Of doing nothing

Kajita Hanko, c 1900-1910. https://ukiyo-e.org/image/artelino/39708g1

Of all the ways one could choose to live their life, I have an idea for a worthy contender: simply doing nothing and doing so as often as possible. 

Doing nothing is a skill. It is, however, something we do not often consciously think of or acknowledge as being a skill. And so we do not approach the idea of doing nothing with a beginner’s mind—or one might say with shoshin. That is to be curious and mindful about improving our ability to do simply nothing. To grow and nurture the skill with care and kind attention.

Alas, it is even worse than refusing to acknowledge doing nothing as a skill both worthy of and important to cultivate: the idea of doing nothing is demonised and defamed. As children we are chided for daring to take a moment to do nothing but daydream. And as adults it gets worse and worse: We are expected to be productive, to be consciously engaged, to be checked-in constantly. It is no wonder, then, that we ignore the virtues and pleasures of doing nothing and even pretend we love being busy. We wear our busyness as a badge of honour, as a status symbol, and perhaps even convince ourselves that we are happy with this way of being. There is another way to be, thankfully, and it is quite achievable. 

Like all of the simplest things—which often happen to be the most important things in life—doing nothing can paradoxically by quite difficult, at least at first. So it is perhaps no wonder why we find it easy to buy into capitalist narratives where our self worth is proportional to our productivity and outputs. In a rare moment when we might allow ourselves to be temporarily inert, much like a noble gas, our lack of practice in doing nothing makes us feel perhaps uncomfortable and uneasy. This distracts us from acknowledging both the necessity of doing nothing and the fact it is just another skill we can foster.

How precisely does one do nothing then? At the risk of enraging you, you simply do not do anything. That’s it! Fraudulent folk out there might charge you hundreds or thousands for wisdom this profound, but here I am, dear reader, giving it away for free. You’re welcome. 

Before you close the tab, or delete the email, give me a chance to elaborate: to do nothing allow yourself to be still. You can sit or stand or slump or lie down. Disengage your mind from any active thought or line of inquiry. Breathe. You needn’t close your eyes, but you certainly can if you find that helpful. Doing nothing is essentially a form of mindfulness or meditation, though I am reluctant to equate doing nothing with meditation, as meditation is very much its own skill, just as doing nothing is also its own skill. Nonetheless, the mindsets between the two are broadly comparable.     

I will admit that doing nothing is, of course, harder than that though. Our minds are conditioned through evolutionary adaptation to constantly whir away, to be ever-scanning the environment for threats and opportunities. When you first start attempting to do nothing you’ll almost immediately want to pick up your phone or start doing something. Your mind will call you to action with realisations that you have forgotten the laundry or perhaps you’ll be suddenly aware of how itchy your foot has just become. This is quite normal and expected. 

Your task, such that there is one, is when you notice yourself being pulled away from doing nothing is to simply unfocus, continue to breathe and be still, and to pay your mind’s attempts to rouse you about as much attention as you would pay to individual drops of water floating away in a mountain stream.1I admit I used to struggle with this, and perhaps still do. In terms of being comfortable dismissing thoughts, I have found Eckhert Tolle’s argument that we are not our thoughts to be profoundly helpful. Over time, and with conscious practice, doing nothing will become more natural.

Why do nothing and why devote time to improving our ability to do nothing—especially when it feels so unnatural and difficult at first? It is precisely because it feels unnatural and difficult that makes it worthy. It is actively fighting against ways we have been conditioned to be. It is a conscious rejection of a societal pressure to be an effective unit of labour and production. It is unlearning bad behaviours and embracing change.

If it helps to sell the argument, there is a host of well-documented research around the benefits of giving one’s feverishly busy, hamster-wheel-like brain and body a chance to disengage and take a moment to be still. If nothing else, it gives the brain’s default mode network (DMN) a chance to activate: the DMN is both deactivated by focus on specific tasks and is important for how we process our emotions, sense of self, and relationships with others.

Periods of doing nothing allow our brain to do different things. Doing nothing is linked to increased creativity, greater ability to concentrate, learn and other physical health benefits. The substantial benefits are almost irrelevant, because doing nothing to expect something feels counterproductive—in some ways the real reason to do nothing is that it feels good. One of the most compelling arguments to do nothing comes from Wordsworth:2Treat your ears to either Dame Helen Mirren or Ralph Fiennes narrating the poem.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils….

 William Wordsworth

It is, I think, impossible to read (or hear) that poem and not relate to it on some level. The ability and appreciation to do nothing may be mostly beaten out of us by the demands of modern life, but that does not mean it is entirely dead. 

Like many things, the art and appreciation of doing nothing raises the question of what sort of life do you wish to live? And if you decide to live one sort of life, knowing that you must actively work towards achieving that life. If you wish to go from task to task, much like a modern day Atlas, then follow society’s expectations. Yours is the path of least resistance. If you, instead, wish to have a life that finds space for both moments of activity and moments of stillness, then you must make room for the stillness to blossom. 

Please don’t file this plea to do nothing away on some ‘nice idea for another day’ list. Do nothing right now. Take a few breaths, relax your shoulder muscles, idly gaze out the window. Give yourself permission to do nothing. 

Why are you still here reading? Go forth and do nothing, often.   


  • 1
    I admit I used to struggle with this, and perhaps still do. In terms of being comfortable dismissing thoughts, I have found Eckhert Tolle’s argument that we are not our thoughts to be profoundly helpful.
  • 2
    Treat your ears to either Dame Helen Mirren or Ralph Fiennes narrating the poem.

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