By Thamar Jones
What a year this month has been! We’re all stressed, and there’s too much of everything happening, so I want to share some feel-good news and offer you some positive distraction from all that is going on.
The advice? Keep calm and do nothing. Stop being so busy, and just do nothing.
Does that sound good? Or does the thought alone makes you tick? After all, you can’t just do nothing right? You’re busy.
But running from place to place and laboring over long to-do lists have increasingly become ways to communicate status: I’m so busy because I’m just so important, or so the thinking goes. However, being busy — if we even are busy — is rarely the status indicator we’ve come to believe it is. Nonetheless, the impact is real, and instances of burnout, anxiety disorders and stress-related diseases are on the rise, not to mention millennial burnout. There’s a way out of that madness, and it’s not more mindfulness, exercise or a healthy diet (though these things are all still important). What we’re talking about is doing nothing.
How do we define nothing? It’s difficult to define what doing nothing is, because we are always doing something, even when we’re asleep. But it’s about coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be. It is to consciously do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.”
I have long been a fan of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity. In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.
Why we need to schedule time to do nothing
Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still and doing nothing and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives. Technology doesn’t make it any easier: The smartphone you carry with you at all hours makes it almost impossible to truly unplug and embrace idleness. By keeping ourselves busy at all times, we may be losing our ability to sit still because our brains are actually being rewired.
Indeed, the benefits of idleness can be wide-ranging. Research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas. For that to happen, though, total idleness is required. Let the mind search for its own stimulation. That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.
Counterintuitively, idleness can be a great productivity tool because if our energy is totally shot, our productivity is not going to be good because we’re not going to have fuel to burn with which to be productive.
Doing nothing can help you solve problems as well because it takes you out of your mind, allowing you to see things clearly after a while. But stopping the cycle of business can be challenging in a culture that prizes getting things done. Here are some tips to help you stop and be:
Purposely make time for doing nothing. Figure out when you’re most productive and creative, then notice when your mind starts to shut off or you start performing tasks just for the sake of doing them. That’s when you should go for a walk or take a break. The intention behind the decision is what counts. I do nothing with purpose because I know that without breaks I cannot be effective.
Prioritize the things that are important to you and the things that bring you pleasure, and outsource everything else when possible. Focusing on the truly relevant parts of life can help you build free time in your schedule. And take advantage of convenient opportunities to practice idleness, like when you’re standing in line or waiting for the children to come home from school.
Resist the culture of busyness. If you’re doing nothing, own it. When someone asks you what you’re doing during a nothing break, simply respond, “Nothing.” Be unapologetic about taking breaks or holidays, and if you start to feel guilty about being seen as lazy, think of your ability to sit still not as a sign of laziness but as an important life skill. Choose the initial discomfort of doing nothing over the familiarity of busyness.
Manage your expectations. Learning takes time and effort, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch on immediately to the benefits of idleness. Know that sitting still might actually be uncomfortable at first and might take practice — just like exercise. Psychologist Dodgen-Magee likens it to beginning a new workout routine: At first, you might get sore, but “after a while, you’ll find yourself in this moment where you’re like, ‘Oh, this feels fantastic.’”
Reorganize your environment. Your surroundings can have a major impact on how much nothingness you can embrace, so consider the physical space in your home and workplace. Keep your devices out of reach so that they’ll be more difficult to access, and turn your home into a relaxing area. Add a soft couch, a comfy armchair, a few cushions or just a blanket. Orient furniture around a window or fireplace rather than a TV.
Think outside of the box. If you can’t sit still in your home or workplace, go to the park or book a relaxing day at the spa. Ms. Dodgen-Magee encourages people to host boredom parties, during which a host invites over a few friends to – be bored together.
By Thamar Jones