Do Nothing: an overlooked path to getting the right things done

A New Year (quarter, month, or day) presents a clean slate for you to create life-enhancing habits, initiate action on big goals, develop an important skill, start a long-desired hobby, or volunteer for a worthy cause. But sometimes you just need to take the pressure off.

Play in the sandbox. Drop some obligations you already have. Get off the committee. Cut the to-do list from 10 items to one. Focus on just 20% of the work that produces 80% of the results. Stop giving 110% in everything you do. Create more margin. Do less. Do nothing.

Yes, you read that right: Do nothing.

In our productivity-obsessed, always-on, action-biased culture — in which busyness is a status symbol and a measure of success — it is hard to be still. It can be scary to allow the mind to rest or roam in default mode.

Why would we not optimize, manage, or invest our time by doing something (anything), big or small? Doesn’t success come from upping our game, raising our ambitions, achieving our goals and improving every day? Why would any productive high-performer choose to do nothing when there is so much to do?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “do-nothing” as follows: noun – a shiftless or lazy person; adjective – marked by inactivity or failure to make positive progress.

Doing nothing encourages mind-wandering, in which your attention disengages from the immediate external environment or current external tasks and drifts to a more personal direction and internal trains of thought. Mind-wandering includes daydreaming, zoning out, and spacing out, which are often viewed as useless internal distractions and irresponsible loafing.

Some studies link this natural human experience to higher levels of unhappiness, depression and anxiety, which are fueled by worries about the future and ruminations about the past. This is why contemplative practices like meditation and mindfulness are prescribed to effectively reduce mind-wandering.

You do need the ability to initiate, direct and sustain your focus on external, goal-directed tasks and avoid attention lapses. A drifting mind has to come back to the present moment for you to make progress and finish the project.

But you also need the capacity to generate new ideas and fresh insights. While there is tremendous value in doing things, experimenting, and producing results, there is also a downside when the do-er part of you never shuts off.

There is a growing body of research to support doing nothing as a life-enriching and stress-relief practice. Neuroscientists and psychologists are finding that while mind-wandering carries disruptive consequences, it also offers unique benefits when it is done at the appropriate time and place. Under the right circumstances, a wandering mind helps to boost creativity, spark original thought, bust a bad mood, increase productivity and clarify goals.

In her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self , author Manoush Zomorodi makes a strong case for allowing your mind to wander and yourself to get bored. She points to studies indicating the executive attention network is not the only part of your brain that is responsible for productivity and creativity.

When you’re daydreaming, spacing out or zoning out (i.e. mind-wandering), you rely on another part of your brain called the default mode network (DMN). The areas that make up the DMN are the medial temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, which are inactive in cognitively demanding tasks. They are activated when you’re having a spontaneous thought, tapping into memories, imagining the future, evaluating others’ perspectives, engaging in self-reflection, and forming theories and hypotheses.

These cognitive processes are most prevalent when you are not engaged in activity (and feeling rested) or when you are involved in low-cognitive demand or mundane tasks (and feeling bored). Although it’s important to deactivate the DMN when you must redirect your attention and stay on task, you also need to activate it to maintain brain health and maximize creativity. Being productive involves the capacity to shift between different thinking modes as required by context.

When you get comfortable with doing nothing, you won’t give in to the urge to check social media every time you feel bored or to text a friend when you’re stopped at a redlight. Instead of filling your calendar with meetings, appointments, activities and events, you will savor the white space. You will be less prone to work addiction and more intentional with your downtime. You will be less reactive to negative feedback and more thoughtful in your responses.

When you do nothing, you allow yourself to reflect, ponder, daydream, rest and spark creative thought. You disengage from chronic busyness, which often causes high stress, fatigue, insomnia, and burnout, as well as harm to significant relationships.

Doing nothing is an overlooked path to getting the right things done. Although self-regulation and high focus are critical, you also benefit from divergent thinking and making new connections with an idle, wandering mind.

Of course, you wouldn’t get anything done if you did nothing and had your mind drift without any restraints. There is a time and place for everything. Focus is necessary if you’re a surgeon performing an operation, a lawyer presenting at trial, or a speaker giving a talk.

But instead of spinning your wheels, keeping yourself busy with busy work, and producing crap results due to long work hours, why not just do nothing?

What does it mean to do nothing? The Dutch term for it is: Niksen, which literally means to do nothing, idle, sit around, lounge about, or hang about, says Carolien Hamming, author of Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. In her Special Note to the Reader, she writes:

“Niksen is a stress reducing and mindful practice from the Netherlands. Practical examples are staring out the window, sitting on the couch or lying in bed. Niksen helps us slow down and celebrate the moment of not achieving. Niksen is similar to mindfulness, yet you don’t need anything special to do nothing.”

You can people-watch and observe nature, with no distractions, e.g. no cell phone in hand, no book to read, no music in the background. There are no intentions, goals or purpose, other than to just be. Allow your mind to wander without coming back to the present moment (which is different from meditation or mindfulness).

Intentionally doing nothing is not just mindless relaxation. It is a complementary, sister practice to meditation or mindfulness. You are not accidentally drifting off, but setting a time to do nothing. This could be as short as a 5-minute pause between two goal-oriented tasks, or as long as one hour of quiet time.

To ease yourself into it, you may pair it with a task that requires little or no concentration, like walking around your neighborhood, doing the dishes, playing with your kids, or folding your laundry.

Doing nothing is often very uncomfortable, especially for high-achieving do-ers. But as a long-term, consistent practice, it will help you reduce overwhelm, avoid overwork, make deliberate choices, let go of unfinished business, and attend to what really matters.