The Sweetness of Doing Nothing (La Dolce Far Niente)
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
In the United States, the Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic is alive and well, some might say run amok. Protestants were originally attracted to the qualities of hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, because these were thought to be two important consequences of being one of those elected or predestined to be saved; thus, Protestants were supposed to strive for reaching them. This mindset became wide spread; the Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was common, including here, in the United States. For example, Proverbs 10:4 of the Holman Christian Standard Bible states, “Idle hands make one poor, but diligent hands bring riches.” Likewise, there are several German proverbs that echo this sentiment, such as: “The devil makes work for idle hands.” Thus, in the United States, it is common for people to feel we are not worthy if we are unable to account for our time with measurable results.
Making a case for downtime
Winnie the Pooh has quite a bit of wisdom to share with children and adults alike. In regard to keeping busy, Pooh makes the assertion, “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” (from Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne) We can also review the Old Testament (Gen. 2:2) as a reminder, lest we forget, that God rested on the seventh day of creation. In fact, Conservative and Orthodox Jews still observe the Sabbath by resting from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was only a few decades ago, if any of you were around then to remember, that stores were not open on Sundays to support a day of repose and being with family. Taking such a break can be a reminder that we are not indispensable. Moreover, it can validate for us that the earth will not stop rotating if we take a break from meeting the demands that face us. These demands can be met “all in good time.”
The reality is that not taking enough downtime has detrimental effects:
- We may become more stupid.
Constant activity keeps our bodies in a state of heightened stress arousal. In this state, our fight or flight reactivity, our ancient reptilian brain, is dominating our thoughts and behaviors. Thus we have less access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain unique to human beings, where our executive functioning (rational thought, judgment and creativity) reside. Taking opportunities to bring ourselves out of stress arousal into greater balance allows us to utilize the intelligence that sets us apart as humans.
- There are mental health risks to not taking enough vacation from work.
A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (2013, August 2) concluded that employees who work long hours with high job demands are more likely to develop depression. And a 2005 study by the by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacations were less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts who did not. Ultimately, burn-out and resentment can build when we don’t feel rewarded for overextending our energy, going beyond our limitations.
- Productivity and job retention may suffer.
The constant pressure to do more with less, coupled with the belief that being busy means we’re important, is creating an unsustainable pattern. It is worth questioning an unconscious belief that working more makes us more productive. As a case in point, when entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased. Likewise, An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts. In my own study of business people who meditate, one of the themes that arose from those who maintained long-term meditation practice was a sense that they were more productive at work, not less, and without adding more time on the job.
- Health may suffer.
There is greater understanding that working too much is simply not healthy. Luckily, when we take time away, these effects are mitigated. For example, the Framingham Heart study (a massive longitudinal research program started in 1948) reported that when workers take annual vacations, their risk for a heart attack is reduced by 30% in men and 50% in women.
Thus, there is no need to feel guilty for taking time off of “doing.” For many people, staying busy has become a way of avoiding what you are feeling, especially discomfort or pain (physical or emotional). On the other hand, non-doing gives you an opportunity to meet what is there without judgment and address it more effectively. From this state, you are better able to utilize the executive functioning of your brain (the rational thought, creativity and judgment) and can tap into the inner wisdom that is inaccessible when you are constantly stimulated. As Joseph Campbell stated, “You must have a place to which you can go in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not owe anyone and where no one owes you – a place that simply allows for the blossoming of something new and promising.” Moreover, taking time out is an act of self-care rather than selfishness. When you are renewed and feeling more balanced, you are in a better state to respond effectively to the demands in your life.
How to take time to do nothing
Follow Rumi’s advice, “A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.”
– Schedule time for yourself in your calendar on a regular basis and keep the appointment with yourself.
– Take time when arriving somewhere to sit quietly before initiating your activity.
– Take a few minutes between completing tasks as transition time.
– Set up a Sabbath-like period in which you do not engage in “work” activity.
– Set boundaries on TV time, computer time (periodically turn off your phone and email).
What are ways that you carve out time for non-doing? Please share your ideas with so I can enlighten others.
“You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
~ Franz Kafka