Your Teachers Were Wrong: Why “Doing Nothing” Might Be Your Best Productivity Hack Yet

woman looking out window

Why is it that free time feels so complicated now?  Once we’re off work, it seems like the things that used to make us happy feel more like a battle of what can keep our attention the longest.  I, for one, almost always have my phone in my hands when I’m “watching a movie” now, and it’s as distracting as it sounds (but also sort of compulsive?).  It’s tricky: it seems like the more directions we feel our attention being pulled in the name of entertainment, the less relaxed and satisfied we actually feel.  

As usual, the Dutch figured this out quite a bit earlier than we did, and they’ve come up with a somewhat contradictory solution: learn to do nothing.  Okay – mind-numbingly boring as it sounds, its practitioners actually claim it’s a miracle worker. Rather than three screens playing at once, they’re giving us a singular window to look out of, and it’s rewiring our overworked brains in a promising new way.

three screens on at one time
Is two, three, or four screens the norm now?

If you have any remaining memory of your high school psychology class, you might know the word “neuroplasticity.”  What it refers to is the brain’s ability to change its connections and responses to stimuli over the course of a lifetime.  An easy example of neuroplasticity is how specific areas of our cerebral cortex grow when we learn how to play an instrument, for example.  Familiarity with something physically changes your brain’s response to it.  So when we’re exposed to screens, music, dialogue, and every kind of entertainment coming from every direction, our brains eventually adjust.

According to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (also called NICABM, thank God), when we do something we find pleasurable, our brain tends to “overemphasize remembered rewards,” which makes us want to do it again and again – ironically, with less reward each time.  In this way, we can actually get addicted to the idea that our phones, TVs, etc. will help us unwind and feel good, while the psychological returns are diminishing each time we pick them up.

map of neural paths
With practice, it’s possible to rewire your brain’s reward systems

With this in mind, the Dutch concept of “niksen” was born – and it went radically in the opposite direction.  According to the New York Times, “the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless.”  Sure, this might seem like painstaking effort for the first five minutes, but with practice, it can help us overhaul our neurological reward pathways.  In real-life terms? This means a huge boost in creativity.

Researcher Sandi Mann explains intentional boredom as letting the mind “search for its own stimulation,” which we might imagine like any other learned skill.  If you’re trying to study for a test, but the textbook is always open and available, you don’t actually have to think about the answers.  They’re always an arm’s reach away, and you’re going to become dependent on the book itself to find them. When your phone is always available, your brain loses its flexibility to keep you independently entertained and satisfied.  

woman looking out window
One of the easiest ways to practice niksen?  Just look out a window.

Going from zero to sixty, though, can make practicing niksen an insurmountable task.  Instead, a time-effective (and doable) way to incorporate niksen into your day is by taking regular breaks.  The catch? No screens, no headphones, just take in your environment. Taking short walks or breaks to sit still during the work day might seem like a no-brainer, but committing to them daily may actually help you be a better employee. By making your brain work a little harder to be present, you’re creating new connections in your brain, making novelty, creativity, and thus productivity during the day even greater.  Plus, the added benefit of mindfulness will make these breaks feel like time well-spent, rather than blink-and-you-miss-it sessions wasted scrolling through social media.

First step: stop what you’re doing.  Second step: well, do whatever you want.  Let your mind wander. As Mann says, “search for your own stimulation,” rather than let your planned activities carry you mindlessly through your day.  By taking a few moments to yourself to do nothing a few times a day, you’re actually doing the most good for yourself – and keeping your brain flexible and creative.  A contradiction? Sure. An easy way to care for your mind and increase your overall satisfaction? Definitely.

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