Experience the Joy of Doing Nothing

Published by Jeff Davidson on

“…people never are alone now. We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them ever to have it.” ~ Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

In this day and age, it’s becoming harder and harder to be alone, especially alone with our own thoughts. Dr. Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, along with other researchers conducted an experiment with student volunteers. The students were given two options.

For 15 uninterrupted minutes they could do nothing. Or, they could give themselves a small, electric shock. Roughly 67% of the men and 25% of the women in the experiment chose to give themselves small shocks, even though earlier, many had proclaimed that they would pay money not to endure such a shock.

Shock It to Me

Why did they opt for the shock? They became increasingly anxious for anything to do over the course of the 15 minutes. Aha, you say! These were probably millennials for whom a 15-minute stretch of doing nothing is virtually impossible.

As it turns out, the participants consisted of adults recruited from a farmer’s market and from a church. They acted in much the same way that you might expect of millennials. They felt anxious and antsy when left alone for a 15-minute stretch with nothing else to do but be with themselves.

The question today for each of us is why is it becoming so hard to take a few moments throughout the day to simply do nothing? Have we become such a driven populace that we cannot even spare a few minutes for ourselves? Do we no longer recognize the peace of mind that we can experience when we’re not fully occupied every minute of the day?

Three Ways to Wean Yourself

If you recognize that you are constantly seeking to optimize every minute of the day, and perhaps are oversubscribed, over-informed, and overwhelmed, here are interlaced ideas that you can put into practice:

  1. Start small. Rather than attempt a long stretch of doing simply nothing, see if you can last for 60 seconds or maybe 120 if you’re feeling brave. It’s best to attempt this after you finish a task, and feel good about your accomplishment. Marinade in your positive feelings. Perhaps before you go to lunch or coming back from lunch, or before taking a break or coming back from a break, you give yourself the opportunity to pause and, well, simply do nothing.

    If you have a 15 minute break, where is it written that you can’t spend the first 60 seconds at your desk doing nothing, take a 13 minute break, then spend the last 60 seconds at your desk, once again doing nothing.

  2. As you build confidence in your ability to take some time out with no thoughts or activities in mind, strive for three to five minutes. If you arrive at work early, you could spend such time in your car with the radio off, not checking your cell phone, and not doing anything, other than simply sitting there.

    In your office, perhaps you can spend three minutes undetected in a conference room, corporate library, cafeteria, rooftop terrace, or somewhere else.

  3. At home, where you have more flexibility, could you attempt a short weekend session? This should be no problem. During the weekday, it’s understandable that you seek to efficiently commute to and from work, although even on weeknights it might be possible for you to carve out a few minutes. Think of all the times you’ve been online, or you flick through the TV channels, and how aimless that can be.

Reinforcing Your New Behavior

As time passes, giving yourself some stretches here and there where you don’t have to do anything can become reinforcing. You have the opportunity to take a deep breath. You get a chance to reflect, or to clear your mind. You have time to visualize.

Even if none of these things happen, you still get a chance to slow down. Any way you look at it, it’s a good proposition.

About the Author

Jeff Davidson, the world’s only holder of the title “The Work-Life Balance Expert®” as awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is the premier thought leader on work-life balance issues. Jeff speaks to organizations that seek to enhance their overall productivity by improving the work-life balance of their people. He wrote Breathing Space, Simpler Living, and Dial it Down, Live it Up. Visit BreathingSpace.com.

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