At the end of this past week, I realized I had nothing planned for my weekend—the fabled “blank slate” we sometimes hear about. For some reason, this kind of situation always creates a lot of consternation in my mind. This time around, I knew I had a lot I wanted to do, but I also felt the need, after a long week, to get a lot of rest in. The angel and devil on each shoulder were preemptively fighting for my attention by Thursday.
So, I made a decision to appease both parties. I decided to split my time right down the middle, and run a bit of an experiment while I was at it.
I told myself that I was gonna spend the first day doing absolutely whatever I wanted. This is how a lot of us, admirably, spend our entire weekends. We worked hard, darn it, and deserve a break, right?
It’s a fair point and I’ve spent many a weekend like that. The issue only comes afterwards, when I tumble into Monday unprepared. And later, when I look back and review if I achieved anything that benefitted my life during those two days.
After that first day was up, day two was going to be all about work and productivity and healthy pursuits. I was going to work out. Maybe attend a meeting about something important, or fulfilling, or both. And I was going to sit at my computer and type.
The experiment was to see which felt better.
I was smart—I let myself start with the fun day. It really had been a long week. The kind of week, like weeks we’ve all had before, where Friday rolls around and you just collapse on the couch. Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ll even fall asleep, upright, on that couch [link to article where i mention that lol]
So I deserved a nice break. And with the structure of this experiment, I decided to go all out. I went to the grocery store on a mission to collect and revel in junk food. I formed my TV watching plan of attack well in advance. And I skipped any kind of healthy habits one might hope to keep up with on a normal day. This meant no exercise.
I felt my bad habits come roaring back with the implicit permission to take over. Time on my phone increased. Unhealthy activities, like scrolling on ultra-short-form, attention-span-zapping content increased. I stayed motionless, in posture-compromising positions, for long stretches of time—except when I got in my car to indulge in vices like Taco Bell or the movies.
Sounds like heaven, right?
For long stretches, it was. One of the most lovely aspects of it was allowing myself to experience something I’m often yearning for—being able to turn my brain off. Forgetting, for a few minutes, about planning and trying hard and the consequences of every action. Getting into that headspace can be tricky and fleeting, but when I felt that calm it was wonderful.
Weirdly though, I spent a lot of the day with higher anxiety than usual.
This could of course be attributed to higher intakes of sugar, sodium, caffeine, and blinking screens, and lower intakes of sunlight, celery, and other people. After all, these things are unhealthy even in moderation, and they affect us in all sorts of pesky ways. But I think there might also be some demons I keep at bay when I’m working my way through life with more effort. Something about letting the brain do whatever it wants—giving simpler and sillier and baser concerns airtime—feels like a losing proposition.
So the net result was a mixed one. I ended up with a stomach ache and a restless leg. I had consumed a lot of my favorite foods and one-and-a-half seasons of You, and I had admirably slept late and allowed myself a nap, but I felt a little uneasy. Unfulfilled. I had the strangest experience of Sunday scaries for, I guess, the upcoming “Working Sunday.” I can’t say it was a bad day, but I can’t say it was the suburban hedonistic heaven I expected.
The alarm clock sounded very loud on day two—on a Sunday, no less.
Aspirationally, Past Me had scheduled Future Me to the gills—I had multiple meetings to prepare for and attend and attempt to be articulate in, and I had multiple writing assignments to finish.
But it all started with a jog around the block. Three miles.
That one was hard, especially after all of yesterday’s junk food. It wasn’t my fastest time. But there’s this moment—almost a stereotypical movie moment—where the wind is blowing through your hair and you realize you’re moving kind of quickly and you’re generating all this movement yourself, that just feels exhilarating. Momentum—it feels good.
That momentum takes you into a nice warm shower, where you use shampoos and soaps that smell nice, and where you can listen to a podcast that makes you feel like you’ve gotten smarter. You’re standing up, you’re walking around, you’re doing things. You’re active. And you haven’t even sat down to “work” or do anything technically “important” yet.
I wasn’t rushing around to do things like I would on a “real” workday with other people relying on me. This was personal work time—chasing dreams sort of activities. So, once I found my groove, the “work” was quite rewarding.
It wasn’t all sunshine, of course. I was still upright, and sitting, working. As much as I had drowned myself in sugar and screens the day before, I still yearned for them 12 hours later—isn’t it crazy how addictive things can be? I caught myself yawning more. I blinked through my meetings and tried to stay alert, knocking off the mental rust that accumulated the day before. But I got through it, and then some. At the end of the day, I had finished pieces of work sitting there in front of me. Any methodology that makes that happen is a positive one.
And so, the net of day two was a strange revelation: I was infinitely happier that day. That anxiety kind of washed off me. The exercise kept me in my body and out of my head. Instead of idly absorbing flashing images, I was active, generative—typing and writing and gesturing ideas into existence
Moving forward feels better
I’ve concluded, almost objectively: a day of forward progress feels better than a day of stasis.
Sometimes we need a day of stasis, it can be a healing or rejuvenative act. Those acts can be some of the most important that we do, but when I think back to what I’m most proud of, “that day I sat on the couch and watched that show I really liked,” doesn’t quite spring to mind, as lovely a day as that might have been. (And believe me, I’ve strung together months of just that kind of activity, because that’s what I needed at the time—and I don’t even really regret it.)
Your “day two” can be day when you built something. When you made moves towards the things you want to achieve—even if it was a brainstorm, even if it was just a shower thought, or writing one sticky note to put on your desk. A move forward.
It reminds me of a concept I heard about years ago but that always stuck with me: a non-zero day. It’s a day when, however microscopically, you moved forward. So much better than zero. (Unless you count crushing some Netflix as “non-zero.”)
It just feels amazing. So I say, when in doubt, and when faced with a “blank” day that you’re trying to figure out how to schedule, lean into the good feeling of progress. Lying motionless is great. Moving forward is better.
Don’t get me wrong
We all need rest. At this point, it’s not even a negotiable element to a productive and healthy life. So, this is not a treatise declaring otherwise.
But I think it’s quite compelling that it felt good, maybe even deeply fulfilling, to be productive.
And I also think that we have no earthly concept of our potential in every day of our lives.
We very well may need less rest than we think.
It’s like eating junk food. Our caloric needs are met after one serving’. Our stomach sends that 20-minute-delayed signal to the brain that we’re full after a few servings. But we don’t stop eating until we…feel like it? Realize an hour has passed? Reach the bottom of the bag?
The net weight of the benefits have a steep arc of diminishing returns. The same might be said for unproductive time. It’s a non-negotiable necessity. And maybe I’ve found evidence that there is a ceiling to the amount of benefit you get from low-effort relaxing and recharging.
As for me? I got stuff to do. I got dreams to reach. So I have to be strategic.
And, if one of the things I’m trying to achieve is feeling good about myself? I have a secret for you that I just recently discovered. Progress feels better. Making things feels better. Doing things feels better than anything in the world.
Reach the point of no return
You will reach the point when you’ve been progressing long enough, and having more active days than passive days, that you won’t want to go back. That will be a glorious day. It will be as if you’ve broken through a wall, and then the wall sealed up behind you. “No turning back now.”
At least that’s what it felt like for me. For me, I knew something had changed when I felt bad because I didn’t work out. I felt the lack of the usual serotonin boost, the blood pumping through my muscles. But there was also an interruption to that satisfying routine. The inability to look at what I had accomplished that day and say without a shadow of a doubt that I had progressed. I missed it—all of it.
And I knew something had changed in my brain.
That doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods, of course. I’ve been in the procrastination and self-sabotage game long enough that I might qualify as a clinical case study. But there’s this distinct feeling that I’ve cracked some code. That I know what it’s like on the other side. And there are so many good healthy reasons to fight to stay over here.
If any of this resonates with you, I urge you to try and break through that wall, to get to a place where going for a brisk morning run feels better than sitting on the couch. Where you publish and create and achieve instead of watching others do the same and feeling sad. Where you move forward, no matter what. It’s nice over here.