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The Dutch art of doing nothing

Cat Photo by Manja Vitolic
Cat Photo by Manja Vitolic

There’s a new status symbol in town, free of (monetary) cost — busyness. Someone might inquire what your weekend is like, to which you might reply with a perverse delight “busy” or a borderline embarrassed “not much.” Our love and admiration of busyness reflect the increasingly fast pace of our lives. Having laptops and smartphones at our fingertips encourages the constant grind of work and productivity while sitting still in silence has become an uncomfortable experience for many of us. But what if we’re doing ourselves a disservice in dismissing the value of intentionally doing nothing or less, or as the Dutch say, niksen.

Contrary to popular belief, doing nothing can carry a bevy of benefits. Indeed a life of constant motion can negatively impact long-term productivity. If you need a little more encouragement that doing nothing is more than okay, and even an art form, read on.

1. Stimulates creativity

Maybe you can recall a movie scene where a teacher calls a daydreaming student back to attention. Like with anything else, there’s a time and a place for daydreaming, a common symptom of sitting still. Yet, daydreaming bears an unfortunate connotation of laziness. It shouldn’t. A psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain (Sandi Mann) found that daydreaming increases creative problem-solving and invention through her research.

Mind-wandering, nearly the same thing as daydreaming, can sometimes lead to “ah-ha!” epiphany moments, according to a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara (Jonathan Schooler) because it allows the brain to roam freely.

2. Improves learning

A professor at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco (Loren Frank) reiterates conventional wisdom that quality learning necessitates breaks for the brain to solidify knowledge. Frank’s brain-scan research on rats proves how the spacing effect (hint: not cram studying) works. In Frank and his colleagues’ study, the researchers divided the rats into two groups. Both had to find their way through an unfamiliar maze. The researchers permitted the first group to rest before attempting the same maze again. The second group of rats had to immediately navigate a second maze before returning to the original maze. The results? The first group navigated the original maze much more swiftly than the second group, who had no time to replay their newly acquired knowledge. Human brains work quite similarly and require as little as five to fifteen minutes of idle time to see benefits.

3. Productive procrastination

How does the seeming antithesis of productivity boost productivity? Often when people procrastinate and struggle to do work, it’s because they’re running on little to no energy. I think of it like trying to drive a car on an empty tank. Rather than trying to power through, allow yourself to set aside your work, go on a walk, and return refreshed.

It’s time for society to embrace the gift of occasional idleness, a luxury not to be taken for granted, rather than view it a mark of shame. There’s so much to be gained from letting your mind wander unrestricted by the obligations of deadlines and to-do lists. But, if it is any consolation for some, you (or rather your brain) is always doing something from a neuroscientific point of view.

With these practical benefits in mind for idle time, the next time you feel burned out, be empowered to take the time to engage in the Dutch art of doing nothing.

Thumbnail Photo by Manja Vitolic on Unsplash

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