Dr Julia Sen: Busy Doing Nothing

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

The To Do List – Which bright spark invented this weapon of self-flagellation?

Apologies that having snatched a few precious moments to yourself, I am reminding you of the hundred and one things you feel obliged to achieve before you finally collapse in an exhausted heap, only to do it all again tomorrow. I feel your pain; I hereby confess to having had my life dictated by apps, alarms and calendar notifications for years. I even designed a scheduling spreadsheet named, without irony, “My Perfect Day”, complete with multicoloured tabs to help it look more fun (I should seek professional help). All this is in an attempt to keep me on schedule with the myriad tasks I am expecting myself to perform. Why?

The downside of productivity.

These days we all seem to have too much to do in the time we have available. Being organised helps us to be efficient with our time, that most precious of commodities. The problem with to-do lists, however, is that it’s easy to become so task-oriented that we forget to live in the moment; the opposite of mindfulness, if you will. It also sets us up for a feeling of failure when we don’t manage to fulfil our (usually over-ambitious) aspirations and can suck the spontaneity out of life. It’s the pressure that makes us decide to turn down the offer of an impromptu brunch with a close friend we haven’t seen for ages, in favour of tackling the mountain of ironing staring at us when we open the airing cupboard door. Ridiculous. There will always be ironing.


Running on the hamster wheel of productivity also means that we are “on” during all of our waking hours, so that even when we are not actively engaged in doing something “productive”, we keep craving stimulation. Instead of taking a physical and mental break, we instinctively pick up our phones, check emails, the news or social media, creating distraction and clogging up our minds with yet more information to process. The idea of stopping for 5 minutes just to sit quietly with our thoughts rarely occurs to most of us. This point was elegantly illustrated by scientists at the University of Virginia, who observed subjects left in a room for 15 minutes to either sit with their thoughts or administer electric shocks to themselves. Incredibly, 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose painful bolts of electricity in preference to quiet introspection. Whilst shocking (literally and figuratively) it does make you wonder…..is all this productivity a way of helping us avoid our deeper thoughts and dodge those difficult, yet really fundamental questions about our lives? When was the last time you took time out to consider the direction your life is heading in and whether or not you are living a life authentic to your beliefs and aspirations. It’s been a while, right?


Shutting out the noise of our “busyness” helps us to focus on what’s really important but giving our minds an opportunity to chillax has also been shown in studies to improve creativity and problem-solving. So try to take time every day, even if it’s only 5 minutes, to switch off your phone; sit comfortably with your eyes closed and breathe slowly and deeply though your nose. Rather than trying to “empty your mind” which is almost impossible for most mere mortals, perhaps focus on the sensation of your breath on the skin above your upper lip as you breathe. Doing this downregulates the “fight or flight” responses of the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take control, lowering the heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone levels. You will instantly feel so much calmer. Don’t believe me? Take your pulse before and immediately after you try this. It is, in essence, a simple meditation technique but don’t let any preconceived ideas you may have about meditation put you off. Give it a go.


Spending quality time alone is also beneficial for mental decluttering. The term, Alonement, was coined by journalist, author and podcaster, Francesca Specter,, who has written extensively about the benefits of spending time alone, irrespective of one’s relationship status. Far from being selfish, carving out time to give yourself whatever you need, be it a long hot bath, a 5k run or losing yourself in a good book, this delicious me-time helps us recharge so that we can be better partners, parents, siblings, friends and colleagues.

Ditch the list?

So with all of this in mind, have I been able to kick my listing habit? Not yet but I am more selective about what makes it onto the list; taking time out to focus on my wellbeing is right up there and non-negotiable. I’m also more realistic about what is achievable. Most things are non-urgent and can wait. I also keep reminding myself of the words in the poem by Nadine Stor, aged 85. I don’t want to look back on my life wishing I had picked more daisies.

For more information about wellness, visit my website www.drjuliasen.co.uk or to make an enquiry or appointment, please email [email protected] or call 07548 964367.

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