The Forgotten Importance of Doing Nothing

I have a hard time doing just one thing at a time, even less nothing, a quality I’m sure I share with many medical students. Why just eat dinner when I can eat dinner and watch a recorded lecture? Every minute of my day can have multiple uses, and I use them to full advantage. Even relaxing or recreational activities become multipurpose: commercial breaks become a short flashcard study session and study breaks become push-up breaks. I obsessively cram stuff into my day, because time feels unbelievably scarce and there are so many things I want to do.

It is a commonly cited cliché that medical students study so much that they feel guilty taking time off to eat dinner. For many students, this is not a myth. From the outside, it’s clear this obsessive productivity isn’t healthy. But it’s harder to recognize in yourself, because each compulsive action gives you positive feedback. “Look at all the things I’ve done in just this one hour. I’m so productive and efficient. This is great.” And it’s true: being productive and efficient are essential qualities of the successful medical student. But there is also great value—every once in a while—in doing absolutely nothing.

When is the last time you sat in a chair and did nothing? I’m not talking about yoga or meditation. I really mean nothing. The last time I did was today, so I could say I did for this blog post, and it was hard. I sat in a leather office chair facing a window, staring at the backyard I used to play in as a kid. The swing set is starting to rust and the grass needs cutting from all the rain we’ve been getting. It wasn’t long before I started to have anxious thoughts about the mediastinum and its contents and how I don’t know any of them—almost exactly two minutes actually. I knew it would happen, so I timed it. But I just kept staring out that window and it faded, like all feelings do. And I remembered playing soccer with my dad and my then-three-year-old sister taking a ten-foot running start to kick the ball five feet. I remembered doing pull-ups on a branch of the sycamore tree a storm took a few years back. The young persimmon tree in its place is pathetic in comparison, surrounded by a mini-forest of Chinese chives and ginger shoots. After 15 minutes, my preset timer went off and I moved to my desk to write this blog post, newly convinced—I hoped—of the value of doing nothing. I guess the truest test of its value is that I don’t regret the lost time. Sure, there were other more productive things I could have been doing, but I don’t feel guilty or anxious about choosing not to do them. The break was good and in many ways even more restive than sleep. There’s a kind of existential peace in making time to just live; it reminds me that there’s something to life even without all the things I cram into it. Has it convinced me enough to where I make it a daily ritual? Ask me again before the next exam, and I’ll have a more honest answer.


Caitlin Li

I was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina and attended Vanderbilt University for my undergraduate studies. I was heavily involved in Vanderbilt’s fencing club and musical volunteering at the Vanderbilt hospital before graduating in 2015 with a degree in biomedical engineering. I want to become a physician to help people pursue happiness in health and am honored and excited to study medicine at USC School of Medicine Greenville.

Jeanne Petrizzo

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