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Embrace the Art of Doing Nothing

When my editor shot me an email asking about the progress on this article and the impending deadline, I told her, “Apologies for the delay. I was busy…busy practicing doing nothing. Or as the Dutch, who by no coincidence happen to be some of the happiest people on the planet, call it ‘niksen’—the art of doing nothing! Really, nothing!

Have you ever caught yourself staring out of the window, looking at the trees, skies, or gardens in the middle of a work day, and feeling guilty about it? I cannot blame you. We have built such a toxic habit of busyness that we tend to feel bad about taking time out to do nothing.

If you look at what you do with your leisure or down time’, you will probably find yourself very much doing something, as if to prove a point. For example, doing something to improve yourself or get fitter or smarter or more efficient or more skilled—working out, reading, learning to play the guitar, swimming, and cooking, among other things. And not to say those things are to be refrained from, but I’m merely pointing out the fact that we have lost the skill to ‘niksen’ and just be with ourselves.

Doing nothing can be difficult. We are so entrenched in our “busy” habit. What if I told you that the art of doing nothing can make you more productive and creative? Practicing it can boost creativity and productivity, curb anxiety, and clear up your mind space for more important things. But that, as true as it is, defeats the purpose of the practice.

What is the art of doing nothing?

Refreshingly, there is nothing to read between the lines here. It is simply time you spend with yourself with no agenda, no goal, and no purpose—to just be.

Put your gadgets aside and don’t invite chatty friends along, and pause alarm clocks and notifications. Pick a nice cozy corner or a comfortable chair in your house, porch, or out in nature—or by a window at the café—and sit by yourself and just do nothing. You can look at the skies or the streets in front of you and enjoy the views. You may even start noticing things around you, trees, birds, the architecture of buildings, your neighbor’s lawn, and patterns in the clouds—things that you may have never had a moment to connect or be with. We spend years living in our houses without ever truly connecting with our physical environment in a meaningful way. You don’t need to go anywhere to enjoy this art—you can start right where you are.

Niksen points at a method of mindless relaxation, and it is absolutely okay if your mind takes off into the land of imagination and memories for a bit. The goal here is not to have a thoughtless mind, but one that is free from the stress of having to achieve or get somewhere. It also allows semi-automatic activities that do not require mental engagement like knitting or walking, to ease into the practice.

What if I find it difficult to do nothing?

It is very plausible that given your lifestyle and conditioning, you may initially struggle with the idea of doing nothing. Your mind may be inundated with thoughts and questions like, “What if while I am ‘niksen’ing my way to mental peace, others are being productive?”, “What am I supposed to do with my mind while doing the practice?”, or “Did I leave the faucet or the lights on?” The idea is to ease into the practice by first spending only a few minutes in it, and slowly increasing the duration to say half an hour per week or 15–20 minutes every other day. With practice, you’ll experience fewer thoughts in the mind and begin to enjoy the exercise.

Why should you embrace the art of doing nothing?

Our brain is a wonderland and science backs the benefits of doing nothing. When you give that particular executive circuit of the brain that is busy thinking, memorizing, processing information, and planning, a rest, you trigger the imaginative or creative circuit, birthing new ideas, and solutions for previously existing problems. Simply put, idling away gets the creative juices flowing.

1. More Happiness. It can result in more happiness for you. A study conducted on students from a Dutch coaching center who were experiencing stress and burnout reported less stress and more happiness from practicing niksen regularly.

2. Creative ways to solve problems. When you are running against time or have been trying to solve a problem for too long, taking out a few minutes to do nothing can help you find innovative solutions to problems you have been stuck at. It is as simple as bringing in a fresh, clear mind to look at the problem. According to a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Psychology and quoted in an article in Time, “(study) on the pros and cons of a wandering mind, showed that this process can help an individual get inspired about achieving his or her goals and gain clarity about the actions to take to meet those goals in the future.”

3. Fighting anxiety and stress. The stress levels among US adults and teens have been through the roof in the last few years and any practice that helps us ease into a state of unburdening and expansion is worth considering. Practices that help you slow down, like niksen, can reduce anxiety; slow down aging; build immunity in the body, and are enticing reasons to give it a chance.

The Downside to Niksen

What possible harm can little idling cause? Well, while doing nothing, our minds tend to ruminate, get into worries, or bring up emotionally disconcerting memories. There could be physiological symptoms too. The study mentioned above talks about a jump in the heart rate for 24 hours and a lack of sleep among participants immediately after doing the wandering mind practice. This however was not indicative of their long-term emotional responses.

It might sound obvious, but it still needs to be mentioned that opposing values complement each other and so ‘doing nothing’ has value in a very active life. A physically and mentally active life can be rewarding in and of itself, but the combination of timely rest for the mind by doing nothing, and then using the energy and freed up mental space to go out there and do something is what makes for a well-rounded life.

So now and then sit quietly and just be. It is what makes for a qualitative pause in an otherwise non-stop busy, exhausting, and often stressful day.