In Defense of Doing Nothing


This is a guest post by my friend Nathan Atkinson, and a wonderful reminder on this holiday weekend. Happy Thanksgiving, Canadian friends!

Mr. Magorium: 37 seconds.
Molly Mahoney: Great. Well done. Now we wait.
Mr. Magorium: No. We breathe. We pulse. We regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. 37 seconds, well used, is a lifetime.

This quote from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium seems idealistic in a world where being busy is worn as a badge of honor. Do a quick search for “productivity” on Google, and you will likely find thousands – if not millions – of articles, books, methods, apps, programs, and entire websites devoted to the topic. There is no shortage of advice about getting more done. From the GTD (Getting Things Done) productivity system to the Bullet Journal to the thousands of to-do list apps in app stores, there are many systems designed to help you do more in 24 hours.

I’ve tried my fair share of productivity hacks, systems, plans and apps. What I’ve discovered is that most of these systems don’t stick, and maintaining many of these systems is harder than the tasks that you actually need to get done. Among the endless advice about how to get more done, I’ve found something that helps me focus on what’s truly important.

The secret that helps me to be more productive is to take time to do nothing. Before you dismiss this as something silly or stupid, let me explain further.

I love spending time outdoors, whether I’m running, biking, camping, hiking or anything else you can do outside. Nature is great! Recently, I spent a weekend camping with my wife’s extended family in Idaho near the Snake River. We relaxed by the river, skipped rocks, talked with family and just enjoyed the great outdoors together.

The first morning we were up there, I went fishing with some of my brother’s-in-law. I actually didn’t do any fishing because I didn’t have a fishing license and I didn’t bring any gear. I still wanted to go out and spend some time on the river, though, so I borrowed some waders from my wife’s brother and went out with them anyway. While they fished, I enjoyed wading around in the river, skipping rocks and generally doing nothing.

There were a thousand things that I could have done if I had stayed home instead of going camping. I needed to finish some homework, write a paper for school, finish blog posts and clean the apartment. There were dishes in the sink, bills to pay, things to fix and much more. My to-do list was pages long and the nagging feeling that I needed to get something done was always there. Yet here I was, standing in a river in Idaho doing absolutely nothing.

The time passed quickly and quietly. The sun warmed me as it rose higher in the sky. The water was cool, but not cold, as it rushed past my legs. Bugs were sparse and there was plenty of river to explore. I spent my time watching birds, feeling the strength of the river’s current and breathing in the fresh air.

In the essence of productivity, I was “wasting time”.

Although many would have seen this as a waste of my time, this experience at the river left me rejuvenated and full of a calm peace. When we got home from the trip, I felt refreshed and ready to face work and school with a renewed sense of commitment and vigor. Our little getaway to nature eased my mind, fed my soul and refreshed my body. It was a much-needed break from all the going and doing.

Doing nothing, in its many forms, is often seen as a bad thing in our busy world. Even when we’re relaxing on a weekend or a day off, we still somehow find something to do. We check email, clean the house, browse the internet, watch TV, work on little projects, do laundry, and on and on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things. We need clean clothes, a clean house and it’s fine to watch some TV and check up on Facebook. But I believe that like every animal and machine, we need to power down, take a break and do nothing every once in awhile. I’m not talking about sleeping or napping, though they help a ton. I’m talking about simply doing nothing. Sounds easy, right?

Unfortunately, it’s harder than it seems. When I was out on the river, I could have been discussing fishing, worrying about bugs or snakes, feeling bad that I didn’t have a fishing license or thinking about things to do at home. Instead, I chose to wander with no agenda, no direction and no objectives. I waded around, walked onto the shore, watched guppies swim and simply enjoyed the moment. Technically, I was doing something, but it was all spontaneous. As Mr. Magorium suggested, we need to appreciate these moments of doing nothing: “We breathe. We pulse. We regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. 37 seconds, well used, is a lifetime.”

That day out on the river, I learned first-hand what Mr. Magorium meant by a well-used 37 seconds. In mine, I learned to breathe, pulse and regenerate. I discovered what it means to really stop my busy life and let my heart beat, my mind create and my soul ingest. This was a beautiful experience for me. I learned to love this moment, to be in the here and now. This is not an easy thing to do and I have yet to master the skill of living and being in the moment. But while the river rushed around my legs, I admired the beauty of it all and just let myself be. I was part of the scenery. I wasn’t doing. I was just being. And that moment of just being was a precious gift to my mind, body and soul.

When I returned to “real life”, I felt refreshed, lighter and more alive. It was as though I had absorbed the life around me. I hope to create more of these “37-second moments” where I don’t have to focus on doing or worrying about anything. I can sit still, breathe in the life around me and use my precious time to rejuvenate and lighten myself.

I challenge you to try something similar. Take some time and do nothing. Just let yourself be, with no cares, no tasks and no worry. Give time for your body to rest, your mind to create and your soul to heal.

Nathan Atkinson writes  Quiet Habits – a blog about living a simple life through habit change and minimalism. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
  • I love this! We absolutely operate under the assumption that have to fill every waking moment of our lives with stuff – just like we fill our home with stuff. There’s something really beautiful and freeing about silence and unscheduled time. This post reminds me a bit of Tim Kreider’s work, particularly Lazy: A Manifesto.

  • Happy Thanksgiving, Cait! Nice post, Nathan. I love the image of you in the waders, just going with the flow. A good reminder to slow down as we start a new week. :-)

  • Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. And thanks for this post. I’ve continually struggled with doing nothing. But recharging does make us much more productive. There are only so many usable hours in every week, after all. The rest really should be spent relaxing.

  • Reminds me of the great Winnie the Pooh quote:
    “What I like doing best is Nothing.”

    “How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

    “Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it. It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

    Happy Thanksgiving! And thanks for the reminder to go along and listen to all the things I can’t hear.

  • Yes, a thousand times, yes!! We’re a culture of problem solvers, busybodies and productivity chasers… and yet there’s more to life than checklists and solutions. I love having unstructured free time (though it sometimes eludes me) because I’m able to get lost in deep thoughts, good conversation, or a little bit of both.

  • One of the great things about retirement is society finally says it is OK to take time to do nothing. No guilt need be attached.

    • Oh, and by the way, something I really love about your post is the emphasis on nature. I don’t know why, but I feel like there’s something about taking a break outdoors that is different (and more beneficial) than taking a break indoors. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that even though we may not be “doing” anything ourselves, all the plants and bugs and birds and streams are rustling and buzzing and chirping and rushing around us — like maybe we suddenly notice that there’s a lot of important and beautiful activity and change happening around us that has nothing to do with our own to-do list. Hmmm…

  • This past summer I worked until the end of July before holidays and I was craving for them, then a week later I was looking for something to do and now that I turn back into my day job rouitne I am looking for weekend for relax and other things because best deal is find a doing nothing/job/social life balance…but some days of nothing to do are essential for recharge batteries!!!

  • I don’t do downtime well, but I’m working at it. I am far more productive — not “busy”, atually productive — when I’ve had time to process information, think before I act, plan things out, and recharge my batteries..

  • Doing nothing is a great chance to recharge, but I often feel guilty for doing it. This is a great wake up call for me!

  • I completely agree. If we don’t take some time or some extra time I don’t think we are as productive as we could be in life. I always schedule some me time each day. Some of my best ideas come when I can just think and relax a little bit. And sometimes I just need a break to stop from overloaded by decision fatigue. Each day I start with 30 minutes of me time. I don’t have to be to work until a certain time but I am there 30 minutes early without being bothered. I simply need that time.

    During my last vacation I took my phone and locked it in a safe for 9 days and didn’t touch it. I felt a little withdrawal at first but then life was amazing…until 9 days later. Take time for yourself or you will miss out on life. Nice article.

  • Two of my favorite pastimes are watching the rain and puttering. My dad used to love to sit on our back porch and watch the rain. He would allow anyone to join him as long as they sat quietly and it was often me as we were “two peas in a pod” and loved to just sit together. My dad passed nine years ago but I still feel him next to me when I watch the rain.

    As for the puttering, while it is technically doing something, I see it almost as a form of meditation since I often get absorbed in the task and my mind is free to flow any which way it wants. The bonus is the completing something I have been meaning to do but which wasn’t urgent enough to do right away.

  • As somebody with chronic fatigue, I’ve had to learn the value of doing nothing. It can really invigorate you to just relax. By not doing anything, you’re charging your battery to be more productive. I try to have at least one day each weekend where we don’t run any errands or get many chores done. We just sit around watching TV or reading. It keeps me going the rest of the week.

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