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Why “Doing Nothing” Is The Best Thing You Can Do
In a society that places such a great emphasis on productivity, the prospect of “doing nothing” can seem both counterintuitive and lazy. We oftentimes fill up every hour of our day with tasks that satisfy our need to be productive, convincing ourselves that the endless work is a measure of greater success. With everyone around us constantly in overdrive, we believe we have to be working just as hard to keep up. Right?
Despite how much we delude ourselves, this is a very common misconception. Being stuck in perpetual overdrive- feeling as if there is never enough time in the day- is ultimately more harmful than it is productive. Without the ability to rest and rejuvenate, the mind cannot work at its optimum in times when it is required to. Mental health also takes a large toll, and individuals fall prey to burnout, anxiety and/or depression.
One simple way to address this problem is to become more willing of the prospect of “doing nothing.” This means fitting in time throughout the workday to bask in the feeling of idleness. Rather than attempting tasks with the primary goal of accomplishment, “doing nothing” means acting solely to satisfy the mind and bring upon peace. “It’s not surprising that rates of depression, anxiety, and stress are increasing as the doingness of life seems to have little counterbalance,” says Sue Smalley, professor at UCLA and founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. “Science is starting to show the value of spending time in silence, in nature, and in not engaging in constant external stimulation… We need time doing ‘nothing’ to be our best selves: well-rounded and creative human beings. The ‘doing’ side of our nature needs a ‘being’ side to be in balance” (Shondaland).
Doing nothing allows the human body to find the balance that Smalley discusses. It helps prevent the onset of mental health issues associated with extreme industry and stress, and it increases productivity levels in the short spans of time when it is needed. With this knowledge, humans can go to work and get their best quality work done, and they may feel less of a need to come home and continue to perform meaningless tasks.
Even though our society advocates so thoroughly for the incessant need to maximize productivity, we all must re-evaluate the importance of rest and “doing nothing.”
What Constitutes ‘Nothing’
For each person, the idea of relaxation can take different forms. Whether it be diving into a good book, binge-watching a TV series, or heading out for a light run, there are many ways to ease the mind from periods of overwhelm and stress. However, to truly maximize the benefits that relaxation bestows, it’s important to find time to simply ‘be.’ In other words, it’s important to learn how to listen to your thoughts, eliminate present distractions, and focus solely on being as mindful as you can.
Why is mindfulness important? According to researchers at the Center For Change, it helps to regulate pent-up emotions that may lead to further mental health issues. When one is attuned to their emotions, it decreases the risk of those emotions taking control over them. Similarly, mindfulness helps to focus one’s attention so that they are more engaged in life, present in their relationships, and capable of making better and more well-informed decisions.
Despite how important mindfulness is, many individuals struggle with listening to their own thoughts. Some play music to drown out white noise; some surround themselves with others to avoid solitude; some even choose to inflict pain on themselves. In a study conducted at UVA by social psychologist, Timothy Wilson, hundreds of volunteers were recruited to undergo periods of “thinking time.” For 15 minutes, volunteers were left in a room, alone with their thoughts, and they were given the option to electrically shock themselves to pass the time. The experimental results were shocking.
Of all the volunteers, 67% of the men and 25% of the women willingly chose to shock themselves rather than to think in solitude for 15 minutes. Wilson attributes this phenomenon to mere boredom and the issue many humans have with regulating their own thoughts. “I think [our] mind is built to engage in the world,” he explains. “So when we don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do” (ScienceMag).
The point is, despite the amount of time humans are left alone with their own thoughts, many don’t know how to utilize that time to be mindful. Instead, they continuously seek ways to avoid solitude and drown out the white noise. However, by becoming more comfortable with the prospect of doing nothing, particularly as a method to de-stress, it will be easier to learn how to control lingering thoughts, be present in the moment, and regulate unwanted emotions.
Doing nothing is the key to mindfulness.
Why Doing Nothing Might Make You More Productive
It’s a common misconception that productivity and busyness go hand-in-hand. While busyness constitutes how much an individual works, productivity constitutes how much one can get done in the periods of time they’re working. This distinction may be subtle, but it’s essential in understanding how to make the most out of each day.
Those that learn to be most productive can get a greater amount work done during fewer working hours. The concept of busyness- filling up time with many meaningless tasks- does not necessarily fulfill the same objectives. Instead, it degrades one’s quality of work and oftentimes leads to stress, burnout, insomnia, and even illness. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness,” explains essayist and cartoonist, Tim Kreider.
So how does one strive to work at their most productive levels?
One of the best ways to enhance quality of work is, of course, finding opportunities to simply do nothing. In these periods of rest, in which individuals particularly avoid stimulation of the brain, they are able to consolidate new memories, process new concepts, and regain mental energy. This grants them the ability to work with greater productivity when they return to future tasks. A 2012 research review of the brain’s default mode (DM) confirmed these findings. Researchers found that when humans are engaged in tasks and focused on the outside world, the DM of neural processing is relatively suppressed; however, during rest, neural processing of the DM is activated. When activated, these systems are essential for “recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations,” as well as “mental health and cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking.”
Therefore, doing nothing re-energizes the brain so that when necessary, it can perform at its optimum. Without this period to rest, cognitively demanding work will only continue to deplete work performance and one’s focus levels.
Finding Time For Doing Nothing
Herein lies the biggest problem of all: time. Many people wish to take breaks, to simply relax and do nothing, but their schedules don’t grant them the option. With long school days, sport practices, extracurricular meetings, family responsibilities, and more, it can be hard to find the opportunity for a “task” that seems so unimportant.
The good news, however, is that these mental breaks don’t need to be extremely long. Even just five to ten minutes every hour can be extremely effective in consolidating information and providing the brain with much need recovery time.
In a study conducted by the UK’s largest money-saving brand, Voucher Cloud, researchers found that after surveying 1,989 UK office workers on their work habits, the average worker was productive for less than three hours out of the nine-hour workday. The rest of the time was spent on meaningless social media activity, food/beverage breaks, conversations with neighboring colleagues, and reading the news. This study demonstrates how many people overestimate the amount of time they need to be productive. If workers were to simply take more strategic breaks throughout the day, they would be less likely to become sidetracked and hence demonstrate greater productivity.
“The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing,” explains Tony Schwartz, opinionist for the New York Times.
The trick to doing nothing isn’t to be lazy or to neglect important tasks. It is being strategic about how to incorporate breaks into extensive work periods, and understanding the distinction between productivity and mere busyness. Rather than worrying about having enough time, individuals should be worried about how to best maximize the time they do have.