The Art of Doing Nothing

Life has become increasingly stressful. In normal times, we run from one appointment to the next, and during the current pandemic, we might not be running from appointment to appointment, but there are a new set of anxieties for us to handle. It’s only natural that at some point, we ask ourselves: “How can I reduce my stress levels?” But the answer is not always easy. When George Shultz — who died recently at age 100 — was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he developed a weekly ritual. He closed the door to his office and sat down with a pen and a pad of paper. For the next hour, Shultz tried to clear his mind and think about big ideas rather than the minutiae of government work. Only two people could interrupt him. His secretary was under orders to only allow interruptions from his wife or President Reagan.

Clearing our minds is good advice, especially these days of instant and constant interruptions from cellphones, computers, and social media. Four decades ago, when Shultz was secretary of state, technology was not as advanced, and it was easier to become unplugged because no one was “plugged in” to the technology that surrounds us today. These days, we are constantly interrupted by minutiae via alerts and text messages. They can make it impossible to carve out time to think through difficult problems in new ways or come up with creative ideas.

Letting our minds wander is said to make us more creative, better at problem-solving, and better at coming up with innovative ideas. The Dutch have a word for this concept: niksen, or the art of doing nothing. First, there was hygge, the Danish concept of creating a quality of coziness and comfortable happiness that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. Then there was lagom, a Swedish and Norwegian word meaning “just the right amount.” The Swedish mindset of approaching life with an “everything in moderation” mindset. The connotations in Norwegian, however, are somewhat different from Swedish. In Norwegian, the word has synonyms as “fitting, suitable, comfortable, nice, decent, well-built/proportioned.” Buddhist have an expression referred to as the “middle way.” The middle way refers to the understanding of practical life, avoiding the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence, as well as the view of reality that avoids the extreme positions. 

Now there’s another Northern European trend that many people are embracing as a way to combat our increasingly busy and often stressful lives: niksen. The Dutch concept is as simple as doing nothing. For many, doing nothing isn’t as simple as it sounds. In fact, it can be somewhat challenging to sit still and stare out a window, for instance. It can even feel unsettling at first when we are used to doing something at all times. However, if we push through the discomfort, we can take a few minutes each day to practice niksen and work up to longer stretches. Ideally, we would reserve one evening a week without appointments and obligations. However, there can be drawbacks if we devote too much time to doing nothing. Scientific literature suggests that a disadvantage of letting our minds wander for too long could be getting “caught up in ruminations” rather than feeling refreshed.

Some argue that boredom can open the mind to creativity, problem-solving, and more ambitious life goals. Niksen has the advantage of inspiring us. Inspiration almost always happens when we’re doing nothing special — when we’re showering or doing the dishes, for example. It is essential to do something “semi-automatically.” That means concentrating on something simple without much effort. Even a game on a smartphone can be niksen. These types of activities allow the brain to process information, which in turn leads to fresh and new ideas.

As the psychologist, Amos Tversky said, “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” So, my advice is to take a few minutes each day when you can do nothing and let your mind wander and wonder. Don’t try to be creative but let your thoughts meander and see where they take you. You might be surprised at your increased productivity spurred on by doing nothing.

The picture above is from the blog Fit Studs by the blogger Hot Guys. While I think it is an appropriate picture for this post, it caught my eye because I have stood on one of the balconies of this same hotel. When I visit my friend Susan in Manhattan, I always stay at the Royalton Park Avenue Hotel at 29th Street and Park Avenue where this picture was taken. Below is a picture of me holding my complementary glass of champagne while on one of the Royalton’s balconies.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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