Top 5 Reasons to Learn How to Do Nothing

Photo by Evan Buchholz on Unsplash

Today, January 16, is National Do Nothing Day in the United States.

It’s true! The day to celebrate nothing was created in 1973 by Harry Pullman Coffin, a San Francisco Examiner columnist, to be the ultimate non-event that would “provide Americans with one national day when they can just sit without celebrating, observing, or honoring anything.”

I love such a funny idea for a holiday. But in today’s hyperconnected, crazy busy world, maybe it’s exactly the holiday we need. Doing nothing is a skill to be worked on, practiced, and developed.

The idea that “doing nothing” can be learned might seem baffling at first — surely, one just stops doing stuff, right? — but it’s far easier said than done.

Recognized by everyone from the Buddha to Mary Oliver, constantly “doing” can be a kind of compulsion, even an addiction — one that’s only made worse by society sanctioning and even praising it. This is why learning how to do nothing might be the most vital skill for thriving in our manic, hyperactive, always-connected culture.

Here are five top reasons why:

1. “Doing Nothing” isn’t actually doing nothing.

To let go of the compulsion to do something — checking your phone, eating something out of boredom, buying something online — you actually have to replace those actions with something else: savoring, or relishing the moment.

This savoring is a difficult skill, and can also be referred to as mindfulness. Like any skill, it must be practiced. Psychologists know that this is not a passive task at all; savoring the moment is imminently learnable, for example, by placing your attention on each of your senses, one at a time.

When you feel the urge to keep doing something— buying stuff, tending to your devices, hustling after another dollar—remember that these “somethings” all yank you out of savoring the present moment. Perhaps “doing nothing” is in fact synonymous with the feeling of being alive.

2. Rest and boredom can improve creativity

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, advocates for living a focused life in an increasingly busy and scattered world. Among the many pieces of advice he gives about reclaiming your focus is the power of the long, contemplative walk to assist cognition and the creative process.

The well-studied “incubation effect” shows us that taking a break from a project give your subconscious permission to go to work on the problem or task at hand.

Try reading any of Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals books to note that artists and writers of all ages, from all eras enjoyed a daily walk (and so many naps!) to incubate ideas and break through creative blocks. A free, wandering mind combats the tunnel vision that can result from fixating too much on external goals.

3. Too much busyness can be a counterproductive coping mechanism

In our manic, hyperactive world, effort is often confused with effectiveness; this is again the elevation of doing something “useful” above all else.

As Manfred Kets de Vries writes in his paper Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom,

“Keeping busy can be a very effective defense mechanism for warding off disturbing thoughts and feelings. But by resorting to manic-like behavior we suppress the truth of our feelings and concerns, consciously or unconsciously avoiding periods of uninterrupted, freely associative thoughts.”

Busyness can be avoidance. It’s when we learn how to do nothing that we face what really matters.

4. The brain needs downtime

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, humans in capitalist society have been thought of more like machines, pushing ourselves harder and longer to squeeze more value out of every waking minute.

But neuroscientists are finding much more that our brains depend on downtime to process data, consolidate memory, and reinforce learning.

Mind wandering, also referred to as diffuse thinking — a term coined by Barbara Oakley in her book and wildly popular free online course Learning How to Learn — allows the brain to generate spontaneous thought and create connections while you’re not focused on a task or goal.

This is how those impromptu shower thoughts appear, seemingly out of nowhere, finding a solution to that problem you’ve been stuck on!

5. Regaining control of your attention

Placing your attention, or directing your focus, is key to strengthening the “do nothing” muscle. Our screens and the outside world are constantly competing for that one precious resource — our attention — so strengthening our attention is critical for retaining control over it, before someone or something else does.

Doing nothing is not easy; it’s actually difficult work. In Buddhism, busyness is actually seen as a form of laziness: it’s a failure to control attention from whatever is grabbing at it in any particular moment. And in today’s world, this challenge has never been harder.

Learning to do nothing will help you retake control of your attention. Actively savoring the moment, allowing yourself to be bored, scheduling downtime, and confronting your challenging feelings are all versions of “doing nothing” that you can work on today. They all require you to stay in the present, with yourself, without distraction or diversion.

I can think of no better way to celebrate National Do Nothing Day, 2022!

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Robin Cressman

Robin Cressman

Artist, writer, beach walker. Just happy to be here. Sign up for my newsletter!