To Do List: Do Nothing

Since the beginning of time, we have always been hardwired into always keeping ourselves occupied and making ourselves productive. With this constant productivity and brain usage, our bodies and brain tend to get overworked and weary. To avoid this and to reach maximum levels of our brain usage at work, sometimes it is most beneficial to just do nothing. Yes, you read that right, do nothing!

You’ve enjoyed coffee with a loved-one, cleaned the living room, paid a few bills and are surfing the internet. A friend calls, “Hey, what are you up to?” You say, “Nothing much.” These activities may feel like nothing compared to your hectic work-week pace but they call upon your mind, body and emotions, nonetheless. It’s likely that even as you do these “nothing much” activities, you are mentally multitasking — planning for the week ahead, analyzing last night’s social event or daydreaming about a future vacation or your ideal job. Your attention is in demand, and very likely, divided. What would it feel like to truly do nothing? What benefits could it bring you?

Not doing anything, can give our brain the break it requires and also make it more creative. By just sitting and doing nothing we are encouraged to contemplate and daydream, whether it be voluntarily or involuntarily. A study gave participants a large amount of time to complete problem-solving and word-association exercises. Once all the obvious answers were exhausted, participants then gave more and more inventive answers to fend off boredom. Setting aside weekly, even daily periods of doing nothing may be the best thing we can do to nurture our imagination and come up with a big idea!

Researcher and philosophy professor Andreas Elpidorou says boredom acts as a regulatory state that keeps you in line with your projects. ‘In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences,’ writes Dr Elpidorou. ‘Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us.’ Sometimes being bored can help us even realise and reflect on the things we do on a daily basis and how much time we spend on each task we perform. It not only gives our bodies down time to physically rest and recharge from all the tasks we perform but also mentally gives our minds the period of relaxation and rejuvenation that we require.

So what exactly happens in the brain when it is doing nothing? When your brain feels like its resting, it may actually be preparing to be social, new research finds. Neuroscientists found they could predict how quickly people would respond to social judgements, based on activity in a particular part of the brain.The critical area of the brain, which tends to be active when we’re doing ‘nothing’, is in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The brain is getting us ready to see the world socially in terms of other people’s thoughts, feelings and goals. We walk around with our brain trying to reset itself to start thinking about other minds. When we want to take a break from work or any other activity, the brain network that comes on is the same network we use when we’re looking through our Facebook timeline and seeing what our friends are up to.That’s what our brain wants to do, especially when we take a break from work that requires other brain networks.

In Buddhism, the ideal person has nowhere to go and nothing to do. To achieve this state of freedom and serenity, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to cultivate aimlessness. In our productivity-obsessed society, we tend to devalue the practice of aimlessness. Often, it’s such a low priority that we don’t truly rest until we’ve burned out completely. Without a practice of doing nothing, what quality of attention are you offering? Are you truly present, available to share all of your love, talents, clarity and good humor? When we are truly available, we do our best work, cultivating goodness within ourselves and the world. Dragging yourself along with an empty tank does not serve you, or anyone else, well. You need down time to refuel and refresh.

After practicing a few lazy days, you will start to feel a buoyancy return to all the rest of your days. You may feel young in spirit. You may notice more space around your heart. Your ability to focus on the tasks at hand will likely improve, as will the clarity of your thinking. In this clear-minded state, you can make much better use of your time. Your projects and relationships will blossom in the full light of your attention, and they will begin to demand less of your time. Before you fill this new-found free time up with more hobbies, errands and social occasions, pause. Remember that this efficiency resulted from aimlessness, and plan your next lazy day.

Learning how to do nothing might be the most vital skill for thriving, downtime can be beneficial in many different ways. So next time you find yourself overworked and too tired to do anything that requires too much of your energy, turn off the TV, stop checking social media, place your phone settings to silent and just sit. Remember just sitting with your thoughts and listening to yourself breathe is also a good thing. Next time when someone exclaims ‘I’m bored!’ you can tell them it’s a good thing.Doing nothing is also doing something.

Authorship: Urja Mehta

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