I sincerely enjoy taking time to do nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy busy days and I like the settled feeling of knowing my tasks are done and the dishes are clean and dinner is cooked, but I like those things because they pave way for me to just be.
I can (and do) happily lose hours just sitting and thinking and reading and drinking coffee and sleep-meditating, laying under a warm blanket quietly, in solitude. But, frustratingly enough, I am sometimes still met with waves of anxiety – fear of what I should be doing, whether or not I’m just lazy or inept or lifeless or sick or in some way mentally defective.
And we all do this in different ways. We justify spending a Friday night in, make a running joke of how quirky and weird and unusual we are that we just want to be alone with a book now and again!
The reality is that we’re conditioned to associate stillness with inactivity, and inactivity with failure. We’re trained to be overworked and to believe that if, at any point, we aren’t doing something that contributes to our goals, we’re not doing anything.
It makes us unable to just be with ourselves – our purpose only legitimate if its serving someone or something else.
In fact, we are so opposed to being with ourselves, in a study done by the University of Virginia, over 700 people were asked to just sit in a room alone with their thoughts for 6-15 minutes, alongside a shock button, that they could press if ever they wanted out. 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves rather than sit quietly and think.
Stillness is psychologically imperative, though. We are not built to be running all the time, and doing so leads to absolutely detrimental effects, the least of which I will touch on here. When overworking is our identity, we lose track of who we actually are, and in the process, we stop living actual lives.
1. What we call doing “nothing” is actually crucial for our physiological selves, and is essential to maintain a happy, peaceful, balanced lifestyle. The idea that we must always be doing something is completely cultural (and completely unhealthy.) Notice how we only feel we are doing “something” when that “something” can be externally measured… by other people?
2. In the “do nothing” state, the brain is super-powering itself: its completing unconscious tasks or integrating and processing conscious experiences. In the resting state, neural networks can process experiences, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regular attention and emotions, and in turn keep us more productive and effective in our day-to-day work.
3. Human beings are not designed to be continually expending energy whilst conscious, and it has a massive effect on the very thing they’re trying to put their energy toward: their work. Tony Schwartz cited a study in his piece in the New York Times (on productivity and restfulness) which proved that not getting enough sleep, or “do nothing” time, was the highest predictor of on-the-job burnout. (Another Harvard study he cited estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.)
4. When you do not sit and allow yourself to reflect, reconcile, and acknowledge what you feel, you actively give said feelings more power. Author Stephanie Brown argues: “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way but it’s the opposite […] most psychotherapists would contend that suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which can prompt people to be even busier to avoid them.
5. Creativity thrives in stillness and nothingness; creativity is fostered in the state of stepping away from the project, task or issue at hand, and distracting oneself with other day-to-day tasks. Countless studies show that people who are deeply creative on a consistent basis, who develop the most innovative and unique ideas, are the ones who free themselves from structure and allow their minds to wander, rather than focus on various tasks at hand. Einstein called this initiating the “sacred intuitive mind” (as opposed to the rational mind which he sees as its “servant”).
6. You’re more likely to actually achieve what you set out to do if you work on it intermittently, (and you’ll maintain a healthier, happier lifestyle in the process.) Keeping your mind in a consistent state of focus leads to life-shortening (and quality depleting) stress, and while you’re in the process of neglecting the things that also matter (your health, your family, your state-of-mind), you’re more likely to reach your saturation point and simply give up on what you were devoting all of your time and energy to in the first place.
7. It helps you become more mindful (more aware of the present moment), the benefits of which the American Psychological Association list as nearly infinite. Cultivating mindfulness aids in reducing general stress, improving memory, decreasing emotional reactivity, more relationship satisfaction, cognitive flexibility, empathy, compassion, general decrease of anxiety and depression/increase of overall quality of life, (and on and on.)
8. It’s not taking a “break,” or time “away” from what you are actually “supposed to be doing,” it’s what human beings are designed for. Tim Kreider writes in The New York Times: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”