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Among the many tragedies Covid-19 has wrought, some people have found unexpected gifts.
The chance to slow down and experience a smaller, sparer life was for some a welcome reprieve from the overscheduled, harried and often overwhelmed version of the Before Times.
Some of us realized that what had once seemed inconceivable — white space on the calendar — was now necessary for a sense of calm. A few of us experienced the joys of doing nothing.
It turns out that the Dutch, a famously contented people, have a word for this experience: niksen, loosely translated to “doing nothing.” When writer Olga Mecking, a Polish woman living in the Netherlands, discovered this concept, she found herself intrigued and determined to master the art herself.
Her book, “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing,” explores where the concept comes from, why it’s medically and psychologically important, and how to actually master this art. For it turns out that doing nothing is one of the hardest things. One upside: It’s the cheapest wellness trend imaginable.
CNN asked Mecking to share the secrets of niksen with us.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: You write that doing niks, or nothing, doesn’t mean working, performing emotional labor or meditating. How does one do nothing?
Olga Mecking: My goal was to try to understand what doing nothing was and how it differed from work. It turned out to be harder than expected. In fact, while doing research, I was struggling to find anything about “doing nothing.” Instead, I had to look at words such as “boredom,” “laziness” or “idleness.”
In the definition I eventually went with, doing nothing is actually doing nothing, so not browsing Facebook or watching a series but rather sitting on the couch or in a cafe and looking out of the window or watching people go by. Sometimes we can refer to this as “spacing out” or “daydreaming.”
It’s also doing nothing without a purpose. Too often, we do things because we expect a certain outcome.
We run because we want to lose weight or prepare for a marathon, and not simply because it can feel nice. I believe we’ve lost the ability or just the pleasure of doing things “just because” or “for the hell of it.”
CNN: Doesn’t “doing” imply doing something?
Mecking: Your question is of linguistic nature. In English, you have to say “doing” nothing. But you can say “not to do anything.”
In Polish, you’d have to use a double negation: Nic nie robić or nie robić nic, where nic is nothing and nie is not or no.
In Dutch, you have one word for doing nothing, which is niksen. When I first found out about this, I thought it was brilliant that a language can put a whole concept into just one word.
CNN: What are some tips for making sure we do niksen? Do we write it in our calendars? Or do we schedule nothing in our calendars sometimes?
Mecking: I am a big believer in “doing whatever works,” so if you’re the sort of person who likes scheduling stuff, do that. The Dutch love their agendas. The productivity expert Laura Vanderkam suggests leaving some blank spaces in your calendar — for lunch, breaks, going for a walk or doing nothing.
If you’re sort of a go-with-the-flow person, you’d probably do what I do and get some niksen moments in whenever you can. My favorite places are waiting areas (like at the doctor’s office), public transport or park benches.
CNN: People in the United States live in a productivity-obsessed society, but you found that incorporating niksen into the workday — that is, doing less, over fewer hours — can actually increase productivity. How so?
Mecking: We understand that our bodies need to rest once in a while. But we somehow expect our brains to work without pauses and that is not sustainable. Because after a while, our brains stop cooperating and time spent working then will be wasted.
It’s better to take a break, eat something, do nothing for a while. This would be time taken away from work, yes. But it will also allow us to work better and end up in increased productivity as well as better quality of work.
CNN: How is it that lying down still uses more parts of the brain than performing a task? Tell us about “default mode network.”
Mecking: The default mode network is a special neural network in the brain that only comes “online,” or lights up in an fMRI machine, when we do nothing. The way I understand it, when we’re involved in a task, our brain devotes energy to the areas responsible for completing this task. This is not that our brains are working less, they’re just more focused.
But when we do nothing, a totally different, more elaborate part becomes active that connects different brain areas.
Researchers think that this is why we have our best ideas not when we’re focused on solving a problem but when we do something totally unrelated to the problem at hand, like taking a shower or bath, or going for a walk.
CNN: You note that our reliance on technology means we’re never not doing something. How do we need to adjust our relationship to technology to do niksen?
Mecking: Technology can be great, but it also seeps into our work — we can be reached at any time of day and night — and leisure time, where we can constantly entertain ourselves if we want.
Many people use apps to limit their screen time, using technology to control technology, but another option is to adapt your environment so that you have a place to put your phone so that it’s not constantly next to you or surround yourself with things that are not technology related like books or limit the number of apps or social media profiles that you use.
CNN: How do we deal with the shame some of us feel when we’re not being more productive, or the guilt we might experience if we take time out for niksen?
Mecking: The important thing is not to fight it or think I shouldn’t feel guilty about this, which can lead to feeling guilty about feeling guilty. Just accept that we’re feeling guilty and try and sit with that for a while and see what happens.
Does it go away after we’ve had a chance to daydream a bit and see we’re feeling more relaxed? The productivity expert Chris Bailey claims that we feel guilty when our actions don’t align with our values and that a solution to the guilt could be to learn to value doing nothing and relaxation.
CNN: What’s the research you cover about how we’d rather give ourselves electric shocks than be idle?
Mecking: It was a study done in 2014 by Timothy Wilson, who found that many people, when given the choice between sitting still in a room and doing nothing and giving themselves mild electric shocks, would rather give themselves shocks than experience any type of boredom or idleness. The majority of people who chose to give themselves shocks were men — I am totally unsurprised by this.
CNN: You make the case that niksen is actually our “default state,” even though we all seem to be addicted to overscheduling. How so?
Mecking: Paradoxically, both can be correct. The first humans had to survive in a harsh environment which included hard work — hunting, collecting food, preparing it for eating, cooking, preparing and mending clothes, making tools, and so on. But at the same time, humans are a totally lazy species: A study showed that if given the choice of taking the stairs or taking the elevator, guess what most people chose? Yes, the elevator. And that has to do with conserving energy.
We typically don’t want to work unless we have to. But social expectations combined with the modern economy and technology have all conspired to give us the feeling that we should be working, scheduling, planning, doing something all the time.
CNN: You write that the Dutch culture might be particularly amendable to niksen for a variety of reasons, including a high quality of life. But they also have this saying: “Just be normal, that’s crazy enough.” Can you explain?
Mecking: Doe normaal (do normal) is something that you encounter a lot here, and it’s usually said in situations when people are perceived as bragging or showing their emotions a bit too openly. Even though the Dutch are said to be an incredibly individualistic nation, following rules, cooperation and “meedoen” (contributing) are incredibly important to them — more important than individual success or achievement.
CNN: Can you explain “learning to live at two speeds?”
Mecking: The idea of niksen is not about selling everything you’ve got and go live in the desert. A busy life can still be a very good, happy life, filled with meaningful moments with friends, family, a job and maybe a hobby. And modern life offers many amazing opportunities for entertainment and fun.
And some situations just require hard work. When you’re dealing with an emergency, you don’t go “sorry, need to do nothing for a while.”
So there will be moments when you will be overscheduled to the brim, but there also should be moments where you have time to relax, sit down, read a book or do nothing. It’s about knowing when to go fast and hard and when to go slow.
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different.” She has written for CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and other publications.