Niksen and the benefits of doing nothing

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Niksen: Doing nothing is doing something

Last weekend, I was slogging through seemingly unending household tasks, as you do when you’re a burned-out millennial. Transitioning from one obligation to the next — I think it was going from doing the lunch dishes to carrying up junk from the basement — I decided I deserved a minute to sit on the deck. It was a beautiful, late-summer day with temps in the mid-70s and a slight breeze, just enough to keep the bugs at bay.

Barefoot, I walked outside, phone in hand. I plopped down in a chair on the deck and tapped on whatever banal Instastory was at the top of my feed. And then I caught myself. What was I doing? I’d given myself permission to take a few minutes to enjoy a break and I was going to spend it mindlessly absorbed in my phone.

Mildly annoyed with myself, I put down the phone on a deck board and used my foot to slide it out of reach. Then I simply sat for 20 minutes. I watched the trees shimmer in the late afternoon light. I heard their leaves rustle against one another. I noticed how brown, dappled seed pods were periodically falling from my neighbor’s tree, signaling that autumn was approaching. My mind wandered. It was so unproductive. Or was it?

The benefits of doing nothing

“Get off your phone” is decidedly not a new sentiment. I think most of us know it’d be beneficial to spend less time on our screens. But we usually hear it in the context of, “Think of everything else you could be doing if you didn’t look at your phone.” You could clean! You could organize your basement! You could meal prep eight weeks’ worth of freezer meals! You could learn Hungarian! But it’s more rare that are we told to get off our phone and just do nothing.

And yet, there’s a lot of evidence that doing nothing has major benefits for our brain. Daydreaming has been linked to higher intelligence and levels of creativity. And seeking out boredom helps our brain preserve energy, while constantly shifting from one task to the next requires our brain to throw a switch to ignite the next task.

Done over and over, this constant switching depletes the brain of resources, which is how we get that burned-out feeling. One study found that the average person checks their email 74 times a day and switches tasks on their computer 566 times per day. Our brains are demanding that we do more nothing.

What’s appealing to me about the idea of consciously doing nothing is that it’s, well, nothing. Wellness, mindfulness, and meditation have all become multibillion dollar industries in recent years and while those practices can have real benefits, I often feel that in some ways they’ve become just another corrupted arm of late-stage capitalism and yet another life hack we must find time.

But doing nothing? We all should be able to do that. Which brings us to niksen.

What is Niksen?

There’s a term for the idea of doing nothing, called “niksen.” Niksen is a Dutch concept of relaxing by doing nothing. After the Dutch brought us the concept of hygge — staying inside and being cozy — northern Europe is getting used to its language being appropriated by too-busy Americans trying to steal back some happiness. We’re the absolute worst, I know.

The key to niksen is the lack of an agenda. Which is tricky when you’re used to being driven to complete tasks rapid-fire just to get through daily life. Meaning, niksen isn’t niksen if you’re scrolling through your phone, or even if you are consciously trying to solve a specific problem while lounging on the couch. You just arrive at a moment and let it happen.

Eventually, niksen helps your brain turn off its switching mode. And that allows space for it to be idle and move into “default mode,” which is the state your brain occupies when it’s not focused on the outside world [source]. This is how we can begin to link together thoughts and solve problems.

Or (and pardon the clichéd use of a quote here but it fits, I swear!) as Albert Einstein said, “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”

Einstein used boredom and silence to discover things like the Theory of Relativity; I might use it to discover how to consistently meal plan for two adults, a preschooler, and a baby. To each to their own, I guess.

Doing nothing is doing something

Since those brief 20 minutes of doing nothing on my deck, I’ve found myself trying to steal away little moments to do more … nothing. Admittedly, it feels a bit strange at first. For me, the biggest hurdle I’ve run into so far is guilt.

My brain is so hardwired to be chasing productivity that even a few moments of stopping sends it into guilt-generation mode. I should be spending time with the kids. I should be cleaning up from the kids. I should be ironing clothes for tomorrow. I should be packing the kids’ lunches. I should be auditing my website images. I should be seeding the yard because fall is here and we’ll never have grass if I don’t do it now and oh god the neighbors are probably judging my lawn-care abilities. I should be, I should be, I should be.

This is something I’ll need to work on.

Tips for niksen

I’m still a niksen neophyte, but I’ve found myself looking forward to those little brain breaks. And I’ve noticed that when I consciously force myself to take one, I can almost feel my brain hit its reset button after a few minutes. When I do return to the a conscious task, things feel a bit more clear.

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful while working to implement niksen:

  • Get over the initial weirdness. It’s a bit uncomfortable at first because our default setting these days is busy (or at least trying to appear busy). But like exercise or meditation, I’ve found that I become better with practice.
  • Find a good spot. It’s important to have a calm, quiet spot for niksen to work best. I’ve been able to do this in my office occasionally at work for a few minutes, but I’ve found myself much more able to let go when I’m in a slightly more comfortable environment like at home on the deck, or in a comfortable chair near a window. Experiment with a few places and see where you’re best able to reset your brain.
  • Be kind to yourself. You’re trying to do nothing here and it’s harder than it sounds. It’s important to give yourself permission to find the value in sitting still and observing your surroundings, without any agenda. Resist the temptation to use it as some kind of life-changing hack; just let the moment arrive.

With that, go forth and feel free to just don’t.

3 thoughts on “Niksen and the benefits of doing nothing”

  1. Fantastic article! Doing nothing is doing something. It’s like nothing but with intention. Clearing time for nothing opens us op to deeper noticing of things we just rush by all too often. And you captured the impact so beautifully here. Simply noticing the activity going on in the micro-ecosystem of your backyard trees. Imagine if we leverage a little bit of that’s intention each day. How much richer will our moments be – sharing a meal with our family, watching our kids play, and really listening to conversations. What could be more meaningful, really? Thank you for writing this reminding us of what matters.

  2. Great article and great advice, Eli. You’re right. It’s hard to do nothing in this day and age when so much more seems to be demanded of us. But your thoughts on hitting the reset button are great for creating a little quiet in an overly-noisy life.

  3. Great article! Being a single mother that had to work two jobs whose head sometimes never hit the pillow, I have become a do nothing ninja…but I haven’t learned to do it in still silence like I strive to do. So I’ve still got some things to learn.

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