The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing
I always need to be doing something. Whether it means I’m on my phone at an inopportune time or just not very attentive to the present moment and being on my phone, it’s really important for me to always be doing something. I don’t know why and I think it probably isn’t the best behavior, but it’s what I feel.
But I will always remember late in college when, before exams, I wouldn’t cram like I usually did. In races before track, I would stop trying to distract myself with my phone or reading a book.
I just started to do nothing, walk around, stare at nature, and do something mindless. If I was at home, I would do the dishes. On the bus, I would start just looking out the window instead and looking at the fields, hills, and stores we passed by, staring, instead of feeling a need to do my schoolwork and be completely productive all the time.
I would do better than I thought I would on my tests, with a technique counterintuitive to what most other students would think. And I would do better than I thought I would in my races.
Apparently, the art of doing nothing is something the Dutch have a word for: niksen.
According to Sophia Gottfried at TIME, the concept of niksen means doing nothing. According to Carolien Hamming, the managing director of CSR Centrum, niksen means “to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use.” Hamming helps people manage stress and recovers from burnout, and practicing niksen, for her, means doing things without purpose. Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist and professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, wanted us to think about “simply sitting in a chair or looking out of the window,” and niksen means not being present in a moment and letting our minds wander instead of stressing the need to concentrate or focus.
Veenhoven stresses that we need moments of relaxation rather than feeling like we have to do something all the time. The benefits of niksen include more creativity and more processing power to solve pending problems. During times of niksen, someone might think about a solution to a problem on a walk, or just staring out the window. The idea of niksen is clear: let your mind wander, instead of beating yourself up or forcing yourself to stop it from wandering.
According to Ottaviani and Couyoumijian in Frontiers in Psychology in a 2013 study, mind-wandering is associated with some adaptive consequences. These adaptive consequences include helping individuals get inspired to complete their goals or gaining clarity on an action to take. One of the main benefits of mind-wandering is creativity enhancement, but it’s important to note that mind-wandering might also have maladaptive consequences like mood worsening — so niksen isn’t an overnight fix, but an exercise that we improve on over time.
Doing nothing isn’t as simple as it sounds — sitting still and staring at your window and allowing your mind to wander might be challenging at first. Intentionally doing it is a challenge especially with so much pressure to do a lot all the time. Busy-ness is more than just a cultural value. It’s a status symbol in many corporate circles, and resisting the tide can be incredibly difficult.
Emily Maloney said she tried niksen in the Washington Post, which she described as what she needed after she felt burned out from her job in corporate middle management. In regards to her state of mind at the time, Maloney said:
“I was stressed all the time, traveling once or twice a month, occasionally internationally, and work followed me everywhere: from the first email in the morning, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., until the last texts late into the evening. I’d put on weight and was exhausted all the time.”
Even though she quit her job, her anxiety persisted and she felt the same restlessness she always felt — she tried yoga, therapy, meditation, and taking days off. She cleaned the apartment and caught up on laundry, but she certainly felt like she should be doing something all the time.
She started using niksen to give herself peace for just a few moments. She wanted to give her mind a break and take off the edge. For Maloney, she felt it was very difficult to do nothing. Her time “relaxing” was actually spent scrolling social media because she was wired to do something all the time. She had to take social media apps off her phone and cleared apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter from her home screen, but she still had a voice in her head that told her to call her writing coaching clients, work on book revisions, and buy dog food. Doing nothing for her essentially became torture for her, but eventually, it helped her significantly:
“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.”
It’s important to note that niksen is best in small increments as well — doing nothing all the time isn’t great either. Gottfried notes it’s a lot more about small moments of niksen — much like everyone needs a balance between productive work and rest. And what works is different for everyone, but taking time to intentionally do nothing is essential for everyone.
According to Olga Mecking in the New York Times, our culture simply does not promote sitting still, which actually negatively affects our well-being, productivity, and other aspects of our lives. We don’t understand the importance of unplugging on our mental well-being and even what we’re trying to chase — productivity. Keeping ourselves busy all the time is causing our brains to be rewired. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine states that when we’re constantly under stress, our dopamine levels in our brain are re-adjusted so that we start to overemphasize rewards and de-emphasize punishments. We get stuck in a cycle of seeking the rush of productivity and busy-ness, and we lose patience with ourselves when we’re not busy.
But knowing that being busy all the time is easier than actually not resisting — there’s still inherent guilt we feel when we’re not busy all the time.
Nicole Spector at NBC News describes niksen as “doing nothing on purpose, but without purpose.” It has to be intentional. It is often an alternative to meditation, which is often an attempt to reduce anxiety. Niksen is a form of mindfulness that emphasizes allowing ourselves to step back from what we’re doing and let everything be, instead of being an active participant.
So how do you do it? How do you apply it?
The start is just staring out the window. Social worker Megan Cannon says niksen can start with simply staring at a tree and letting the thoughts flow, and it has to be without devices. I did this for a moment and saw there’s a world much outside being busy, that I was neglecting myself and my own needs, and that the world wouldn’t end if I didn’t get a work report done right now.
Mecking also emphasizes recognizing our environment, since our surroundings have a huge impact on how much nothingness we embrace. Keeping our devices out of reach or having comfortable furniture helps significantly. And if our physical environments are too distracting, going to a park or somewhere we feel at peace is an essential park of practicing niksen.
At the end of the day — do the best you can and practice the art of niksen. The key is to do nothing, and not be productive, and reap the benefits of doing so.