Recently I came across this quote from Robert Louis Stevenson:
“… ‘something to do’ is a great enemy to joy; it is a way out of it; you wreak your high spirits on some cut-and-dry employment, and behold them gone!” from Stevenson’s Across the Plains
And then, while processing that bit of 19th century wisdom, my brain served up this mantra repeated by Dory, the little blue fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo:
“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.”
From Dory’s perspective, movement — any movement — whether or not it makes sense or is productive, brings the illusion of progress and, in turn, provides a sense of meaning.
On the other hand, this kind of endless movement in our ordinary, non-animated, non-questing lives can certainly “wreck your high spirits” and become the “great enemy to joy.”
For example, I’ve had moments when I’ve been peacefully blissed out watching a humming bird feed on a cactus flower only to have a voice in my head whisper, “Hey shouldn’t you be doing something?” Then, like any responsible person, I search my list of pending “somethings to do” and get busy, almost embarrassed that I was wasting time staring at a bird. Sadly, while my “get back-to-work” behavior quiets the nagging voice, it also knocks me out of that moment of bliss — that moment when doing nothing seemed to stop time and let me enter that buzzing little bird’s idyllic world.
A Powerful Justification for Doing Nothing
In addition to such moments of peace and clarity, the practice of doing nothing also produces important physiological benefits. Here’s an excerpt from “Taking Care of Yourself: Managing Your Priorities, Time, & Energy” in my book, The Project Management Minimalist:
“The image on the left represents a properly firing neuron in the brain, complete with an efficient electro-chemical exchange that permits good thinking. The picture on the right represents a neuron that’s clogged by accumulated waste products. This neuron is unable to work properly. It’s owner may think of himself as a hero-workaholic, sitting for hours and hours on end at his computer. But his brain is full of waste products and there’s no way he’s really thinking clearly. So he’s not doing anyone any favors by working too long without rest.
These waste products can only be cleared by two things: 1) Rest… allowing blood flow to take away all the crud and bring in fresh chemicals for proper firing, and 2) nutrients that provide those fresh chemicals. The moral of the story: You gotta get enough rest and allow your brain to clear/replenish its chemicals if you want to be effective.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s … [a quote by] a couple of guys who’ve spent their careers researching the topic of peak performance among athletes, business people, and others:
“… our capacity to be fully engaged depends on our ability to periodically disengage.” — Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, in The Power of Full Engagement”
— [End of book excerpt] —
As Oliver Burkeman tells us in Five Reasons Why We Should All Learn How To Do Nothing: “Indeed, learning how to do nothing might be the most vital skill for thriving in our frenetic, overwhelmed, always-connected culture.” Among the benefits Burkeman lists are regaining control of attention and boosting productivity. These results alone make the periodic practice of doing nothing worthwhile.
3 Simple Strategies to Help You Get Comfortable with Doing Nothing
Okay. So it’s important to do nothing once in a while. But why is it so difficult to simply become idle? And how can we get comfortable doing so? The strategies below can help.
1. Get over the false urgency of “Tag… You’re It!”
That ding from a messaging app, the notification of someone’s post, those email announcements or ringing phone do not automatically mean you must take immediate action to respond. You can simply wait to reply on your own terms, when you are rested and ready.
Try this: Re-frame the meaning of those notifications. Consider that people contacting you are simply handing off their updates, moving them your way so they can get them off their plates. They may not expect an immediate response. And if they really do want one, they’ll find a way to push and nag you further until they get one. In the meantime, you might want to consider that “ding” a simple FYI that you can attend to later — on your own terms.
Ask yourself: “What would happen if I just ignore this for the next 15 minutes?” Or “What would happen if I were in an important meeting or in the shower?… They’d have to wait, right?” Then try simply ignoring the interruption. You may be surprised to find that your response can be delayed for a short while, such as 15 minutes, with little or no impact. If so, repeat this delay when the next interruption occurs. Or, better yet, try to expand that 15 minute delay to 20 or 30 minutes. With practice, you will be able to remove yourself entirely from the self-imposed game of “Tag! You’re it!” and begin responding entirely on your own terms.
One way you can support your “ignore it for now” practice and fully inhabit the present moment is to apply Eckhart Tolle’s “One Conscious Breath” micro-meditation strategy. (See video in link for details.)
2. Accept (and eventually defuse) your emotional discomfort with idleness.
When you begin the practice of doing nothing, you may say to yourself, “It feels really weird to not be busy.” That’s because it’s so easy to become addicted to doing in order to quiet the voices (or, more accurately, drown out the voices) that are making you uneasy and vaguely urging you to be endlessly doing something.
Try this: If you are nagged by something that the voices say you should be doing, then simply make a quick note in your To Do list about the next specific step to take related to the topic that is nagging you. Then walk away from the list and relax, knowing that the chore will be there, waiting for you to act, when you are refreshed by some do nothing time.
(Note: For some practical tips on how to capture your creative ideas so you can access them later when you are ready, check out Leveraging Inspiration: 10 Simple Practices to Keep Your Creative Output Flowing in my book Worth Sharing: Essays & Tools to Help Project Managers & Their Teams)
(BTW: If you need help quelling those voices you might want to consider meditation. Check out these chapters in my book Worth Sharing…: Meditation Fact Sheet: Scientifically Proven Benefits & a Who’s Who of Famous Meditators and How Mindfulness Meditation Helps Me Laugh at Mental Soap Bubbles)
3. Let go of the guilt & the feeling that you’re being judged.
Practicing the fine art of doing nothing can be particularly difficult when there are other people nearby — especially if those people are busy. Since we’ve all been taught by our parents and teachers that we must “do our share,” it’s inevitable that you feel guilty doing nothing and that you imagine you’re being judged by those who are busy while you are relaxing. But should you feel guilty? And are you really being judged?
Try this: Review the productivity benefits outlined above. Then remind yourself that your taking a break is for the greater good, since it is likely to enhance the contribution you make after your break is over. In other words, think of your idleness not as “down time,” but as time spent recharging!
Try this: Identify those people you think might be judging you and talk to them. Emphasize the potential gains in productivity and creativity that can accrue from briefly doing nothing from time to time. Then ask them: “Do you think it would be okay if you found me taking little do nothing breaks sometimes?” or “How would you feel if you saw me just sitting here, doing nothing for a few minutes?” You may be surprised at their responses. And you may learn that your feelings of guilt and fear of judgment if you do nothing are simply not warranted.
Eventually, as your little doing nothing sessions become a regular part of your mental hygiene routine, you may even reach the point where you are able to convert that lingering guilt into a quiet sense of pride as you begin to make more focused, creative contributions.
Ultimately we all need to remind ourselves that we have a finite amount of time on this planet. And the choice we face is this: Do we want to spend our precious allotment of time all frenzied and “… swimming, swimming…,” engaged in endless “cut-and-dry employment” that inevitably “wreak [our] high spirits?” Or do we want to capture that elusive joy we seek by consciously moving ourselves back and forth between fully engaged, focused effort and simply doing nothing? It’s our choice.
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