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The Long Lost Thrill of Doing Nothing

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Many text messages between my friends and me take roughly this form: “Are you busy tomorrow? We should do something.”

That something often isn’t defined at the time. But when we arrive in each other’s physical presence, after we’ve caught up, eventually one of us has to ask: “So… what do you wanna do?”

Then we have to decide. We could for a walk, go eat, play a board game, check out what’s happening in the city, just chat, or something else.

One of my friends—and only one—sometimes throws me a curveball here, and suggests that we don’t do anything, at least not yet. We can just lounge here in the living room. Or not quite lounge, but just relax and do nothing.

I’m struggling to pick a verb for it. “Laze” and “lounge” both have moral connotations, as do “chill” or “veg.” “Hang out” is too general, and could mean switching on the TV, opening a bottle of something, or catching up.

I’m talking about just being in the room and not doing anything in particular, usually while reclining your body in some way, with no regard for the time and no idea of what to do next. Real idleness. 

You might absently study the joins in the drywall, bathe in the sounds of the neighborhood, put your feet up on something, or get down on the floor and put your legs up the wall. Or none of those things.

The first time I agreed with this suggestion, I expected it to feel contrived. I was worried that I might worry about how well I’m doing at not worrying about what to do.

This apprehension quickly gave way though, as the feeling of doing nothing in particular began to feel extremely familiar. I had forgotten that I’m fairly experienced at exactly this kind of idleness. As a kid and then a teenager, before I started to think of time as a scarce resource, I did a lot of this.

Back then, I had much less awareness of the passage of time, or at least of the numbers on clocks. Time was something you referred to occasionally, when you needed to meet someone, or see a particular movie. There was so much less emotion tied up in what the clock said. I certainly hadn’t yet linked it to any kind of self-evaluation.

It seems like the introduction of adult responsibilities destroys the freedom to be only occasionally aware of how you’re using your time. After all, much of adult life concerns striving to make certain numbers work—having your income exceed your expenses, and spending enough (but not too much) time on physical fitness, paid labor, creative work, and leisure.

Doing nothing in particular, for however long it was that first time (maybe 15 or 20 minutes—but I don’t want to know), gave me a glimpse of what it was like when time wasn’t so predominant in my thinking. It was wonderful to discover that just by stepping away, briefly, from the stream of serial decisionmaking, it was still possible to experience life with at least some of that freedom.

My friend has since convinced me to be idle by myself on a regular basis.

I have been. When I’m finished with one thing and don’t immediately move on to another, I’ll tip myself back on the couch, and let the planlessness of the moment take over. I stop deciding altogether—even about what time I’ll start deciding again.

I should be clear that this kind of doing nothing is entirely different from meditation, which I do a lot of. Even though meditation is all about abiding in present moment experience, and refraining from entertaining thoughts about past and future, it does require a specific intention, and enough self-oversight to keep yourself on track. True idleness is intentionless time, and it fulfills something that meditation doesn’t.

I also don’t want to confuse true idleness with leisure. Parties, vacations, walks in the park and flea-market excursions do return us to the moment from our planning and striving. But these activities are themselves planned and budgeted for. We can even have a certain anxiety about them not going as planned—a vacation not feeling carefree enough, for example.

Spontaneous idleness challenges an urge that’s deeply ingrained in many of us, especially in modern, secular societies: the persistent need to feel like we’re making something of our time. This urge has many names and styles—the Protestant work ethic; the American Dream; the Bucket List; the Examined Life; any form of “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Each of these ideas can drive some pretty incredible lives, however, and create a lot of enriching experiences. There’s a reason we so often think of time as an investment. The way you spent your time in the past is largely what created your present, and that mechanism is always operating.

Completely ignoring efficiency probably doesn’t lead to a fulfilling life. But letting that efficiency urge drop occasionally, by punctuating our doing with idleness, challenges that faint but persistent sense that the moment we stop doing, our precious lives begin slipping away.

That belief, which has largely motivated my adult life, is starting to seem completely backwards. Maybe life is slipping away in every moment we’re afraid to stop doing stuff. After all, nothing detracts from the enjoyment of your life like a creeping fear that you’re doing it wrong.

I don’t want to think of idleness as another investment—time exchanged for more wellness. So instead of thinking of it as an activity, we can think of it as an insight worth remembering: the end of one activity doesn’t need to be the start of another. You can simply remain where you are for a bit, without setting a course.

If you’re a compulsive planner like me, going idle feels something like letting go of the side of the pool. It’s not disorienting for long, and the confidence rushes in once you realize you’re not going to drown.

***

Photo by Kari Shea

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Irene August 21, 2017 at 3:08 am

I will admit to having Do Nothing _days_, most often after too many filled-up days, generally satisfying events or obligations, but just too much too long.
Glad you’ve discovered the peace of being a _human being_, and not always having to be a _human doing_.
There is a stigma to being “idle” in our culture, as you said, using the word. I think there is a very big problem with being frantically busy; it seems to be a modern status symbol.
Thank you for this post. I do hope that your readers will try it out, unless they cherish being “too busy” (=”too important”).
In Peace,
Irene

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:02 am

There definitely is a stigma, and when it’s so pervasive, it’s hard to even see it. I’m deeply conditioned to feel bad when I’m not doing anything. But it fades after a bit of idleness. I’m glad I learned how to do nothing long before I learned how to constantly do stuff.

John Norris August 21, 2017 at 3:38 am

I love the Italian phrase “dolce far niente” – sweet doing nothing.

A relevant and highly enjoyable read is How to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson.

“All day long, no plans. And I remain at leisure”.
~ Wang Wei, 698

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:03 am

Perfect… I want to paint “dolce far niente” above the door to my living room

Paul Anthony August 21, 2017 at 6:22 pm

Make sure you put “Il” in front of that: Il dolce far niente”. “Fare ninete” means “to do nothing,” but in Italian we drop the “e” in “fare” because it’s more poetic sounding. An equivalent English translation (not literally word for word) would be: The sweetness of doing nothing. It’s kind of like the ultimate Italian chill-out.

DiscoveredJoys August 21, 2017 at 5:48 am

English is a terrible language, in some ways, because it tends to speak of experiences, feelings and processes as if they were things that we can ‘have’. So leisure (the experience of free time for enjoyment) is often spoken of as “his job left him little leisure”; leisure is used as a mass noun. The experience of ‘doing nothing’ is rather different from ‘owning’ an empty slot of time.

Similarly debates about ‘Free Will’ get terribly tangled because Free Will as a noun implies it has a universal existence, but Free Will as an individual experience doesn’t necessarily imply existence or ownership.

If only we spoke and thought more clearly about such things…

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:06 am

What words mean changes over time, and I guess it’s kind of inevitable when the culture changes. We would never think of “Leisure” as being a block of owned time except in a culture where time is explicitly equated with money. In defense of the english language though, it gives us a lot of ways to say things, we just have to be aware of connotations.

Cheryl Moran August 21, 2017 at 7:25 am

This article is awesome. The older I get the more I long for those times as a child at my
grammas where you just sat and listened to the neighborhood and just “was in the moment”. The time of not thinking about what was next to be done. I wish I could get my
husband to experience that. He seems to think if you’re not doing something continually
you are lazy. And he’s retired. And the things he worries about doing aren’t even fun retirement things. Sooooo after many years I take myself and just “be”.

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:10 am

Oh man I could write a whole encyclopedia of childhood emotions I wish I could feel again.

Cultural conditioning is really strong. If we’ve been told our whole lives that doing nothing is a moral transgression, then can become almost physically, viscerally uncomfortable to do nothing. I guess that’s just a reason to get some practice in :)

oladios August 21, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Pretty please , do write a post about it , would love to feel for few minutes how I used to ‘be’.

Mrs. Picky Pincher August 21, 2017 at 9:00 am

I was *just* talking to Mr. Picky Pincher about this. I read an article about how people use the weekends to get things done instead of relaxing, like we should. That’s why people are feeling so burnt out at work and feeling less fulfilled. I’m making it a point to have “lazy time” each weekend so I can use the weekend for its intended purpose.

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:13 am

A goal of mine is to always keep Sunday clear of work and appointments of any kind, and not decide what to do until that day. I have pulled it off a few times, and it seems like the right way to “Sunday.” In any case I want to make sure I always have idle sunday time.

Priscilla August 21, 2017 at 9:23 am

I am blessed enough to have a husband who enjoys doing nothing with me. But it’s hard to explain it to another couple. “What did you guys do last night?”
“Nothing. We enjoyed each other’s company.”
“Oh, you mean. . . . ” (wink wink)
“No, we just enjoyed each other’s company. Freakin’ happy time.”
“Sounds boring.”
“Freakin’ happy. I’m tellin’ ya.”

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:19 am

Haha…. for a lot of us in productivity-focused cultures, “nothing” does not compute. It has to be code for a something.

luke ligotino August 21, 2017 at 10:11 am

Wow! And I thought that i was being criminal enjoying just existing. Maybe push, push, push is not that important after all.

David Cain August 21, 2017 at 10:19 am

The productivity cops are on the way

Chris B August 21, 2017 at 10:43 am

I needed this. Lately have been toying with intensional boredom after hearing a TED talk about it. Harder to do than I thought it would be. There’s always an itch do something, anything. I especially appreciated this line: Completely ignoring efficiency probably doesn’t lead to a fulfilling life. But letting that efficiency urge drop occasionally, by punctuating our doing with idleness, challenges that faint but persistent sense that the moment we stop doing, our precious lives begin slipping away.

David Cain August 22, 2017 at 7:52 pm

We are pretty high-strung creatures, and I think that itch to do something is mother nature’s way of keeping us competitive.

But it’s not insurmountable. Meditation is the best way I know to challenge it directly… because the instant you sit down, it kicks in hard. You feel like you have to go do something, anything.

Abhijeet Kumar August 21, 2017 at 11:00 am

This is me, if I were to live by my condition.

I have shifted between different ways of approaching situations. Since I learned mindfulness, there has always been these moments where I can just be, aware, and life happening, and everything going fine, as if there was nothing else I had to do but remain in this seat of awareness.

Right now I am in one of those phases.

Abhijeet Kumar August 21, 2017 at 11:05 am

I would also like to point out that I am accomplishing things in this state.I am going to meetups. I am doing work, which involves a lot of planning. It is as if I already know what to do, instead of thinking about it. Not doing any worse than before.

Anna August 22, 2017 at 12:09 am

Im not sure if this is what you mean Abhijeet but When i read the book… the power of now… i was in this state for about two weeks where i got so much stuff done but in such a calm way with no thinking on my part. I just seemed to do things and ideas came out of nowhere when i stepped out the way. There didnt seem to be any middle man between what needed to get done or a problem and the action or solution that needed to be taken. I didnt plan, try, struggle, think, run around…it really was Heaven.

Abhijeet Kumar August 22, 2017 at 1:08 am

Hi Anna,

Yes, exactly. Power of Now was definitely transformational. Just understanding what ego does, and hence being able to not identify with it, can make life happier, and provide room for spontaneity. It usually remains after a deep understanding, in my case it was some difficult experiences coming from my ego. Ego usually shows in a few different ways — comparisons, not feeling whole, getting stuck deeply in story lines without being able to see other possibilities. Along with regular meditation, I also remind myself that no matter what there is this state of inner peace always accessible. I also do a visualization at the end of my meditation (which can vary for different people, as it is meant to be intuitive).

Abhijeet Kumar August 25, 2017 at 6:52 am

Another thing I have learned in this context from experience, is that ego often shows up in the way we interpret our physical sensations. This sensation means fear, that sensation means bliss, … and so on. Nothing wrong with that. But sometimes, I have been able to reframe the interpretation, especially when I observe I am experiencing fear, and my instinct is telling me otherwise (that it is a psychological/ego based fear, not based on a real threat), I notice that, and then I consciously interpret it as love (unconditional love). Because in that moment I need unconditional love more than fear.

David Cain August 22, 2017 at 7:53 pm

Yeah, there isn’t really a conflict between being and doing. We can be totally content in the moment but still have volition and intentions. That antsiness around sitting still is one motivator, but not the only one.

Abhijeet Kumar August 22, 2017 at 11:34 pm

I am discovering unconventional ways of finding spark/direction in life.

Recently I have gone through tough times on odd days (almost what people would call dark night of the soul experiences). Every such experience has actually improved one aspect of my life at a time. It is almost like hitting dark corner is a way to find a new version of me for the next stage. I don’t quite know it yet, but I felt completely out of my intended path at my workplace. But no clarity about what to do next, even what kind of job I would do next. I kept pushing it under the rug in my previous dark corner experiences, but at least, it seems to be preparing me one step at a time, so that this one time I will not push that concern under the rug, and actually stay with the emptiness to see where it takes me.

Anna August 22, 2017 at 12:00 am

Ive been thinking about this for a while now. Ever since a friend of mine told me about her friend who lives with her mum and dad and has no job, she just makes some art, and often lies on her bed doing Nothing but my friend said this girl was the most sorted out, spiritual girl she knows…. i was horrified! She does Nothing! She lies on her bed! Why does she not contribute to society? Isnt life about helping other people, purpose, doing things, being busy?! I felt such a strong feeling of anger and shock about this girl that i knew that it must be touching some core belief that has become a part of my identity. When i do Nothing i feel like a lazy good for Nothing and when im busy i feel like superwoman. Thankyou so much for your article its helping me to see that our self Worth is not based on what stuff we get done.

David Cain August 23, 2017 at 4:33 pm

I think to some extent we can’t help but evaluate ourselves (and others) by what we get done. But that doesn’t mean that it’s never justifiable to be idle. So I think the feeling that idleness is always wrong is worth challenging, and what better way than to try it out :)

wynr August 22, 2017 at 1:44 am

When I first retired, a little over one year ago, I spent portions of many days just doing nothing! Believe me, it felt fantastic!

This is my first post, and I want to thank you David for sending me these Raptitude posts.

Cheers,
wynr

David Cain August 23, 2017 at 4:36 pm

Hi wynr. I don’t know if I’d want to spend a whole day doing nothing. I’ve never been much of a hammock or beach type person. A little nothing goes a long way for me. But I’m intrigued by the idea of a whole idle day.

David Allison August 22, 2017 at 7:39 am

As always love the writing, the new interface is fantastic but {here it comes} the facebook and other icons cover the text. Today’s writing feels as though you were talking to me directly. I was raised that doing nothing was not an option. Thanks again

David Cain August 23, 2017 at 4:37 pm

Hey can you tell me what browser and device you’re using? Another user had that problem, but you two are the only ones who have said that. It displays normally for me in Chrome, but apparently on some devices there’s no margin appearing and the sharing plugin covers the text

Rachel August 25, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Hey David, lovely article thank you. This is something I am getting to grips with at the moment too. It takes constant effort at first not to check my watch, but once I relax into it – as I did on a recent holiday – bliss :-)

And I also get that tech issue too, I am on an IPad, on Safari.

Mrs. Grumby August 22, 2017 at 8:35 am

Love the analogy of letting go of the side of the pool. ‘Do nothing’ days (or parts of days) are excellent for recharging the batteries.

One of the tricks I like is making sure to ignore any clocks that I can see.

I also stopped wearing a watch years ago and that has helped to more fully engage in idle moments.

Thanks for this post!

David Cain August 23, 2017 at 4:38 pm

I’m working on an article about exactly that: trying not to know what time it is most of the time. I’ve been experimenting with it and it’s hugely freeing. I get more done because I’m not renegotiating my intentions all the time based on whether I’m ahead of or behind schedule. Wish I discovered it earlier.

Mariya September 1, 2017 at 12:25 am

” I get more done because I’m not renegotiating my intentions all the time based on whether I’m ahead of or behind schedule.”

This is so on point! Would you like to do an article on how to tackle that?
I had a severe burnout after a couple of years struggling with new married life, weekdays at a corporate job, and weekends caring for my step son. I am now out of it, but I still struggle to manage my time, because it feels like it’s never enough (that’s not true, I have plenty – but my perception of it is skewed)

Thank you for the blog, you and Mark Manson are the only people worth reading in a crowded market!

Jodie Utter August 22, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I just had that exact experience of letting go of the side of the pool this past weekend. All I ever want is some downtime, some deep rest, do nothing, be responsible to no one kind of downtime. And then on the rare occasion I get it, I panic and flail about mentally. I always calm and adjust, though at first it feels like I won’t, and then, I start to panic all over again because my downtime is almost over and I’m afraid it won’t have felt like enough. I am bound and determined to enjoy the nothing from the get go one of these days. Wish me luck!

David Cain August 23, 2017 at 4:41 pm

A lot of it is probably a familiarity thing. It can feel like a weird space, this “nothing time”. But the more of it we offer to ourselves the more we can be there without freaking out. That’s my working hypothesis anyway, it’s new to me.

Annie August 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

I try to make time every day to just be. Often it’s just five or ten minutes, but some days it can be more. I also love the days off from work when my husband and I putter around the house. We just decide to do or not do whatever we feel like. Yes, I realize that it does involve some “doing” but the point is it’s what we want to do, not an obligation. For him it’s usually drawing or painting, for me it’s reading, cooking, or calming little tasks I enjoy like mending or ironing, (yes, really, they are almost meditative to me, as opposed to cleaning the bathroom, my least favorite chore.)

David Cain August 23, 2017 at 4:42 pm

Puttering is great. And you’re right, it’s not whether we’re doing or not doing, it’s whether or not we give ourselves the freedom to let go of having anything to “show for it”.

KJ Subz August 26, 2017 at 2:07 am

What you’ve written is nothing short of stellar! Nothing compares to nothingness. Much of what you wrote so resonates with what I have always believe in but you say it rather eloquently. The part about distinguishing it from other activities such as leisure, laziness and meditation was profound.

If one values what is precious, then nothingness should be of the highest value because we hardly do it. In this day and age of the web when 10x life happens around us while we still have 1x life to live, this just might be the way to turn around the paradigm of always playing catch-up.

Don August 29, 2017 at 7:44 pm

What an important subject–nothing!

I recall the Sabbath as the once a week day where being takes over from doing.

It’s really more about not doing anything other than just what you want to do without compulsions.

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