creek’s clear waters, farm animals, foxes, hawks, and many other birds unknown to this Texan. I discovered trees, flowers, and plants I didn’t recognize, uploading their images into a naturalist app to learn about species new to me.


I often listened to audiobooks or had long talks with friends as I walked through this rural setting that reminded me of my childhood growing up on a farm. Sometimes I would simply walk aimlessly or sit with my thoughts and reflect on what I wanted to do in this next chapter of my life.


I watched more TV than I care to admit, but more than half were documentaries about inspiring women or – my favorite – baking and cooking show where I learned new dishes and new techniques for familiar ones. I also spent hours searching the web for desserts that I could make with the dozens of oranges and lemons I had hand-picked; the tasty results were shared with my new neighbors and the folks at my husband’s office.


Although I probably spent too much time on online word and trivia games, they did serve the function of keeping my mind sharp by challenging my memory and vocabulary. During those months we also traveled to some truly awe-inspiring sights – from the Grand Canyon to Muir Woods – and learned about the history of our country and its people.


All of these “unproductive” activities stimulated ideas and reflections in my mind that will inspire future projects and endeavors. The time I used to reflect is helping me better define my role and purpose in post-retirement life. So, I was actually being very productive in preparing myself for the future.


What I learned


Just as the soil needs to lie fallow for a period, bears need to hibernate, some plants need dormant periods, and we all need a good night’s sleep, I needed that downtime. Just as the dough in my bread machine right now needs to sit still in order to rise, I needed still-time to prepare me to rise to my full, best self in my next chapter.


I gained so much from my time of doing nothing important. All the things I discovered and learned, and all the thoughts and ideas I recorded were reviving the fertility of my mind and preparing my soul for seeds of creativity and power that will soon be planted. My hope is that this fallow time will spawn significant growth and a richer post-retirement life.


Turning Stillness into Action

Meanwhile, Mom’s voice is inside my head again. I hear her saying, “What are you waiting for?” and “It’s time to get moving!” So, I’m now moving…. well, at least getting organized. A couple of weeks ago, I grabbed a legal pad and my favorite pencil and started making a list of all the things I want to start working on, with separate pages for household projects, business development, volunteer activities, and more.


We are now back at our home in Texas, and as I look today at the multiple to-do (wish) lists, it’s not the voice of my mom – who lived to age 91 – that motivates me to get going on these many projects. Rather, it’s thinking about my same-age friend who has been fighting cancer for several years and would love to have half my energy to work on home projects and things that are important to her, in what may be the final year or two of her life. She is still working, volunteering, and visiting family and friends, despite constantly feeling ill.


I’m also inspired to action by the Ukrainian women who left home with their children and are now living in foreign places away from family who stayed behind to fight a war that was not of their making. As I walked peacefully along a California creek and baked a new recipe for orange spice cake, these amazing Ukrainian women hiked for dozens of miles on bombed roads with few precious belongings and relied on the kindness of strangers for shelter and food.


I’ve enjoyed my fallow period. Now, it’s the season for planting.