The sweetness of doing nothing

Doing something is productivity's gas; doing nothing is productivity's brakes. We need both gas and brakes to function well.



By Bryan E. Robinson

Published: Wed 29 Jul 2020, 1:15 PM

Last updated: Wed 29 Jul 2020, 3:21 PM

If someone suggested that an idle mind is a good thing, I imagine you might scratch your head and roll your eyes as you look at your to-do list. If you're like many people, the old myth, "An idle mind is the Devil's workshop," still lingers in the back your head.
But research from Harvard and other institutions of higher learning shows that idle moments of mindfulness without imperatives-nothing to rush to, fix or accomplish-actually add to your mental and physical health: greater productivity, better memory, stronger immune system, fewer health problems, greater happiness and longer life.
"Sit there and do nothing?" you ask. I can imagine you rolling your eyes, glancing at your to-do list, booing and hissing. You're up to your eyeballs in tasks, deadlines loom, and you can't find enough hours in the day to get everything done. You want to end the madness, not prolong it. It's counter-intuitive, but doing nothing actually fuels your productivity.
Doing something is productivity's gas; doing nothing is productivity's brakes. We need both gas and brakes to function well. Without the pauses of doing nothing, you're only using gas without brakes. If you were a car, you'd burn out your engine or crash. But you don't have to let that happen. The solution? Take time out of the daily grind to quiet your mind-idle moments to meditate, take a power nap or contemplate some aspect of nature. Doing nothing provides a period for important decisions to incubate and cultivates clarity and creativity to put into your career goals and make them a reality.
Doing nothing has been compared to the pauses that are integral to a beautiful piece of music. Without the absences of sound, the music would be just noise. One day I watched a man, arms outstretched from his side, balance on an old sea wall. In that moment, with all the time in the world, no hurry to get anywhere, all he cared about was navigating his body against the warm ocean breeze. The sweetness of doing nothing gives you moments to chill, live in the present, and savor your life to the fullest. Putting on the brakes and stepping away refills your dwindling reservoir, replenishes your mojo, and provides an incubation period for embryonic ideas to hatch. In those moments that might seem empty and needless, strategies and solutions that have been there all along in some embryonic form are given space to come alive.
Every time you get caught in the stress of the moment, step back, take a breath and chill in that sweet spot. Achieving balance between the gas (doing) and brakes (being) is a never-ending dance. Especially in our culture where doing is more valued than being, and the adage, "An idle mind is the devil's workshop," blinks in your brain like a neon sign-where you're taught to believe that the more you do, the greater your worth. If you're like most people, you will continue to struggle to find that sweet spot-the middle way between doing something and doing nothing.
The more you practice stilling your mind and centering on the quiet places within you, the more you can access a calm state even in times of upheaval. When you're peaceful and centered, your heart and respiratory rates slow down. Muscles loosen. Your mind is open and clear, actions are reflective and balanced, and you're more productive. Just five minutes of "sweet nothings." You're mindfully present in each moment where your busy life coexists with idle moments without imperatives, nothing to rush to, fix, or accomplish. After applying the brakes and doing something for nothing, you're ready to go again. Then watch your resilience, creativity, and productivity soar.
-The author is a psychologist


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