My experience is not unlike a lot of people’s: Americans work too hard and too long, spend too little time on vacation, and our idea of self-care is exercising until we are drenched in sweat through hot yoga or a grueling indoor bike.
Burned out from my job, I quit. I was still able to work and support myself, and soon the demands on my time were far fewer.
Still, my anxiety persisted — that nagging feeling that I should be checking email right now, the restlessness of not being able to sit and read a book. I tried therapy, meditation, yoga, “taking the day off.” (I ended up cleaning the apartment and catching up on laundry.) The feeling that I should be doing something all the time was interfering with my life.
So when I heard about this Dutch concept of doing nothing, or “niksen,” I was willing to give it a shot. Apparently it’s about as straightforward as it sounds: You can actually actively engage in doing nothing — like looking out a window for a few minutes — and not feel guilty as if it’s a waste of time. Lots of studies have shown that daydreaming and letting your mind wander increases creativity.
Niksen is supposed to give your mind a brief break and take the edge off. Thankfully, it’s just one word. Perfect, I thought. Where do I sign up? (The irony of this statement did not escape me.)
I then emailed Olga Mecking, the author of the forthcoming book, “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing” and the progenitor of a Facebook group devoted to doing nothing; she offered a few choice suggestions on how I could get started.
“For example, when you’re waiting for the coffee machine to make your coffee, do nothing. Or when you just finished a project and don’t want to move to another one, don’t spend that time browsing Facebook. Instead, sit for a moment and do nothing.”
I will tell you: It’s exceptionally difficult to do nothing, especially when you are wired to do something all the time. I used to spend a lot of time “relaxing” that actually involved scrolling through social media. (Again, irony.)
I had to take all the social media apps off my phone, in case I was tempted to check them, taking a nod from Catherine Price’s “How to Break Up With Your Phone.” Then I cleared the apps from my home screen. (For the truly addicted, Price suggests installing blocking apps on your phone that lock you out of the Internet after a certain number of minutes.) With my phone’s many distractions silenced, if not eliminated, it became easier to just sit there. I became less tempted to pull it out and check Facebook or Twitter.
Still, it was nearly impossible to shut off the voice in my head. At first, I made lists. I needed to call one of my writing coaching clients, work on book revisions, go buy dog food. I could not imagine nothing. What did nothing look like? I grew up in a house with a dedicated meditation room, so I should have been no stranger to the concept of doing nothing. But I was never good at meditating. My anxious mind grew more anxious whenever I tried to empty it. And so niksen felt the same, at least at first, until I tried it for a minute or two at a time.
While waiting for coffee in the morning, I stood and watched the filter drip-drip-drip into the carafe below. It was both exceptionally boring and a relief. Ah, I thought, this is what I’m supposed to do.
“You can niks in a cafe, too,” Mecking explained, saying that sometimes it’s fine to just watch passersby or stare out the window. So I tried that, too, first by setting a timer and then simply staring out the window, watching the light on the leaves, the funny expressions people made while waiting for the bus. I got up to six minutes at a time. And, bit by bit, I felt my anxiety start to wane some.
I noticed something else, too: These breaks in my day were most helpful when I was tired and needed a reset, when I was looking for space to be creative, or when I was having trouble focusing on a task I needed to do. Instead of fighting my natural rhythms, I gave in to them.
Mecking offered a few more suggestions for the niksen-inclined. I’m ready to try almost all of them: Look for a niksen-friendly hobby, like taking care of fish, nature photography, or birdwatching. You can try to practice niksen at home, she said, but it’s harder if you’re someone who can’t ignore the dirty dishes. And I found that doing nothing needs to happen in small increments: Too much too soon can feel overwhelming.
Try it on public transportation: Put away your phone and see what happens. Or stand in a park and watch people, cars and birds go by. After the initial panic wears off, try staying in the moment. Breathe a little. Me? I’m still working on it. As for Mecking, she’s about to publish a book. If she can commit to doing nothing, I think I can, too.
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.