The Ultimate Comfort Guide: Note to Self: Relax

How does a project-obsessed, to-do-list-­reliant, overworked, overachieving, over-dramatic woman give herself permission to take a bubble bath?

I have a to-do list for work. I have a to-do list for home. I have a to-do list for the house (separated, of course, into sub-to-do lists for each room). I have a to-do list for the thank-you notes I need to write, for the friends I need to call, and for the new baby that’s on the way. (The deadline is April 4th.) I have a to-do list for things that need to get done in the long term (like refinishing the hardwood floors and replacing the squirrel-gnawed eave on the garage). I have a “honey”-to-do list, which is basically my stock of ammo for the next time my husband thinks it’s safe on a Saturday afternoon to sneak down to the basement to play Halo 2 on his Xbox.

For me, there is no greater satisfaction than crossing something off a to-do list — an event I would never delegate to an ordinary ballpoint pen, or even a felt-tip. I cross off my accomplishments with a thick black Sharpie, which eventually, if I am functioning at my peak, creates a sheet of paper railroaded with thick black Sharpie lines. This is a beautiful thing. (Occasionally, if I complete a task without first having written it on a to-do list, I do so and then immediately grab the Sharpie.) My highest form of achievement is killing two birds with one stone — ­returning a phone call while emptying the dishwasher, or balancing my checkbook while having my car inspected. This, I’m certain, is what it feels like to be in the presence of God.

My friends are concerned. I doubt they’re worrying about all the heart problems and depression and anxiety and panic and stress that doctors and psychologists attribute to overwork. I’m sure they don’t know that Americans say their leisure time has decreased by one whole third since the Nixon era, and that 60 percent of us feel pressure to work too much. I suspect they just think I’m nuts. They don’t say so directly, only through birthday and Christmas gifts, always well-intentioned little tomes with titles like On Being Happy, or Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going, or Little Indulgences: More Than 400 Ways to Be Good to Yourself. I open up Little Indulgences to a random page. “Make a list … ” I read. I actually hear myself say, “Oh goody!” If indulging myself involves making some kind of list, I not only get to be leisurely — I get to kill two birds while I’m doing it.

But the truth is, I want to relax. I want to allow myself to put down the pen and the paintbrush and the rake and the tire gauge and the cordless power drill, and do something that has no other aim than to make me feel good. I want to be able to run a bubble bath, or get a pedicure in the winter, or take piano lessons. I want to be able to sit on the couch all afternoon reading a paperback murder mystery that involves several car chases and at least one steamy sex scene, without that little voice in my head flipping on and grinding at me: “Repot the spider plant!” “Recalibrate the bathroom scale!” “Make homemade dog biscuits from the mix you’ve had sitting in the cupboard since September 1999!” Simply, I want to figure out how to turn off the motor and have a little fun.

And I’ve started, right here and right now, with this random page in Little Indulgences: “Make a list.” I read on. “Write down all the reasons your friends like you and all the things you like about yourself. Mail the list to yourself.” Are you kidding me? This will make me feel good? Adding another envelope to the already foot-high pile on my kitchen counter of real mail to contend with (item number five on home to-do list)? And, anyway, the list wouldn’t be very long, considering that my friends must not like me very much if they think this is a better use of my time than cleaning out the drain in the tub, or mending the hem on the bedskirt in the spare room, or organizing my paper clips according to size.

Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor blames my behavior on capitalism. We think we have it so much better, what with our fancy 40-hour workweek and two weeks paid vacation a year, than those poor medieval, pre-market-system sods who had to toil sunup to sundown day after day. In her prescient 1992 best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Schor reminded us of how it really was — those sods had breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner, an afternoon nap, and sometimes mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Their employers didn’t care about punctuality or productivity. They had so many church holidays and celebrations that they were praying and drinking about a third of the year. And they weren’t concerned with which Ralph Lauren paint texture treatment would best suit their pair of Eames chairs. Schor argued that we work so much more than medieval peasants did because our capitalistic incentives for high productivity beget long working hours, which beget cash for buying lots of stuff, which begets the very paper clips that prevent me from scheduling an herbal body wrap.

With due respect to Dr. Schor, I have always blamed my behavior on Sister Margaret, the principal of Villa Maria Elementary in Erie, Pennsylvania. Sister Margaret lived and breathed by one policy: Even if you got 100 percent on every test and every assignment, you only got a B, unless you did 100 points of extra credit for each class. Only then did you qualify for an A. Melvin Zurn had no time for this. Mel was not going to spend his free hours typing up little essays on the saints and making milk-carton bird feeders to hang in the courtyard by the grotto of the Virgin just to get what he’d already earned. All of 11 years old, with those square glasses and that square jaw, whip-smart, perfect-scoring Mel said, “Give me B’s, Sister Margaret, and I will like them.” (Mel, incidentally, ended up at Cornell.) Me? I got all A’s. I was a fifth-grade capitalist. I was lured by the incentives of productivity (particularly by the $10 my grandfather gave me for every A on my report card), and I got the picture early on — more work is always better, even if that work involved getting your hands on a 12-foot-long sheet of newsprint and spending every night for two weeks writing out the entire Declaration of Independence, for which I received an insulting 25 extra-credit points in social studies. Only now, 23 years later and drowning in to-do lists, does it occur to me to ask this question: What was Melvin Zurn doing during those two weeks?

In 2003, the Census Bureau asked 21,000 Americans, 15 years of age and older, to keep a diary of everything they did in one day. As it turned out, the average American slept for 8.6 hours, worked for 3.7 hours, did household chores for 1.8 hours, and spent 5.1 hours doing leisure activities. Who are these people? Medieval peasants? If, after working and sleeping and commuting and cooking and making the bed and paying the bills and throwing the blinky-ball to the dog, I had 5.1 whole hours left in the day to play with, I’d be living in the bubble bath. No. That’s not true. I would think about taking a bubble bath. I would talk about how I was going to break the cycle, how I was going to toss Parkinson’s Law — the theory that work increases to fill the time available for it — down my very clean drains in order to finally take a bubble bath. I might even buy some ylang-ylang-scented bubbles for that bubble bath. But when the 5.1 hours presented themselves, I would not be in the tub. I would be in the attic, organizing the wrapping paper and ribbons, boxing them, labeling the boxes, and stacking them, alphabetically, against the wall.

Of the 165 pages Schor spends in her book writing about how Americans work more now than anyone else in the entire universe and have pretty much done so since our nation was founded, she spends only one paragraph discussing people like me — workaholics, the freaks who choose to work even when they have the time to relax. “If we veer too much toward work,” Schor writes, “our ‘leisure skills’ will atrophy.” Just as I suspected — the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of the end. My fun muscles have been degrading ever since, and now they’re not strong enough to climb out from behind those thick black Sharpie lines. I’m a paraplegic of fun. I can read as many books as I can get my hands on. I can pore through Comfort Secrets for Busy Women by Jennifer Louden. I can read her advice to “be a geisha to yourself” and realize that, aside from the fact I have no idea what that means, I wouldn’t know how to do it if I did.

“Some people are afraid to say they’re vegging out,” says Herb Rappaport, Temple psychology prof and author of Marking Time: How Our Personalities, Our Problems and Their Treatment Are Shaped by Our Anxiety About Time. “They think that if they’re not achieving, they’re not developing personally.” But the two don’t go hand in hand, he says. He often asks the patients in his private practice to write out a timeline of all the important moments in their lives. (1. Learned to walk. 2. Learned to talk. 3. Wrote out Declaration of Independence for utterly offensive 25 extra-credit points … ) There should be a balance between achievements and moments of personal development (i.e., finding spirituality while hiking in the Pine Barrens, or discovering your aptitude for patience through cat training). The closest I got on my timeline to any kind of moment of personal development was French-kissing Rich Overmoyer outside the Mount Carmel High School dance during freshman year, November 1984, which doesn’t really count since, at the time, kissing Rich Overmoyer was on my list of things to do. Rappaport suggests I find a sandbox, find a kid, and play with said kid in said sandbox. “Kids don’t have goals,” he says, advising that at first, I’ll sit there and think, “Wow, that’s a lot of sand.” But pretty soon, I’ll follow the kid’s lead, pick up a Tonka truck, and start making roads. Next thing I know, an hour will have passed. “That’s how people like you slow time down,” Rappaport says. I consult the 564 baby books I have, to see when my negative-three-month-old child will be playing in sandboxes.

I need a quicker fix.

Tonight, I decide to take that bubble bath. When I walk in the door, I ignore the drooping flowers on the thirsty mum on the porch, I put the mail atop the pile without even looking at it, I don’t listen to the messages on the answering machine, and I don’t pick up the pieces of the green plastic chew toy my dog shredded all over the living room floor. Instead, I go directly to the bathroom, plug the stopper, and start the water. I grab some bath oil — it’s not ylang-ylang-scented, but I’m okay with that. I grab a book — it’s not a murder mystery with a steamy sex scene, but I’m okay with that, too. I get in. I start reading. It’s very warm and soothing and quiet. I wait for the voice to turn on and remind me about the home improvement ideas I pulled out of the magazine last night and need to file in the “Home Improvement” folder in the file cabinet, but it doesn’t. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. Twenty. I consider turning on more hot water, so I can stay in the tub longer. This is such a strange consideration, I wonder if I’m having an out-of-body experience and will see an apparition of Sister Margaret in her orthopedic nun shoes berating me for not repairing the doorjamb in the bedroom. But Sister Margaret never comes. And I know exactly why.

After I get out of the tub, after I dry off, after I’m cozy in my pajamas, I pull the day’s to-do list out of my bag. I open the desk drawer, uncap the Sharpie, and cross it off — “Take a bath.”

  • Siobhan Boyle

    What a great article! I’m the same exact way– I feel like I always have to be accomplishing something and I can never relax. I can’t remember the last time I had fun! My favorite line was, “I’m a paraplegic of fun.”