The importance of doing nothing

Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published 30 November 2018

With the holidays around the corner, we’re being asked more and more often, ‘what are you doing this summer?’ And it seems we’re expected to answer in a way that shows how busy, popular and filled with doing-ness we are.

Our society is so action-orientated (or action-obsessed) that we expect to be busy not just at work, but also in our leisure time. It’s not surprising as the messages we’re hearing all the time centre around working harder, playing harder, getting to our goals and striving for more.

We’re increasingly defining our lives and ourselves by being busy and if we’re not busy, well, it’s somehow irresponsible, we feel guilty, there’s a sense we’re wasting our time and a real expectation that we’ll be judged negatively for it.

We need to stop and ask are we productively busy or is our busyness without substance?

And we’re not just busy with ‘stuff’ anymore. When we find a spare moment we often fill it with busyness on our devices. It wasn’t that long ago that we existed without smartphones, constant email interruptions or the internet and life happened at a calmer pace.

Technology lets us be more connected more of the time, so we don’t miss out on anything important. We’re constantly connected to our devices – as we walk down the road, take the train or bus, or wait to meet a friend for coffee – no one looks around or just sits with their thoughts anymore. We’re always busy or distracted.

It’s a fact that technology is addictive. When we check our email, see our social media notifications or get the ding and vibration of texts and messages, it causes a dopamine release in the brain. This is the reward hormone which reinforces pleasurable behaviour. The more this happens, the more dopamine we get, the more we want to repeat it and so we get caught in a dopamine loop. The upshot is more distracted, less efficient people with a technology or social media addiction similar to a substance or gambling addiction.

With so much to occupy our thoughts and distract us, its easy to get confused between busyness and effectiveness.

This need to be busy all the time could be not only a reaction to a belief that we should always be busy but also a defence mechanism, keeping out unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Being busy goes hand in hand with being stressed and what results is diminished quality of life, reflected in our mental and physical health. We’re increasingly more exhausted, more disconnected from ourselves, our families and friends and more wound up, unable to ‘switch off’. Our modern lifestyle contributes to common health issues – raised blood pressure and cholesterol; higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and strokes; sleep and fertility issues.

More importance needs to be given to doing nothing – not just over the summer break but also in our daily or weekly routine during the year.

When we don’t give ourselves the chance to have quiet time in our head, when we’re always filling those spare moments with distractions and ‘stuff’ we’re limiting our personal growth, insight and creativity. We’re not allowing space for introspection, reflection or unconscious thought. Without this mental space, we’re limiting opportunities for information to process in our heads, and restricting our ability to come up with new, inspired ideas and problem solve in a creative way.

Doing nothing is not a waste of time. Not only does it help us nurture our imagination, it also helps us to regenerate so we can come back not only more productive, focused and efficient but also with lowered stress levels and lowered risk for health issues.

The link between doing nothing and unleashing our creative genius can be brought back to the workings of our left and right brain. The left side of the brain is associated with logic, analysis, objectivity and language while the right side is more visual, intuitive and holistic. As we go through our day, we tend to be more left-brain dominant with the right-brain taking a secondary role. It’s in those times of nothingness that the right side of the brain gets come to the forefront allowing flashes of inspiration to come through.

When we talk about doing nothing, it doesn’t necessarily mean meditating for hours or heading for the mountains. It could just be 5 minutes focused on paying attention to your breath or taking time during your workday to get out of the office to go for a walk without distractions, switching off your thoughts about work and focusing instead on being mindful of the moment you’re in, your surroundings or how it feels to be outside. Taking small moments through the day could make a big difference to how you’re working.

Consider these suggestions for working in more down time into your life:

  • Plan for it. Schedule in evenings or weekend days without work and holidays each year that are less about getting things done and more about just taking time off.
  • Give yourself permission to have downtime when you need to. If taking some time to do nothing can help our brains process information and look at things from a fresh perspective, it’s a great reason to take time out if you’re stuck on a problem.
  • Reduce device use. Our phones are an easy distraction and always tempting us with that dopamine hit. Restrict use and create boundaries to reduce reliance on it so you can free up time for your brain to just be.
  • Brain dump. Our short-term memory has limited capacity so having your to-do list on your mind all the time can be distracting and slow down mental processing, just like having a cluttered RAM on your laptop can slow down its function. Write your to-dos down to clear some mental space, feel more organised and lower stress levels.
  • Say No when you need to. Be aware of overcommitting and spreading yourself too thin. When you say no to new demands you’ll have more time and space to commit to existing responsibilities and look after yourself.
  • Create routines. Just as morning routines can set you up for a good day, creating routines at the end of the day to unwind, and disconnect from work can help calm your mind and set you up for a better night’s sleep.

As we come up to the summer break, its an ideal time to think about setting aside more than just a few moments of do-nothing time.

Instead of being consumed with always having something to do, somewhere to be or someone to meet, take time to just be. Instead of always thinking what’s next, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, sink into the moment and be all there. Be mindful of the moments you’re in, the experiences you have and the connections you make, with others and yourself. You might surprise yourself with some epiphany moments.

Businesses and governments take time to review how they’ve done and consider where they’re going, we should be able to do this for ourselves as well. To do this, we need to make the mental space to reflect, review and make decisions. Being busy all the time doesn’t allow for this to happen.

A few weeks off at summer, doing nothing, provides the perfect environment to reflect and gather our thoughts. It allows us to switch off, unwind and build energy that we’ve been expending all year while regular do-nothing time can help us stay more balanced through the year.