The art of doing nothing

When was the last time you truly spent a day doing nothing?

To me doing nothing is when you are occupied with one chosen task or activity, in addition to basics like eating, getting cups of coffee, toileting and sleeping. Anything less would essentially be a comatose state, and let's face it, comas are dull. 

I'll refer to this activity herein as nothingism. 

Nothingism is a bit of an art, that requires practice and a particular setting in which to carry out that practice. You wouldn't practice nothingism at work, or, whilst someone is relying on you to keep their children alive. 

there is a fair chance THAT RIGHT NOW you are doing what many may consider to be nothing.

If you are reading this article I can assume that you might be on a bus, train, at work or on the couch at home. You are probably sitting on your bum and most definitely staring at your phone or computer. This, in most opinions, is considered as doing nothing. That common interpretation is false.

You are reading this article whilst simultaneously managing many other tasks such as commuting, eating, responding to incoming messages or planning dinner. You are much further away from the sweet meditation of nothing right now than you think. Let me prove it to you with a little exercise:

  1. Count how many apps are currently open on your various devices. Write down the number.
  2. Think about how many tasks you expect to have completed before your next meal. Add this number to the one you just wrote down.
  3. Think about basic things like getting water or a coffee, or bathroom breaks. Count how many of these you are likely to do before your next meal.
    Write that number down too

If the number is bigger than 3, you are busy. You are, contrary to popular belief, not doing nothing.

Stay calm! You are not the most uniquely stressed out person in the world... Obviously, I am.

The point is, many of us don't realise how busy we are in every waking moment of our lives. It is as if eating, walking, sleeping and social interactions aren't keeping us entertained. We are searching for occupation via our news feeds, inboxes, phones, social interactions and the many tasks that result from them. We live in a society where being busy and making it publicly known is hegemonic.

Recently, I have been trying to focus on my nothingism practice. 

I've been turning my phone off at night, I spent the last month without TV and I have been going to more classes, social occasions and live entertainment in the evenings. Trying to focus my attention solely on a succession of rewarding singular tasks has been incredibly challenging. Moreover, I have noticed that my avoidance of technology has made me hyper-aware of my dependance on it. Most disturbingly, the amount of self-gratification and comfort I seek from my daily interactions on social media, email and telephone.

One of recent to-to lists comprises about 6 hours 35 minutes of stuff I needed to get done that day. When I added on basic daily tasks like eating and going to the boys room, a conservative 3 hours is added to the total (I take my time in the boys room). This equals 9 hours and 35 minutes of my day. If I slept for 7 hours the previous night I can round up to 17 hours of allocated time. With the remaining 7 hours free I can assume I'll be doing something pretty fun... Something rewarding and memorable. But I didn't, nor can I remember any day recently when I did. I appear to lose 6-7 hours each day doing what ever it is that I do in between sleep and my to-do list.

I estimate that the average adult spends 3 hours of each day filled with 'busy somethings' that offer no memorable outcome. That means that from the age of 18 we all spend 6.75 years of our lives guilting ourselves in to doing fruitless busy shit, assuming we live to 75... Bleerrgh

There is an Italian saying, dolce far niente, which translates to the sweetness of doing nothing in english. Siestas, wine, opera, theatre, cars, bikes, food and passion... Good god we have to start paying more attention to the Italians. They have the good life nailed down.

Dolce far niente... 

This is where the sweetness of doing nothing becomes an art. An art like any other that can be practiced, refined and perhaps even mastered.

We attach value to the outcomes of everything we do, whether it is the crossword puzzle, painting a picture or eating five veggies a day. The less you choose to take on, therefore, the more effort you can put into those tasks and the more rewarding they will be. Finished or not, the outcome of doing nothing but that single task is sweeter. The outcome of practicing nothingism.

Starting your practice of nothingism isn't easy. I've been working on it since I started writing this article over two months ago. I'm still terrible at it. But we'll get there!

Here are some suggestions of nothingism to try out, as you start gaining more by doing less:

  • Catch a train 30 minutes away from your suburb, get off, catch one back. Don't take your phone or anything to do. Listen to people, look out the window...
  • Walk. Just do nothing but walking. Not hard.
  • Sit in a dark room with a good stereo or headphones, close your eyes and listen to an entire live performance.

By reading this article to the end you're now on your journey to being a more satisfied, more productive and more mindful nothingist.


"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you'll miss it"

- Ferris Bueller, not a real person. But his words were. 


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