Zero Day

I was wearing a concert shirt from the recent Smashing Pumpkins tour that simply says “ZERO” on it. At breakfast, a dear friend asked me if it was for “zero day.” He obviously has a limited range of music appreciation, but other than that, he’s a really great guy. I told him it was a concert t-shirt, and he then told me about zero day.

There are two truly legendary trails in the US—the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). More than 2,100 miles long, the A.T. runs from Georgia to Maine while the PCT, at more than 2,600 miles long, runs from Mexico to Canada. These trails attract hikers of all types, but the most dedicated are those that thru-hike, essentially an end-to-end backpacking trip.

Over the course of the five or more months it takes to thru-hike one of these trails, there will be “zero days.” These are days when the hiker is not gaining mileage toward the end of the trail. This could be a resupply day where the hiker spends the day in a nearby town. It could also just be a day of rest. Thru-hikers will average 14-20 miles per day, but some days will do significantly less. Those are called “nero days” for “nearly zero” days.

Thru-hiking takes a toll on the hiker mentally as well as physically. It is unhealthy and unwise for them to keep up the daily pace with no breaks. There is also the practical issue of needing to resupply, repair or replace equipment, and socialize. For a variety of reasons, taking a day off every so often is the key to success as it allows the hiker to continue to do the higher mileage the rest of the days.

Some seasons of life are perhaps a little like thru-hiking. We are on task, have a goal in mind, are prepared and supplied, and have started on the path. Along the way, we will overcome things we didn’t know we could and be challenged in ways we didn’t anticipate. We may have periods where the miles are flying by, or we may get injured or delayed. We will discover things about ourselves and then at times may wonder why we decided to do this in the first place. We will experience exhilaration and the energy that comes from honest effort and certainly have moments where we are tired to our bones.

Like the thru-hiker, we will need zero days.

What does a zero day look like? Like the hiker, our zero day can be an opportunity to resupply and reset, it can be a day to rest, or it can be a combination of both. Putting miles behind you on the trail means not doing a lot of other things. It also means using the same muscles continuously for days at a time. Achieving any goal or completing any complex project will result in some overuse of parts of our capability and neglect of some other areas of our lives.

Sleep is the most important element for mental and physical health. Being on task and tied to a schedule can interrupt our ability to get adequate sleep. Maybe you need a long weekend to sleep until your body wakes you up We should try to get good sleep all the time, but if your life gets in the way, this is a good thing to put on your zero day list.

Depending on your personality, you may need time alone or time with people. Think about what gives you energy where people are concerned and lean into that. For some, it will be socializing with a group, maybe going out to dinner, taking a day trip with several others, or attending an event. For others, it will be intimate time with one or two other people, playing a board game, sharing a meal, or even just watching a movie or show together. For yet others, it will be time alone, a quiet walk, reading a book, listening to a great album.

Many of us spend too much time in crisis. We may tell people we like it. We may even be good at it. It is still hard on us and detrimental to mental and emotional health. When we are in crisis, we are in survival mode. The creative part of our brain actually goes quiet and gets out of the way of the “stay alive” part. A zero day could include doing something creative. Painting, writing, gardening, building—really anything that taps into the hands-on, brain-engaged-in-making-something kind of activities.

People like lists because we get stuff out of our head and onto “paper” so we can quit keeping track of them. When we are busy, we let things that have lower priorities go, but they are not gone. We are still thinking about them, bumping into them, and even shaming ourselves about them. A zero day can be a great opportunity to clean some of those things up. Do some chores. Clean out the garage. Paint that room. It’s all about clearing the way so you can be focused and productive when you go back to the main thing.

It is not healthy to trudge along day after day after day. We need breaks. We need to resupply and refresh. We need zero days. Leadership is most effective when it is by example. We need to be consistent in taking zero days ourselves so that the people we serve will be more comfortable taking the zero days they need. We need to create a culture where you don’t get extra points for hiking non-stop; you get points for hiking well and resting well. Zero days are part of maintaining a healthy mind and body, and they are The Bison Way.