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“It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don’t mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
I recently conducted a small experiment. I started to count the amount of times that me or my colleagues said: “I am so busy”. I noticed it was the phrase most commonly used to excuse oneself from social activities and to explain away stress.
In a world where busyness is worn like a badge of honor, the concept of doing nothing sounds almost like a sacrilege. By doing nothing, I am not talking about mindlessly binging on social media or watching 5 episodes in a row of Breaking Bad, nor is it engaging in every possible fruitless activity to procrastinate priorities. Instead, I refer to a relaxed and pleasant idleness, a time to be without a purpose or agenda. The italians like to call it “il dolce far niente”, the sweet doing nothing.
This lost art, often overlooked in our relentless pursuit of productivity, is also referred to by the Dutch as ‘niksen’ – a practice that invites us to simply be, without the weight of accomplishment or expectation. Niksen and il dolce far niente invite us to moments of basically slacking around amidst life’s constant motion
Sounds simple and easy. And the instructions could not be less complicated: find some unstructured time and chill out without attempting to be productive. Find some unguarded moments, where you have nothing to do and no urge to find something new to do, and just be. Don’t try to meditate, not even relax. Nothing formal, just look around, daydream, doodle or watch the clouds. But Oscar Wilde was on to something when he comically said “it is awfully hard work to do nothing”.
And yet, it is certainly worth trying. Doing nothing is a powerful practice that can transform the way we live and work. Here is why:
In the midst of our chaotic schedules, our minds often resemble a cluttered attic, with thoughts piling up like forgotten belongings. The legendary Albert Einstein was a fervent advocate for daydreaming, a practice akin to Niksen. He often credited his groundbreaking ideas to moments of creative idleness. Didn’t Sherlock Holmes solve his mysteries while playing the violin in a slightly distracted way? Activities that are done without the pressure of having to be productive work at activating our imagination. When we let our minds wander freely, unexpectedly creative ideas can bubble up when we least expect them.
Enhances focus and productivity
Contrary to common belief, taking short breaks of restful idleness can enhance productivity. These purposeful pauses prevent burnout, maintain focus, and improve overall efficiency. Allowing your brain to rest reduces cognitive load and resets your decision-making capacities. In our times of attention-spam deficit, focus is a precious commodity. We can use niksen moments to enhance concentration. Start small – take 5-minute breaks during your workday to indulge in purposeless moments. Whether you’re savoring a cup of tea or gazing out the window, allow yourself to be fully present. These mindful pauses act as mental reset buttons, sharpening your focus and boosting overall productivity when you return to your tasks.
Building little moments of indulgent laziness into our day activates the “rest-and-digest” response, this undoubtedly helps to balance stress levels and improve overall well-being. I have a friend who has done many different spiritual and meditation practices. Nowadays, she tells me that going to the park and doing 15 minutes of niksen, just looking around, and taking off any pressure to be productive (even relaxing!) has been the most beneficial practice to help her relax.
Fosters meaningful connections and team building
Consider the gatherings hosted by renowned philosopher and author Bertrand Russell. He valued leisurely discussions, believing that meaningful connections arose from unhurried conversations. Niksen encourages mindfulness and presence. By being fully engaged in the moment, you can cultivate deeper connections with others. Whether it’s active listening during conversations or enjoying shared moments of stillness, Niksen can enhance the quality of your relationships, fostering understanding and empathy.
Heightens joy and pleasure
Il Dolce Far Niente encourages us to notice the small joys – the warmth of sunlight on our skin, the gentle rustle of leaves, or the soothing rhythm of raindrops. By immersing ourselves fully in these moments, we amplify our enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures. Since life is a collection of moments this allows us to string together a series of delightful moments. While each instance of doing nothing may seem inconsequential, their cumulative effect is profound. By valuing and relishing these moments, we create a life woven with threads of happiness and contentment.
Sounds good? Then, here is a beginner’s guide. You will find your own tone and preferences, but here are some tips to get started.
To practice niksen, you need to be comfortably idle without attempting to be productive.
Embrace the sweetness of doing nothing without guilt or hesitation. Allow yourself the freedom to be unproductive, to savor life’s quiet moments, and to find pleasure in idleness. If you need to quiet your guilty conscience, remind yourself that, in the end, this activity will undoubtedly increase your productivity.
Imagine gazing out of a window, savoring the aroma of your morning coffee, or daydreaming as you listen to music. What about curling up on your sofa, or doodling while listening to background sounds? I find sitting on a bench in the park watching people is great. Lately, I take 5-minute holidays where I look around and try to see everything as if I were a tourist. I love it! The main thing is to forget (for just a short while) that there are or have ever been things to get done.
You don’t always need a spiritual coach or a teacher to give you complex techniques to relax, you might do better just stretching out in a hammock reading an easy-to-follow book, or watching dogs and cats sleep away.
Try it out – it might just be the most productive decision you make today.