What exactly is doing nothing? Jenny Odell, the author of ‘How to do Nothing’, suggests activities that are not considered productive, are ‘nothing’. These activities are not centred around producing an output, a deliverable or having something tangible to show for your time. For Odell, this activity is birdwatching. Reading this, you might reflect on periods of procrastination, and think ‘I do nothing sometimes’ but these unproductive occurrences are usually happening due to burn out or discontentment. However, doing nothing is more intentional, you’re proactively seeking to do activities that can’t be optimised for productivity or earning a living. Yet, they help to withdraw your attention, to relax and disconnect from the hum and buzz of everyday busyness.
If you’re currently feeling like you’re unproductive, you might not want to adopt the ‘do nothing’ approach. It’s normal to feel this way, we’re often encouraged to do more, to spend our free time ensuring we can return to work or education as better, more efficient and productive people. We also feel the need to improve when comparing ourselves to others, in various aspects of our lives. The idea of stepping away from this can feel uncomfortable, and sometimes, it’s not the most plausible long-term as Odell notes, and others have discussed in regards to social inequalities. So, why should you still try to engage in some level of doing nothing?
To rest, reconnect and put life into perspective. Researchers Hang and Ysee, concluded from current research that busyness generates happiness but only when it is purposeful. Busyness can be destructive and counter productive if we are seeking to keep ourselves busy without evaluating what we’re doing. This is why we need to do nothing, to find ways to fill our time that are good for our wellbeing and to contemplate what we’re doing in life. Over time this brings us energy to engage in purposeful work. Although, this isn’t the end goal, to become better at work but naturally it will occur if you’re seeking to maintain your wellbeing.
Take a Step Back
It will be easier to adopt some of those ‘nothing’ activities if we understand their value. First, it’s useful to reflect on why this idea might make you feel uncomfortable or guilty. What worries does this raise for you? Then, start small, reflect on your ‘nothing’ activities. You might already have a few that you gravitate towards such as journaling, baking or napping. Things that allow you to disconnect from everyday life and get lost in the activity. How have those activities benefited you and what would it mean if you took more time out to engage in them? Although, we’re not seeking to achieve something tangible through these activities, you might realise they help you to think clearly or destress. For those who want to dive deeper, you can read the book ‘How to do Nothing’ or Jenny’s medium article on the same topic. There’s also Headlee’s book on ‘Do Nothing’. Reading can help put these ideas and uncomfortable feelings into perspective.
Aim to Maintain
We like to improve, develop and move forward. But what about maintaining what we have? In this Medium Essay, Odell discusses the idea of maintenance and sustaining what already exists. Self-care is also maintenance, allowing us to take care of ourselves, whether that be mentally, emotionally or physically. You might take more time to make healthier meal choices, or ensure you’re getting in daily exercise. Figure out what you need the most to improve your wellbeing and focus on one activity at a time. You’ll always need to maintain your wellbeing so taking small steps that will stick overtime is better than rushing to fix everything at once. This idea can also be applied to your belongings, your home and everything around you, including your community. You can volunteer within communities to help maintain the local area and the people within it. This idea of reconnecting with the world and community you’re currently in is also recommended by Odell as a way to unplug. In addition, practising some gratitude for what you have, can help you to slow down and feel content. It can feel easier to do nothing if you find you’re quite satisfied where you are. Not that you can’t dream bigger but it’s good to slow down sometimes.
Listen Carefully, Think Deeply
Our decisions, ideas and thoughts can take a long time to process. We’re often overwhelmed with information and misinformation. It can be hard to hear our own thoughts and contemplate our ideas. Doing nothing can help you to think clearly, and sit with your thoughts. You can do this by journaling, walking or a bit of both. Repetitive activities such as knitting and maintenance activities like cleaning can also have the same effect. Having the time to sort through your thoughts without trying to share them as they occur can bring about better conversations too. Moreover, conversating and practising deep listening is also a way to do nothing. One, really engaging and listening to others in conversation, whether that be friends, family or new people you meet, can help you to connect with another person’s worldview. You become more sensitive to them and build stronger relationships. Two, listening to the world around you, can help you to connect with nature. Odell mentions birdwatching increased her sensitivity to the birdsong around her, which had gone unnoticed for a long time. There’s many things and sounds within our environment that we aren’t aware of. But they can help us to feel grounded, and highlight there’s more to life than not only work but also ourselves. In some ways, this can make the world feel a little lighter.