On the need to always be doing something

Doing as a refuge — and an escape

Riikka Iivanainen
9 min readNov 3, 2023

I used to get an upset stomach the second I woke up. If I lay in bed doing nothing, it would gradually get worse. Luckily, I knew how to get rid of it: get up and start doing things — clean the apartment, work on some stuff for uni, go for a run, bake chocolate-chip cookies. Just like that, my stomach would feel okay again.

Whenever people answer the question “What did you do on Sunday (or Saturday, the evening, your day off)?” with “Nothing,” I ask a follow-up question: “What do you mean with ‘nothing’?” Usually, people say they lay in bed watching a series or scrolling Instagram. One person found the question so absurd that he started laughing and repeated, “I don’t do anything.”

Doing nothing is not a thing for me. And it’s not really a thing in the rest of my family either.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

A succession of doers

This past summer, I spent some time at the cottage with my parents doing nothing. In other words, I wrote a cover letter for a job application (I was still unemployed at the time), edited a blog post draft, and then went out on the terrace to work my way through some summer reads: I finished Klara and the Sun and started rereading The Life of Pie.

While I was flipping through the pages on an inflated pool mattress covered by a blanket, Mom kept passing me with two small empty buckets and coming back with two small buckets full of blueberries. (My parents have an extra freezer for storing all the blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, lingonberries, and black- and redcurrants Mom picks in the summer.) At one point, she came back with two full buckets and a row of wild strawberries speared by a grass that she let me eat. Then she went inside.

When I went to grab some water from the kitchen, I saw her lying on the couch, staring at her phone. That’s what she does when she isn’t on the move: She reads the news and then complains how she’s already read everything by the time the newspaper arrives. If she’s not reading the news, she’s knitting or knitting and watching a track and field or skiing competition on TV. And yes, she knits in the summer, too — gotta get a head-start on those Christmas presents.

There’s one more thing: Instagram reels. While I’ve been trying to break my social media addiction, mom has been sucked in. Now when we’re together, she’ll make me watch babies and toddlers be, well. . . babies and toddlers, someone prepare a puff-pastry asparagus tart in 15 seconds, or Tom Cruise ride a motorcycle off a cliff for a Mission: Impossible stunt. But mainly, it’s the babies. When I try to slither away, she’ll call me a killjoy, and I’ll grunt and succumb to watching a few clips. At least it helps me stay on top of the latest memes (this is how I knew I needed to wear pink to the Barbie movie).

So while I was reading and Mom was picking berries, reading the news, or watching Instagram reels, Dad was somewhere out of sight. Probably fixing something old or building something new. There’s always something to fix or build: In the past years, he’s extended our already once-extended terrace (now we can enjoy the evening sun, too), made a raft for going swimming a bit farther from the shore, set up an outdoor shower that uses lake water, designed and built an outdoor kitchen with a wood stove and an open-fire grill (and a pull-up bar for getting in the reps while waiting for the embers to be just right), and repainted the boat my grandpa built in the eighties based on some magazine drawings.

If Dad isn’t fixing or building things, he’s cooking: chopping onions, marinating chicken breasts with lemon and thyme, or stirring a pot of vegan chili (modified from his classic chili con carne recipe to suit my plant-based diet). And these are only the things I can see; I’m sure he does a lot more.

Dad is the master doer in our family. I think it’s how he connects with and grounds himself. He paints the terrace to clear his mind. He cuts wood to calm down from a fit of anger. He goes fishing to think. And when he comes back, Mom, my sister, and I can often tell the difference: He’s in a better mood (which we can tell by the whistling) or has formed an opinion on something like wanting to change jobs or to invite the whole family over for Christmas again this year.

So Dad doesn’t do things only to keep busy. But he doesn’t do things only to wind down either; it’s how he shows love. He once actually said it, not that he loved us, but that his building and fixing and cooking is how he shows affection. “We didn’t really hug much,” he often describes his family; love was delivered in the form of freshly baked pastries, patched pants, and silent fishing trips.

Doing as a refuge — or an escape?

I feel a kinship with Dad. Acts of service are one of my love languages — especially cooking. When I organize parties, I may cook for two days, making multiple types of spreads (regular hummus, red beet hummus, muhammara), lentil or bean stews (Ethiopian misir wot, Georgian lobio, Indian chana dal) salads (spinach-broccoli-green-bean salad with roasted sesame seeds and tahini dressing is my favorite), and cakes (chocolate orange cake, American apple pie, key lime pie).

I once brought coconut balls to a small get-together and asked the guests to guess the ingredients. People recognized things like sugar and cinnamon (the balls had dates and cardamom), and when we had only one ingredient to go (orange blossom water), my friend asked if one of the ingredients was love. I said it was and almost wiped away tears.

Like Dad, I also do things to connect back to myself. Growing up, crafts school was my weekly refuge for seven years. Every Monday, we’d work on some crafts project: weave a basket, bind a notebook, carve plaster. I understood the therapeutic aspect of it already back then — perhaps not at eight years old, but certainly as a teenager. When my fingers were fiddling with a twig or pressing down the pages of a notebook on a workbench, I could get out of my head. Or maybe I could be with my head in a less daunting way.

Nowadays, I often go through my closet to clear my mind. I’ll take all the clothes out, see whether each piece sparks joy (as Mari Kondo advises), and then put back the ones that passed the test. I love bringing order to chaos; maybe the external clarity helps induce an internal one.

This all sounds very sweet. She does things to calm down, and then she’s a better person for it! You go, girl.

Well, I might’ve left out one thing. . .

Not doing things can make me feel restless. I rarely get an upset stomach upon waking up anymore, but I still need my time to perform and execute. I need to be able to “go into my room” to work on something, to advance myself. If I can’t do this like when something or someone messes up my routine, I can get a bit pesky. This can happen when I’m on vacation, at the cottage with my parents, or when my sister is visiting me.

Because my sister lives in Zürich, she often stays at my place when she visits Finland. While she’s here, she gets to witness my compulsive doing — my early-morning walks and writing sessions, my leaving for hobbies the minute the workday ends, my evening reading and stretching — and my defensiveness toward making it happen.

One day, when we were working from home together, I decided to do my usual afternoon body scan. I suck at napping (as if I could lie in bed doing nothing and fall asleep), but I often slip into the state between sleep and wakefulness during these sessions. I know you’re supposed to stay awake and alert, but when I get those sleep-onset twitches and jerks, I like to think my body is letting go of accumulated tension.

Before I shut myself in the alcove to listen to a calming voice guide me through the body from the toes to the tip of my nose, I walked to the kitchen doorway (my sister tends to work in the kitchen) to declare my plans.
“I’m going to do a Yoga Nidra now.”
“Okay. . .” my sister responded with raised eyebrows and a rising intonation as if to say: “Was that it?”
I gawked at her and added: “So don’t come in while I’m doing it.”
“Do you always have to be doing something? Can’t you just chill for a bit?”

I walked away, trying not to seem offended, but while I was paying attention to the tingling in my left big toe or butt cheek, my mind kept interrupting me: “She made it seem like this was yet another thing on my to-do list. I’m perfectly capable of doing nothing. I could’ve just as well lain on the couch and stared at the wall. But this is how I relax! What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing. So why had my sister’s comment upset me then?

It had upset me because it contained a seed of truth: I always have to be doing something. The body scan wasn’t just a time for chilling; it was a scheduled relaxation exercise that I knew to have health benefits.

My sister knows that self-discipline and hard work aren’t necessarily a sign of virtue. So when she smells something fishy, she calls me out on it. She’s done it many times.

She’s called me out on my 40-book reading goal. She’s called me out on my spending the evenings and weekends planning, filming, and editing YouTube videos on top of a full-time job. She’s called me out on my attending five consecutive 1.5-hour classes at a dance camp (“Is it even intended that way — or are you supposed to pick a few?”) and then going to a salsa-bachata-kizomba party in the evening.

Most of the time, she calls me out on my peculiar behavior. But about a year ago, when we were on vacation in Croatia, she called me out on what might be the root cause of it all. We were sitting and talking in the shade of a pine tree on a rocky beach in Forest Park Marjan in Split, when she asked, “Why do you want to become the best at everything?”

Good question.

Why do I want to become the best at everything — the best climber, the best dancer, the best writer? I couldn’t give her a satisfactory answer. Instead, I broke down in tears, wailing that maybe it‘s enough to be a caring and present sister, daughter, and friend. Maybe that’s all there is to a good life.

But I’m not sure I fully believe that yet. So I keep cramming things into my schedule.

Although I haven’t made that many changes based on the conversations with my sister, I know I’m lucky to have her be the one making those unflattering remarks. If it was anyone else, I might not listen.

I might not listen because it stings to have someone point a flashlight at your less admirable behaviors — especially when these behaviors make up most of your daily life. It‘s like your entire existence is being questioned.

But because it’s my sister, I listen.

I listen because I know she doesn’t frown upon me, judge me, or dismiss me. I listen because I know I can tell her how much it hurts to hear what she says. I listen because I know she does it out of love; she grew up in this family of doers, too.

So when she catches me amid yet another compulsive activity, we can take a breather and laugh at the absurdity of it, if only for a few seconds.

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Riikka Iivanainen

Content designer & user researcher fascinated by the human mind and behavior. I study (social) psychology for fun and love to tell stories—even the small ones.