Why It's So Important To Do 'Nothing' More Often

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 

Every evening, my husband and I ask how each other’s day went – and every evening, there’s an unspoken competition between us. “It was busy,” we’ll groan, and then tick off a laundry list (which for me always includes actual laundry, ugh) of the things that we had to do, the pressing matters that we were forced to attend to. It’s almost like we feel we can’t fall into bed at night unless we’ve earned the right.

Stress is a badge we wear, a trophy we polish, and the more we heap upon ourselves, the shinier it gets. Look at me! So busy! Getting so much done!

The truth is, of course, that being busy doesn’t even mean we’re getting anything accomplished. We’ve all had those days when we feel like we’re just chasing our own tails, running around all day with virtually nothing to show for it at the end. But as long as we’ve kept running, damn it, that’s all that matters – right? Because heaven forbid we slow it down or – gasp – stop altogether for a little while. That would just be lazy, or at least that’s how the world at large seems to see it. Anything less than charging full speed ahead at a frenetic pace is regarded in a negative light, like we’re wasting time, like we aren’t pulling our weight. Being busy makes us feel important, impactful, worthy of the space we take up on this planet.

All that busyness we prize is toxic, though. Why do we value something we resent so much? I find that every time I manage to squeeze another task into my jam-packed schedule, there’s another staring me in the face – and when I don’t get everything done (because, impossible expectations), I berate myself for not having my shit together.

When I wake up the next day, I don’t feel ready to tackle the challenges ahead; I feel like I’m facing a mountain I can’t climb, and that the looming tower of responsibilities I’ve heaped upon myself is this close to toppling over and crushing me.

It has to stop. I have to stop, and I know I’m not the only one.

We all need to realize the importance of putting on the brakes, and embrace the value of taking a few minutes to zone out. Because giving our minds and bodies a chance to relax is not self-indulgence; it’s self-care, just as important as bathing and brushing our teeth.

So why do we so stubbornly resist it, instead of penciling it in like we do with literally everything else, even things that are far less important? If the car is overheating, we stop driving. If our phones are running low on battery life, we let them charge. Yet we don’t give ourselves the same consideration. But just because we’re capable of running on empty doesn’t mean we should.

Doing “nothing” is actually doing a lot, in terms of giving our brains a much-needed breather. In fact, our brains depend on downtime to process information, and it can also boost creativity. Science says so. It’s in this space of empty thought that we’re able to replenish our stores of motivation and creativity, letting our thoughts flow naturally instead of constantly redirecting them to more pressing issues. Nobody wishes, as the last moments of their lives slip away, that they had answered just a few more emails or taken on just a little more obligation.

Overloading ourselves without taking regular breaks is not only counterproductive, it’s bad for us – and it isn’t what we want, anyway. Not really. Because it’s the high of productivity we’re actually chasing, not the act of being busy, so most of the stuff we do is just getting in the way.

I know it’s easier said than done, to just switch everything off, because – at least at this point – the guilt of inactivity is so deeply ingrained that I can’t imagine actually just sitting there, let alone falling into some sort of meditative state. But maybe I’ll start with baby steps, allowing my brain to rest in those moments of the mundane when I’m doing tasks I can do on auto-pilot. Instead of mentally composing emails or compiling my shopping list while I’m doing laundry, I’ll just mindlessly do the laundry. I’ll let my thoughts wander wherever they may lead while I shower.

Maybe once I get used to doing that, I can move on to mastering the art of truly tuning out. I’m not sure how it’ll play out, but I do know this: The benefits will extend to more than just me. I’m not doing my kids any favors by modeling the constant pressure to be “on.” I don’t want my children to grow up feeling the same way I do much of the time, stressed out, struggling to keep up, but if they see me (and every other adult around them) in this constant race to do all the things, they’ll slowly but surely fall prey to it themselves, and the cycle will continue.

Life shouldn’t be a competition to see how much we can cram onto our plates. Instead, the goal should be prioritizing what’s necessary so we can let go of what isn’t. Then, in place of those less-necessary things, learning to be okay with doing nothing. Our minds are the epicenter of our lives – and our families’ lives, keeping track of dates and schedules and planning and processing and, most importantly, experiencing and sharing happiness. And if keeping them healthy means ditching the notion that an overwhelming workload equals success, we should all embrace the business of non-busyness.

Now, on the count of three, let’s put down our phones.

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