The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Woman in hammockI read an article in the New York Times today about “niksen” which is a Dutch word meaning doing nothing. The article talks about how doing nothing can be good for you.

Ironically the article touts the idea of doing nothing so that you can be more productive. Which to me would mean you are doing nothing so that you can be better at doing something else. This does fit with the science of how the brain works, and how creativity works. (I’ve made an entire online video course on the topic). When you give your Executive Attention Network a break by not thinking or focusing on anything in particular, that frees up your Imagination Network (I know, I know, but this is actually the name given to this brain network by scientists) to work on solving problems and coming up with new ideas based on what you were concentrating on before. So it is true that if you take a break and stare into space for a while that will help you come up with ideas and problem solutions.

But doing nothing so you can then be better at doing something seems to run counter to the idea of niksen. What about doing nothing so that you just do nothing?

I’ve been teaching an 8-week Mindfulness Meditation course once or twice a year at my local yoga studio (a wonderful place called 5 Koshas in Wausau Wisconsin). The 8 week class includes homework, such as practicing the meditation we learned in class that week every day at home and so on. It’s a pretty intensive class. 

The last time I taught it I added to the homework. I asked students to practice 5 minutes a day of niksen. I asked them to sit in nature or stare out their window, or sit in their comfy chair at home and look at the fire in the fireplace, or just stare into space. This was the one thing I got push back on.  They were willing to practice meditation for 20 minutes every day, but to sit and do nothing for 5 minutes? “I don’t have time to do that” was the typical answer. “I have responsibilities, children, work…”.

I’m not disputing that they are busy people. I get it. I remember when I had two young children at home. But the vehemence with which they fought this idea seemed out of proportion with what I was asking them to do. 

I think the real reason for the resistence is that many of us have created a “busy habit”. We’re addicted to doing stuff. We have to prove something to ourselves and the world. I’m not sure what that something is, but it involves striving, being productive, being busy, working hard, playing hard. Everything has to have a purpose and be connected with a goal. Even our leisure time has to be busy, busy, busy.  Even our “down” time has to be filled with all the ways we are making ourselves better. We need to be learning to play piano, getting more exercise, learning how to make wine and so on.

I’m glad that the New York Times wrote about niksen. I hope this idea becomes more mainstream. I’ve always loved doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ambitious as the next person. I write books and run a business. I compose music and grow an extensive garden. I teach meditation classes and organize my photos. But I also love to sit in one place and just look around me and do nothing at all. Maybe now my seeming “laziness” will become smart and trendy. 

If you haven’t tried out niksen lately I highly recommend you do so. It’s easy. Sit down somewhere and don’t do anything. Don’t bring your phone, or a book, or someone to talk to, or a podcast to listen to. Don’t try and take a nap. Just sit and stare or look around you lazily. You might like it.