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How Doing Nothing Actually Helps You Do More
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Lorelei Yang image
Lorelei Yang,
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words
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Let's face it: modern life can be exhausting. With everything everyone has on their plate nowadays, the urge to simply throw in the towel and give up can sometimes feel irresistible. Truly, anyone among us who says they've never felt the urge to collapse in a tired, overwhelmed heap at least once in their life is a liar. 

Is it ever productive to simply choose to do nothing? Most people would probably say no. The idea of choosing to do nothing in order to achieve something feels counterintuitive and almost wrong, doesn't it? This seems especially true today, with busyness serving as a status symbol of sorts for modern workers. 

In a 2016 article in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers Silvia Belezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan argued that today's workers brag about their busyness as a way to signal how much the labor market values them and their skills — so, by extension, someone who isn't busy must not be particularly valuable.

However, the Dutch would disagree that busyness at all times is a virtue. The Dutch concept of "niksen," the idea of taking conscious, considered time and energy to do "meaningless" activities such as gazing out of a window or sitting motionless, is being touted as the new, better mindfulness.

What is niksen?

"Niksen" is a Dutch stress-reducing practice. It literally means "to do nothing" or "to be idle." The idea is to let your mind go where it will without guilt or expectation, allowing it to rest and recuperate. This is similar to the Italian concept of "dolce far ninete," which describes the pleasure of enjoying oneself and time spent doing nothing.

Writing in Dutch Review, Ionela Bărbuță observes, "For the Dutchies, looking out the window as people pass or going to the beach to stare at the waves for a while is considered niksen. And by doing so, they obtain a state of calmness, of tranquility that they really like."

In contrast to "flow," which is focused on activity, or mindfulness, which teaches awareness of oneself in relation to one's surroundings, niksen requires absolutely nothing at all from its practitioners.

What does it mean to do nothing?

In an interview with Woolly Magazine, Carolien Hamming, a coach at CSR Century, an organization developed to fighting stress and burnout, gives "doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music" as examples of practicing niksen. 

In a New York Times article, Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K., defines niksen more broadly as "when we’re not doing the things we should be doing. Because perhaps we don’t want to, we’re not motivated. Instead, we’re not doing very much.” 

Why we need to welcome niksen into our lives

Niksen may allow us to become healthier, more creative and more productive. Hamming believes that "niksen on a regular basis is important to stay healthy," as it serves as "a form of mental resting [and] recuperation, while you're awake." Mann's research has revealed that daydreaming — which is an inevitable side effect of the idleness that niksen entails — makes people more creative and better at problem-solving. Chris Bailey, a productivity expert and author of the blog "A Life of Productivity" argues that idleness can be a great productivity tool because we simply can't be productive when our energy is totally shot due to overexertion.

Once we recognize that our minds require rest and recuperation time in the same way that our bodies do, the idea of niksen makes intuitive sense. We'd never argue that someone should give up sleep — which the body needs to restore itself — in order to be more productive. Similarly, we should recognize that practicing niksen is akin to sleep time for our brains.

How to make time for doing nothing

1. Take advantage of already low productivity times of day.

To start building niksen into your own day-to-day life, start by using already low productivity times of day — such as the post-lunch slump or lazy Sunday mornings — to engage in purposefully idle activities. These may include going for a walk, taking a break to zone out or doing something else that allows your mind to wander. 

2. Allow yourself to let pockets of time go.

You can also take advantage of small, natural breaks in your day, such as when you're standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for a meeting to start, to relax your mind. Rather than straining to use those few seconds to respond to just one more email or read one more pointless clickbait article, allow yourself to simply be idle.

3. Be unapologetically unscheduled.

Embrace an attitude of being unapologetically unscheduled when you're engaging in niksen. This is harder than it may seem, especially when American work culture increasingly prizes busyness, but is a critical element of the niksen attitude. So, the next time someone asks what you're doing when you're taking a niksen break, simply say, "Nothing."

4. Reorganize your environment (or change your environment) to facilitate niksen.

When you're ready to engage in niksen, move your devices — your phone, laptop and tablet — to be out of reach so they (and Netflix) aren't easily accessible. To make a more permanent change to facilitate niksen, you could consider orienting your furniture around a window or fireplace rather than a TV, creating niksen-ready spaces in your home.

If your home or workplace simply doesn't seem to allow you to sit still, move to a different environment. If you're the outdoorsy type, a park day may be perfect. If you're looking to pamper yourself through niksen, you could book a relaxing spa day.

Now that you've learned about the benefits of niksen, how will you practice it? Leave a comment below to share your ideas for deliciously unproductive times.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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