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The Phenomenon of Just Doing Nothing

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

By Isabel Pulgarin

Photo Credit to Pexels

“We’re riddled with pointless talk, insane questions of words and images. Stupidity’s never blinded or mute. So, it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.” – Negotiations by Gilles Deleuze.

When was the last time you sat outside or walked among the trees, observing, and following the trails of thoughts that arrive without music or any other source of input? When was the last time you stopped to smell the roses? Mindfulness is the buzzword of the generation. It’s the key to preserving good mental health. It’s like working out or jogging to get your heart rate up, except it’s with your mind.

Today, humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Per Cross River Therapy, goldfish hold out for 9 seconds meanwhile we stop at 8.25 seconds, a drastic decrease from 12 seconds in 2000. All this makes the recent discovery on the benefits of microbreaks while working by West University of Timisoara (WUT) in Romania a great reality check. In one of the experiments they studied, participants would take a 10-minute microbreak—like walking, stretching, or just relaxing—after working and found themselves in better moods and weren’t as fatigued.

The best form of this is brought to light in the studies of Harvard University Psychology Professor Dr. Ellen Longer and artist and writer Jenny Odell.

“The mindfulness that we study is immediate. It’s simply noticing new things. And in the process of noticing new things, that puts you in the moment,” said Longer. “If one deeply appreciates uncertainty—recognizing everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, so you can’t know. And when you recognize that you can’t know or you don’t know, you tune in. When you think you do know, you don’t pay any attention.”

Odell’s philosophy doesn’t find anything appealing about always having a piece of technology attached at the hip.

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“There is nothing to be admired about being constantly connected, constantly potentially productive the second you open your eyes in the morning… In the words of Othello: ‘Leave me but a little to myself,’” she wrote in her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

Her philosophy of doing nothing through deep listening offers a more digestible version of mindfulness and meditation since you don’t push away thoughts. You marinate in them to learn and make observations about yourself. It also is an incredible practice for creatives to unlock what you don’t know and allows consciousness to wonder deeply. She continued to write that “doing nothing” and having nothing to say are “[precursors] to having something to say.” The deep listening you do in these breaks of time slow down our analysis and judgements and allows us to just look.

“‘Nothing is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech,” said Odell. More specifically, as put by The Atlantic writer Arthur C. Brooks, letting the mind roam during “unstructured and undemanding tasks” required for “doing nothing” can make you better at creative problem-solving. You can develop unconscious thoughts never heard of before.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Consider these geniuses: René Descartes invented his coordinate system in bed while watching a fly and Albert Einstein, for the most part, made his theory of relativity while daydreaming. They were doing nothing, and they discovered art within themselves.

“Even if brief or momentary, these places and moments are retreats, and like longer retreat, they affect the way we see everyday life when we do come back to it,” said Odell, adding from these moments we can become more attune and develop better perceptions.

Because boredom can be refreshing, too, you can look at your ordinary activities as meaningful and place new effort into them after exploring. It’s in these moments you make much needed quality time with yourself. Odell values this and connects it to her father’s saying on doing nothing: “It’s just you with yourself and your own crap, so you have to deal with it.”

With the help of Brooks, here are three simple steps to doing nothing with purpose:

1. Start Small

Start at your own pace and work your way up from five minutes a day until you can take a good 20 minutes a day in what you find to be a peaceful place, ideally with a good view.

“I have been going every 2 weeks and for about 30 minutes,” said Dominique Pineda, a senior publics relations student. “The spot that I have been going to is Adrian's second floor, where the old registrar's office was. There are some wooden tables that are always empty and around 5 p.m. there is a nice breeze and shade. The other spot is a table behind the theater, which faces the parking lot.”

2. Go on an Unstructured Vacation

After you’ve mastered your daily break, take a vacation to bask in “unlimited idleness.” Treat yourself to a laidback retreat from studying and keeping up with your social media. You don’t have to go anywhere extraordinary but take an intentional vacation from what you do every week.

3. Choose a Soft Attention Activity

During the unstructured vacation, choose “soft fascinations” — the University of Michigan psychologists call activities like walking in nature or watching the waves. Research has found that these fascinations were more refreshing than binging a good show. In the end, don’t make carving out time such a hassle to plan. You don’t have to define the time. Just simply be. And in the words of British labor union leader, take some time for whatever you will.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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