Excel at the art of doing nothing

Learn how to embrace niksen, a Dutch concept meaning doing nothing and having no plan.
person laying on a couch

Shilagh Mirgain, a psychologist at UW Health, says the pandemic caused all of us to slow down to almost a hard stop after rushing at a breakneck pace.

Mirgain, who grew up in Holland, brings up the Dutch concept of niksen — the art of doing nothing. “As a culture in the U.S. and even pre-pandemic, we have been kind of “human doings” [instead of human beings], really valuing ourselves on accomplishments and achievements and [feeling] guilty if there’s too much spaciousness, like we’re being lazy,” she says. Niksen is a concept that celebrates just being human, having no plan and embracing boredom.

Learning how to do absolutely nothing can be a challenge. Mirgain says it can make people feel uneasy or guilty that they’re not being productive, but taking a break allows one’s mind to daydream. In those times, she says, people can problem-solve, think outside the box and enjoy the simple moments. “The more you’re doing, actually the more you’re missing out on in some ways,” she explains.

Niksen can turn on the part of the brain called “default mode,” which activates the mind to wander. She says it’s the spot that triggers creative thoughts and “autobiographical planning,” during which people reflect on their lives and their futures.

Mirgain suggests starting by planning your downtime with purpose. She says structure can be helpful, but you don’t need an agenda — just set aside some time in your week. You can schedule an hour to enjoy a cup of coffee, take a walk without a destination or spend a day with no plans to let yourself see what happens. You can even do nothing with others and just enjoy the company instead of rigidly organizing activities. Doing nothing doesn’t mean sitting in silence. Even if you are alone, you can use the time to think and embrace the simple moments in life.

“We’re waking up to our life. We’re waking up to our own experience, really connecting to our core and listening to ourselves in a deep way,” she says. “But I think it also, from a mindfulness perspective, opens us up more to our environment that our senses can be more awake and more aware of just ourselves, but also our connection to our environment around us.”

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