Let’s start with an important question:
Who are you without the doing?
Often, so much of our value—our identity even—seems caught up in the things we’ve done, are doing, or plan to do in the future. We don’t feel good about ourselves if time goes by and we don’t accomplish anything.
Admit it, if you ended up lost in thought in the bath or staring out the window and hours went by, would you celebrate that, or would you chastise yourself for it, focusing on ‘wasted time’ and all the other things you could have been doing?
When was the last time you did nothing? Not specifically meditation, not relaxation exercises, not visualizations. Just…nothing.
How long do you think you could do it for? It’s hard, right? In fact, one study found people prefer to self-administer electric shocks than being left alone with nothing to do!
While meditation is definitely a worthy practice to pursue, many people have trouble prioritizing it because it can feel like another wellness “should,” not to mention that it has a goal (non-attachment). It’s hard work at the beginning and some days even for seasoned professionals!
Feel free to think of ‘doing nothing’ as a warm-up to meditation and something sprinkled naturally throughout the day, rather than a ‘sitting with eyes closed’ session. What’s lovely about doing nothing is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it! Unlike meditation, you don’t need to try to do anything—to pay attention to the breath or to observe your thoughts or empty the mind—we’re just stopping for a moment. Physically and mentally.
Maybe your mind wanders for a while. Perhaps it goes quiet. Maybe it focuses itself on a problem or a creative idea.
Why do nothing?
First: It’s good for you. Sounds simple, but for those of us (most of us) caught in the cult of ‘being productive,’ it’ll take some convincing. We’ve been conditioned by western society to believe that accomplishing, striving, and forward momentum make us important, bright, and enviable. We’re slaves to our to-do list.
We could link to a hundred studies about how we’re overworked, over-stimulated, and emotionally unwell, but you probably already know this, because you feel it.
Think about balance—the ‘doingness’ of life needs some period of ‘beingness’ to restore balance in us.
Second: Great things can come from doing nothing. When you stop doing, you may notice that your breathing is really shallow, you’re holding a lot of tension in your chest, or you just hadn’t noticed the birds outside. Ideas can flow. Solutions to problems can arise.
What if you sat for half an hour and did nothing? Not “sit cross-legged, close your eyes and focus on your breathing” nothing. Just nothing. Pose questions to yourself if you like. How am I feeling? 30 minutes with that thought gently swimming around your brain might give you some pretty profound answers.
For many things, our brains can make split-second decisions, but for other things, the mind needs space and time to ponder the layers of thought and emotion involved. Often we don’t notice that we’re actually tired/hungry/anxious until we stop the constant motion for a minute.
One caveat. While it’s true that doing nothing can enhance creativity and problem solving, try not to think of it as a means to an end. These things can be a bonus, but there is no goal except to just be.
Finally: Doing nothing can be a way of taking a stand. In this ‘attention economy,’ big powerful companies rely on us being constantly engaged. The unrelenting push of consumerism depends on us consistently producing and continuously buying. Not giving your attention to things can be a form of resistance. A way of taking a stand and saying, “I don’t need to devour content all day. I can tune out and just be with myself.” And also, do it to show yourself you can. That you’re not a slave to your phone, or the TV, or housework, or any other tempting distraction. That you have a beautiful mind with an infinite capacity to engage, entertain and soothe you.
Just as you have the right to do lots of things, you also have the right not to. Not to express yourself, or constantly share your life, or keep up with everyone else’s broadcasts. You have the right to just be with yourself, without external stimulation. Reclaim your own time, thoughts, and energy.
New to nothingness? Here’s a how-to.
Let’s be honest, even though it should be the most natural thing in the world, many of us need some training here. We need to get better at being alone with ourselves so we don’t get on the hamster wheel of negativity, stress, and over-thinking. We also need to get into the habit of working some ‘moments of being’ into our hectic days. Here are some suggestions, but feel free to do it your own way!
First: Take advantage of natural ‘do nothing opportunities’ already built into your day. When opportunities arise where you have to wait for something, just wait. Traffic? Train arriving? File downloading? Kettle boiling? Shower warming up? Take-out order being prepared? There are so many tiny opportunities to press pause already happening in your day. Keep an eye out for them, and then resist the urge to grab your phone or sneak in another task. Just look around you. Or gaze off into space. Or notice how you’re feeling for a second.
Next: Once you’ve started taking advantage of the tiny pauses, you can begin to create those moments for yourself, however brief. This one’s more challenging because we’re so programmed to be doing something all the time. Maybe pull up outside your home and just sit for three minutes. Close the book you were reading and just give it a couple of minutes before starting doing the next thing. Step out of the shower, get dry, and just stand for a minute and breathe before getting dressed. Turn off the TV after the episode is done and sit for a little while. You might feel crazy or anxiously unproductive, but soon, we’ll bet you find yourself savouring these delicious little moments of nothing.
Finally: If you’re enjoying these little deviations from distraction, extend those moments, make them more regular if you prefer routine. Decide to do nothing for an hour every Friday morning. Or schedule a block of your daily calendar, like 30 minutes of nothing every day after lunch (ooh, it almost feels naughty, doesn’t it!)
Use them as an opportunity to stare out the window, or think about a problem, or notice the sounds in the room. If your intentional mind-wandering is slipping towards the negative, go for a bit of mindfulness. Pay attention to the sunshine or the wind. Notice how your clothes feel on your skin. Notice your chest rising and falling with each breath. Now you’re moving towards mindfulness and meditation, which is just a more focused version of doing nothing. Look at you!
Enjoy just being. You are worth it.
Dive in and learn more:
- Book: Idleness: A philosophical essay
- Video: How to do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy
- Podcast: Is there an art to doing nothing?
- Article: Why doing nothing is actually one of the best things you can do