The Case for Not Trying So Hard

Even leisure and relaxation can get tied up in seriousness, busyness, betterment. For Sallie Tisdale, the trick is to stop trying so hard.

anyaberkut/Dollar Photo Club

When was the last time you really goofed off?

All the dictionary definitions of this phrase are negative: “shirking work or responsibility,” “to waste time.” But to me, goofing off simply means activity with no redeeming value—it satisfies no “should.” You do it without excuses; there is no justification. Goofing off like this is harder than it sounds because it means acting without a goal, without thought of gain. Doing your cardio workout doesn’t count.

Real goofing off may provoke reactions in others—a little censure, even envy—precisely because it is hard for us to do. From an early age we are conditioned against shirking, and that conditioning doesn’t stop. We are even told that relaxing is a project we have to work at: “Choose to practice relaxation,” I read in one book. “Make these relaxation tools work for you. Regular, consistent practice is essential if you want to gain maximum benefit from these skills.”

woman walking down a sunny path
Photography by Aya Brackett

Dancing in the park on a summer evening is goofing off. Walking 10,000 steps a day with a pedometer is not.

There’s nothing wrong with walking 10,000 steps a day—it’s good for you. But worrying all the time about what’s good for you is not. The pressure we feel to be doing something, anything, all the time, is intense. Modern life, even at its most ordinary, is rich with temptation and possibility. Our days are filled with the promise of little extras. So many things we could be doing instead of what we are doing—or, worse perhaps, on top of what we are already doing. We feel such pressure to be connected—to spend time on social media or stay current with news and events or the changing culture or just the details of many other people’s lives. Add in families, work, travel, exercise, volunteering, meditation practice, the myriad maintenance activities of day-to-day life, and what you might call enrichment—the oil painting class, practicing your Spanish—and your day is full.

If you’re anything like me, there are times you feel powerless about this. It’s not my fault that I’m so busy, I think. So much of this busyness feels externally imposed—because I’m forgetting how much of it I’ve actually chosen. But I don’t want to waste time. I don’t want to shirk.

I’m convinced there is an addictive property to all this effort, this stimulation. Addiction is what happens when you need to insulate or buffer yourself against experience or sensation. Social media, multitasking, even enrichment can be very effective at this. Updating Facebook and sending Twitter messages is unproductive (they’re virtual for a reason), but these are also workmanlike activities—repetitive and isolating. It’s simply about staying busy, moving from task to task without respite.

The pressure we feel to be doing something, anything, all the time, is intense.

In fact, we rarely let ourselves do anything wholeheartedly. Instead we waste time, feel bad about doing it, perhaps try to rationalize it—and that’s work, too. Suddenly we’re working at not working. We’re trying hard to do nothing.

The hard part is to goof off mindfully. To, as Martin Luther said, sin boldly. I come by my own confusion about this honestly. I was raised by hard workers who didn’t waste time and didn’t suffer those who did gladly.

roses in a garden
Photography by Aya Brackett

Now I try to approach things with “beginner’s mind.” The beginner, whether she is learning to be an engineer, play golf, or practice mindfulness, is fresh and naive. She has no expectations. She doesn’t know what she will be learning, who she will become, how she’s going to master what is before her. How can she have expectations? She doesn’t know. She’s a beginner—eager to be instructed, curious, ready. This is true readiness; we see it in children and long to remember it for ourselves.

An important aspect of mindfulness is becoming aware of the obstacles you put in your own way. Mindfulness allows you to encounter each moment as it arrives, aware of what’s going on around you and in your own mind. How much of your time is spent lost in thoughts of the past or future—or sideways, in all those other things you could or should be doing? What happens to your mind when you have nothing to do? When you are, in fact, goofing off. Can you bring the beginner’s curious and open mind to that?

Walking aimlessly through a meadow full of wildflowers is goofing off. Gardening is not.

Not that there’s anything wrong with gardening. It’s just that there is no point in working in our garden if we can’t enjoy flowers that bloom all by themselves.

men sitting in a row, hanging out, laughing and talking
Photography by Aya Brackett

I look for someone’s ability to fall on their butt and laugh about it.

Life can be profoundly moving, just as it is. Each moment can feel like a great investment. But we have to be careful not to crush a moment by revering it. The eminent theologian Alfred North Whitehead once said, “I have always noticed that deeply and truly religious persons are fond of a joke, and I am suspicious of those who aren’t.” What do we really expect in an accomplished person, one who seems integrated and aware?

One thing I look for is a graceful lightness of being. I look for curiosity, interest in all kinds of things. I look for the ability to take pleasure in small things, and small moments, and be ridiculous and playful.

I look for someone’s ability to fall on his butt and say, “Oops.” And laugh. The beginner’s mind is undefended, without the barriers of self-regard, without concern for the judgments of others.

The most profound joy—and the deepest laughter—come from a wholly examined relationship to the world. Being able to goof off is not just a matter of humor or laughing or being silly. Goofing off is the ability to stop being purposeful, to drop the attachment to goals. The trick is not trying to do nothing; the trick is to stop trying to do anything.

This is true mindfulness: just give everything else up, cut all other ties, do nothing but experience and enjoy the moment. Do nothing else.

Writing this essay is not goofing off. Later, sitting on the deck in the springtime sun—that’s goofing off. Mindful, wholehearted, joyful—goofing off.

This article appeared in the