For a long while, I had a problem with something I call “dead time” – time spent on a plane or in a car or waiting room. It would panic me, being presented with an hour that I hadn’t fully prepared to use properly. As I have grown older, and life has become busier, minutes have become vacancies to fill rather than moments to enjoy. I have to fill them up, like hundreds of miniature empty rooms into which completed admin must be stuffed; or use them to begin a new project or continue a current one, hoping that one day all the rooms will be full and all the work will be done and I will have completed adulthood like I’ve fully furnished a doll's house. I’ll lie on a beach or in a park with the first perfectly clear and empty mind since adolescence. One day, it will happen, I’m sure of it.
I have a to-do list that’s always divided broadly into three categories: urgent (write that piece, post that contract, ring that sad friend); do by the end of the week (pick up dry-cleaning, send that pitch, apply for a new Nectar card); and long-term (save up for an invisible brace to fix your wonky teeth, learn French, write a play). The problem with having such a tiered system is that “dead time” always feels like I should be filling it with long-term demands. A holiday or a journey or a waiting room is always going to feel like an opportunity in which to put a spreadsheet together for making an invisible-brace financial plan, or downloading Duolingo or writing “ACT 1, SCENE 1” and nothing else in iPhone notes, just the cursor blinking confusedly at you.
The time between Christmas and New Year is another example of “dead time”. Dead as the turkey. Dead as Jacob Marley. Thousands of empty moments resulting in lethargy and guilt and boredom. A week of central heating and overeating and picking fights with a family you only otherwise see for two days at a time. It’s a week that can leave you fidgeting and flabby and pernickety and claustrophobic.
It’s like stepping on to a long-haul flight to a different continent, but there’s one great difference between the “dead time” of the long-haul flight and that from Christmas to New Year: nearly everyone’s got a seat on the plane. It’s “dead time” for everyone. Most of the world shuts down. No one is waiting for your work or call. There are no emails to reply to, no errands to run – and anyway, none of the errand-running outlets are open. Avoid the sales; avoid the shops; this should be capitalism’s annual week-long outward sigh.
Fold away the to-do list and really sink into doing nothing for a handful of days. You have no other option but to relax
Sometimes we need to be forced into doing nothing to really do nothing – like when you have one of those days where you realise you've gone out without a charged phone. No one can reach you and you find yourself having the best time ever and you feel so free – like you could just go to Paddington and get on a train to anywhere and be a fugitive. Obviously, you never do, you just wander round the shops for a bit longer than usual, but it's still an adventure.
There is really no such thing as “dead time”. Your minutes are as alive as you are and filling them up with nothing is sometimes a necessary break from always filling them up with something. Dead minutes make up dead days, and what are they for? Days are where we live, Larkin wrote. They are to be happy in: / Where can we live but days?
So, fold away the to-do list and really sink into doing nothing for a couple of days. You have no other option but to relax. Put on 6lb. Sleep for 11 hours every night, until your skin looks like a velveteen peach. Go on a walk to nowhere. Have a Lindor for breakfast. Turn the final page of one book, then pick up another. Drink 10 cups of tea. Don’t put on any make-up. Watch films back to back – really, really long ones like Gone With The Wind and Cleopatra and The Godfather trilogy. Don’t use it as a time to do your tax return. Don’t use it as a time to write lists and plans and spreadsheets.
For every other bloody week of the year, you can wake up before seven after three snooze buttons. You can schedule in dental appointments and meetings back to back. You can wolf down your lunch on the bus, sit on your laptop in the hairdresser’s, do your make-up in your car at the traffic lights. You can fill all those empty rooms of minutes and then race into a new one next door.
But for now – let yourself have a rest. Breathe. Bathe. Sip. Savour. I give you permission to send everything else to hell for a week. I give you permission to drop-kick it all out of the door. I hope you can find a way to give yourself permission, too.