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The essential skill of goofing off

By Dianne Molvig / July 20, 1988



Just to fool around - there can be a wisdom in this that, at times, passes all work-bound understanding.

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- H.A. Overstreet in ``A Guide to Civilized Loafing, 1934''

OVER the years, I've become fairly adept at planning, organizing, scheduling, coordinating ... all those various survival skills that make it possible to fit work, home, and family into my life.

However, it's become clear to me that while I'm now pretty good at doing three or more things at once, I still have much to learn about doing nothing at all. To remedy this sorry situation, I've decided that learning to goof off is one of my life challenges.

I'm serious. I'm convinced that goofing off is another essential survival skill for modern life, albeit one that we mostly overlook and undervalue. To most of us, goofing off has a bad image. We think of it as decadent, that it means being lazy and irresponsible, procrastinating, avoiding what we ``should'' be doing, and, consequently, feeling guilty.

But I'm not talking here about spending an afternoon as a couch potato, stuffing yourself with chips, watching television shows you don't even want to watch, dozing off in between, and ending up feeling dull, leaden, and out of sorts.

On the contrary, goofing off, as I define it, is something quite different. It's what Walt Whitman was talking about when he said, ``I loaf and invite my soul.'' Those who master the art of goofing off find that it nurtures and revitalizes body, mind, and spirit. It is recreation in the true sense of the word: ``re-creation.''

It seems to me that much of what we call recreation and relaxation these days is as driven and goal-oriented as our work. We work at playing. If we go out for a walk or a run, we schedule it into a certain part of our day, set aside a specific amount of time for it, push ourselves to keep up a certain pace, and probably even plan beforehand the exact route that we will follow. We can be just as scheduled and structured about such activities as playing golf or going out with friends.

Goofing off, on the other hand, is totally unscheduled and unstructured. It's letting loose, letting go, not planning, not striving for anything in particular ... simply letting things happen.

I say ``simply,'' but actually it's not so simple at all. It's hard to be good at goofing off, especially for those of us who pride ourselves in being organized and self-disciplined. After all, that's what keeps all the various parts of our lives working together. But to be good at goofing off we have to be willing to let go, give up a little control, step out of our roles, at least for a while - scary as that may be.

Getting out of our roles - and thus just being ourselves - is what makes goofing off so healthy for us. As my friend Tricia explains, ``It's a time when I say to myself, `Hey, remember me?' I bring all my attention to what I'm doing at the moment and let go of other stuff.'' Tricia, a single mother with a career, is good at goofing off. She makes at least a little time for it each day. She might just sit in a chair for a while, to daydream and look out the window. Or she may take a walk or bike ride, and even if she's on her way to work or to run an errand, she'll go the long way around and take her time.

Of course, what works for Tricia may not work for everyone. What's goofing off to one person may be sheer drudgery to another. Not only do different things appeal to different people, but different things may appeal to the same person on different days.

Maybe one day you'll feel like lying in your hammock in the backyard for a while, watching the clouds float overhead and daydreaming, or woolgathering as people used to call it. Another day you may be in the mood for exploring some city streets you've never been down before. Or window-shopping ... or people-watching ... or foraging through old souvenirs in the attic. The possibilities are endless.

And now I must confess I'm not very good at practicing what I preach. As I said earlier, I have a lot to learn. Unlike my friend Tricia, I tend to largely neglect my needs for goofing off for a long time. Then, finally, I'll go on a big goofing-off binge. My latest was a week-long stay at a rented cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan. I left behind at home my family, dog, cat, work, telephone, clock, and daily planning calendar. All week I didn't know what time it was, and I didn't care. I read, daydreamed, took long walks on the deserted beach, and wrote in my journal. I slowed down, I listened to what was going on inside myself, and I got through all seven days without one single ``to do'' list to guide me.

Actually, it's difficult to say what I ``did.'' All I know is that by the end of the week, I was beginning to understand what Walt Whitman meant.