When was the last time you did nothing?
By doing nothing, I don’t mean lounging on your couch and scrolling through social media content or watching a show on Netflix, or going for a walk while listening to a podcast. No. By “doing nothing” I mean sitting down and doing absolutely nothing.
Last week, I took a few days off and did, well, exactly that—nothing.
I spent some time reading, but that was probably the most “productive work” I did. I didn’t write or publish any articles. Instead, I opted for long quiet walks in nature, under the sun, and by the river. I didn’t send out my weekly newsletter or reply to any emails. Instead, I stayed home and indulged in scattered episodes of solo coffee dates under pine trees, extended naps, and essential-oil-infused baths in the afternoon.
Truth is, what drove me to switch off completely was the heavy wave of creative block that had abruptly washed over me. There was this sudden urge to pause and do nothing. Perhaps it was my mind and body politely requesting that I relieve them from any further cognitive or physical engagement. Perhaps it was their way of warning me: “Careful, you’re on the verge of a creative burnout.”
How often do you feel this way? Where you’re just drained from the routine. Where you feel weary of this self-imposed pressure to be productive, week-in, week-out. Where you feel like you’re always doing and there’s always more to do.
I hear you.
And that’s exactly why, over the past week, I found myself contemplating this question: Why do we feel this need to always be doing something?
Why have we become so obsessed with the idea that we must be constantly doing something productive and worthwhile with our time? Perhaps it’s because we’ve latched onto this flawed perception of success—that successful people are always busy—and so we’ve now adopted busyness as an extension of our own identity.
Perhaps that’s why we feel guilty and anxious when we’re not working. Perhaps that’s why we continue to blindly adhere and bow down to our should’s and must’s, but fail to make time for ourselves to simply pause, reflect, and cast a gaze inward to ask ourselves these two imperative questions:
How am I feeling today?
How will I rest today?
We’ve become so obsessed with doing that we’ve forgotten what it means to simply be. In fact, because of this hindering “always-on” mindset and our need to labor over extensive to-do lists, instances of overworking, anxiety disorders, and stress-related diseases are on the rise. This makes me wonder: Maybe we need to be reminded that we’re human beings and not human doings?
The Dangers of Always Doing
Generally speaking, our working culture does not promote idleness. It’s so frowned upon that we now associate “doing nothing” with irresponsibility and laziness. That’s exactly why if we’re not busy running around, getting stuff done, we feel saddled with anxiety and guilt. It’s also why we keep pushing ourselves to do more, regardless of whether our body and mind are trying to tell us to slow down and take a break.
The problem is that this philosophy blurs the line and spills into our personal life as well. And when it lingers for far too long, it can have damaging consequences on our mental health, well-being, and ultimate creative output.
For professional athletes, overtraining is a recognized condition, one with destructive implications on health and performance. For creatives, creators, artists, and writers—the very people whose line between work, play, and passion is often nonexistent—over-indulgence in the creative process can lead to creative burnout.
You begin to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, and yet, you still somehow feel guilty and worried that you’re not doing enough.
There’s a line in Pixar’s Soul that really resonates here:
“Lost souls are not that different from those in the zone. The zone is enjoyable but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”
The zone is that space between the physical and spiritual world where we experience is what psychologist Csikszentmihalyi coined as “flow state.” It’s a mental state in which we become so fully immersed and absorbed in what we’re doing that we totally lose ourselves in it.
But while ‘flow’ is an experience we all seek, and one that is imperative for our creative success, Csikszentmihalyi himself warns us of its harmful addictive implications:
“Enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative effect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes a captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.”
In other words, we must do our best not to allow the joy that we experience through doing to disconnect us from life—our innate nature of being.
The Importance of Doing Nothing and Simply Being
On one of those days where I did absolutely nothing, I found myself sitting on a bench in front of two large pine trees while sipping an afternoon coffee. I sat there, allowing the sunshine to warm my face, and marveled at how the rays filtered through the branches and dappled the green grass below.
I just sat there, being.
What I was experiencing then and there is what the Dutch call Niksen, “the practice of doing nothing as a means of relieving stress; idle activity, as staring into the trees with no purpose other than relaxation,” and what the Italians call Il Dolce far Niente, which literally means “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
Niksen is not a synonym for being lazy and Il Dolce far Niente is not an idiom that promotes laziness. What they both point toward is the pleasure of idleness.
The pleasure of simply being.
The pleasure of sitting on a couch and looking out the window at the falling snow. The pleasure of watching the crimson sun sink or the waves kiss the shore at sea. The pleasure of drinking your morning coffee in solitude, without simultaneously reading, or writing, or listening to the news.
Think of Niksen and Dolce far Niente as the art of plunging into an ocean of relaxation, where your mind is free to float about and wander, liberated from all its cognitive duties.
Truth is, if we wish to be our best and most creative selves, we need to do more of that— be idle and do nothing. We need to shut off the engine, rest, and just be. We need to wind down and re-charge and allow ourselves to daydream. And we need to engage in active procrastination.
In fact, there’s been extensive research on how daydreaming and mind-wandering—the inevitable effects of idleness—makes us more creative, better problem-solvers, and more imaginative with new ideas.
As this study from INSEAD highlights:
“Doing nothing is a great way to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination. Slacking off may be the best thing we can do for our mental health. Seemingly inactive states of mind can be an incubation period for future bursts of creativity.”
The best thing about embracing this sweetness of doing nothing? It allows you to carve out a blissful safe space for yourself where you don’t feel the need or urge to perform. And isn’t that liberating? Isn’t that sweet?
How to Experience More ‘Niksen’ and ‘Il Dolce Far Niente’ in Your Everyday Life
Disconnect so you can reconnect. Do you know what’s your biggest time-waster and energy-drainer? Social media. Seriously. I’ve rarely felt inspired after mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Most of the time, I’m left feeling like I need to do something better or be somewhere cooler. Sometimes, it even makes me question myself. And what do you do when you have a minute? You unlock your phone and bury your head into it. So here’s a better idea: Delete all those social apps off your phone. Disconnect so you can reconnect with yourself. Maybe that’ll remind you that if you have time to waste, you can waste it on mindfully being instead of mindlessly scrolling.
Rid yourself of that needless pressure and irrational guilt. Do you ever pause to compare the usefulness of trees in a forest? No, you don’t. You simply see the beauty that lies in all of them, regardless of the scope of shade their branches offer or the type of fruits they bear. So why are you so judgemental of yourself? Some trees grow taller than others, some produce more shade than others, but all trees have a place in the forest, and all trees are allowed to simply be. And the same applies to you: It’s okay if you don’t produce much work today or tomorrow. So what? That doesn’t devalue you. And the world doesn’t stop spinning if you take a break.
Dedicate a tiny daily ritual for doing nothing. In the mornings, I would usually journal with my morning coffee. Now, I no longer do it. I simply sit on my chair on the balcony and drink my coffee in silence. In the afternoons, on the days that I can, I’m taking 30 minutes to have a cup of tea and relax. What’s a tiny daily ritual you can implement that would allow your mind and body to just shut down for a little while?
Dedicate a day for nothing else but idle rest and self-care. Try setting one day (or at least half a day) of the week as a do-nothing-day. How about Still Sundays where you ignore the emails, relax around the house, maybe go for walks in the park, and just enjoy quality time with your family and friends?
Reconnect with nature. Nature heals—there’s no other way to put it. It calms you. It invigorates you. Spend more time in and around green areas and you will notice how you’ll instantly become less agitated, more attentive, and much more present.
You’re a Human Being, Not a Human Doing, So Give Yourself Permission to Pause and Simply “Be”
In her novel, The Forty Rules of Love, author Elif Shafak writes:
“Spiritual growth is about the totality of our consciousness, not about obsessing over particular aspects… Don’t reach for the details at the expense of the whole.”
Her words are potent, and through the eyes of a writer, here’s how I see it:
Don’t obsess over the details (for example, your inputs and outputs and the number of articles you push yourself to publish every week) at the expense of the whole (you being a writer and the impact that has on yourself and others).
In other words, whether you do or you don’t, you’re still whole. Because your self-worth has nothing to do with how productive you are; your self-worth has everything to do with how accepting and content you are with you being you.
And truth is, there’s always going to be something else you can do. Another problem to solve, another chore to cross off that list. But what’s the point? What’s the point of conquering mountains and crossing oceans when you will show up on the side of success totally worn out and exhausted?
Your mind deserves serenity just as much as your body deserves to rest. So give yourself permission every single day to take a few minutes and simply be. Sit idle for a little while, just enough for your soul to bathe in that sweet oasis of love. Because you know what? There’s more to life than just doing, there’s also the joy of being—the essence of what it means to be a human being.
Take breaks. Savor the moments. And give yourself permission to pause and simply be. How else will you notice the beauty all around you and the simple things life has to offer?
And if that’s not convincing enough, then consider this: One day you’ll grow old and think “I wish I hadn’t worked so much” and “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” After all, these are two of the top five regrets of people on their deathbeds.