The Power of Doing Nothing

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Getting Back in Balance by Doing Nothing

Doing nothing is finally getting some respect.

That’s because scientists and humanists examining our frenzied, technology obsessed society are figuring out that “we the people” are out of balance. The emphasis is on “people” in the sense of the individual human being.

Alan Lightman, a physicist and author of In Praise of Wasting Time, warns us that our society is draining us of an essential element of human development – “know thyself.”

“By not giving ourselves the minutes, or hours, free of devices and distractions, we risk losing our ability to know who we are and what’s important to us,” said Lightman, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a TED Talk.

“Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves,” said Lightman. “We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog, relentlessly driven by the speed, noise and artificial urgency of the wired world.”

Our Rushed Lifestyles Provoke Anxiety

As a developed nation, “we the people” have laws and immense freedom, but somehow we seem to have lost the ability “to insure domestic tranquility” in our homes and personal lives. This is happening not just in the U.S., but in every country where technology has created the 24/7 obsession to stay connected.

Our homes are stopovers in the rush to get to work, do errands and run kids to a tight schedule of activities. Teenagers and even young children are struggling with depression and anxiety, while spending endless hours with social media “friends” who are more digital ghosts than real relationships.

“The situation is dire,” warns Lightman. “The loss of slowness, of time for reflection and contemplation, of privacy and solitude, of silence, of the ability to sit quietly in a chair for 15 minutes without external stimulation — all have happened quickly and almost invisibly. A hundred and fifty years ago, the telephone didn’t exist. Fifty years ago, the Internet didn’t exist. Twenty-five years ago, Google didn’t exist.”

Doing Nothing is Understood in The Netherlands

Dutch writer Olga Mecking points out that there’s a word in the Netherlands for doing nothing – ”niksen.” “The idea of ‘niksen’ is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless,” Mecking wrote in a New York Times article, “The Case for Doing Nothing.”

“The less-enlightened might call such activities lazy or wasteful,” said Mecking. She calls that perspective “nonsense.”

Research is showing that idleness makes way for clarity that results in better problem solving, productivity and creativity. That sense of clarity is good for mental health.

5 Tips to Add ‘Doing Nothing’ to Your Daily Life

  • Realize that being super busy doesn’t make you more important. You do have to function, earn a living, take care of yourself and your family and maintain relationships with friends. But understand that keeping mind and body in balance, with time to wind down and stop the flood of input, makes you more valuable to yourself and others.
  • Encourage schools to have 15 minutes of silence each day. This must be unstructured time to write thoughts, stare out the window, maybe even walk outside into a courtyard. This is not a time to do homework or check social media. The idea is to get educators, parents and school systems to respect the long-term value doing nothing, starting with just a few minutes.
  • Create a quiet room at your workplace. Encourage managers to allow each employee to spend 30 minutes a day in a room with no computers, smartphones or TV. This would not be part of the regular lunch break. It can be a time to meditate or if there’s access to the outside, to take a short quiet walk or sit on a bench under a tree. This is not a time for meetings or to chat about work issues.
  • Unplugged family time. This has been suggested for decades and we have continuing research to show that turning off the TV, keeping the smartphone out of sight and out of reach, and being away from a computer screen allows meaningful conversation and improves relationships. We know this unplugged family time is valuable for mental health for all members of the family, no matter how much teenagers, and smartphone obsessed parents, might initially resist.
  • Make it a priority to spend half an hour in an unplugged spot. Take a walk. Sit and read an inspiring book. Listen to the birds. Choose a 30-minute block of time and have no plans, no to-do list, no phone calls or texts. Learn to be comfortable with doing nothing and just allow yourself to “be” in the moment. This is the basis of mindfulness, not just a technique, but an ongoing perspective that can help us, on a larger scale, put more of “doing nothing” back into our society.
  • References

    Lightman, Alan, “Why we owe it to ourselves to spend quiet time alone every day,” TED Talk, May 15, 2018

    Mecking, Olga, “The Case for Doing Nothing,” New York Times, April 29, 2019

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