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Is Now a Good Time to Do Nothing?

We can practice the antidote to "overwork, overdoing, and underliving."

Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Me: “What did you do at school today?”

My 11-year-daughter: “Nothing.”

One of the toughest things in these lockdown days is coming to terms with doing nothing. I feel like I’ve exhausted myself simply by doing nothing. Sure, this period is a chance for introspection, to explore our interior lives, but what if they are finite? I know I’m privileged to have work and a home and a family, but the nothingness of every day is beginning to get to me. I miss traveling, meeting new people, the random encounters, the peripheral vision, the tangential life, yes, even the false busyness of a life lived in transit.

I miss creating new memories

I keep busy by drawing from old memories, comparing what I did exactly a year ago on this day (strolling through the medina of Fez) with what I’m doing today (nothing). Never before has the past weighed so heavy. With every throwback, the new days become more like throwaway days.

But then I watch The Crown on Netflix, my daily pinnacle of doing nothing, and learn from the Queen that doing nothing is the point, in fact, the highest art. That’s particularly true for business where action bias is prevalent, and effective leadership is still often confused with assertive and swift action. Netflix co-founder, chairman, and co-CEO Reed Hastings once said at a conference that he was trying to make as few decisions as possible.” In fact, he proudly boasted, in the previous quarter he hadn’t made a single decision.

“Breaking away from overworking, overdoing, and under-living”

As the Queen and Hastings know all too well, doing nothing is indeed the greatest anomaly, not just for leaders, but for all of us.

João Sevilhano writes:

Productivity hacks, the ‘getting-things-done’ doctrine, and corporate jargon, in general, have flooded our waking minds and time. Even our leisure time. How many of us plan our vacation to the last detail, using a sophisticated template or app? How many of us try to read as many books as we can, as quickly as we can? When has reading fast become preferable to reading well?”

In a similar spirit, Celeste Headlee proposes in her new book that doing nothing is key to “breaking away from overworking, overdoing, and under-living.”

In fact, doing nothing seems to be much in demand. In Tokyo, a 37-year-old man who says he rents himself out to other people “to do nothing” has received over 3,000 requests and accumulated 270,000 followers on Twitter. Initially, he had offered his "rent-a-person who does nothing" services for free, but he now charges 10,000 yen (roughly $96) per request.

One customer of his wrote: "I'm glad I was able to take a walk with someone while keeping a comfortable distance, where we didn't have to talk but could if we wanted to.” Another reflected: "I had been slack about visiting the hospital, but I went because he came with me."

Waiting for the beautiful idea

Doing nothing, and simply waiting, is also a crucial part of any creative work. Nick Cave, the bard, writes in response to a fan question in his Red Hand Files newsletter:

“A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb—the divine idea, the beautiful idea—and reveal Himself.”

In response to a question about writer’s block, Cave points out that the issue might not so much be the songwriter who is not ready for the song, but that perhaps the song might not be ready for the songwriter.

Doing nothing is the greatest expression of privilege, but also of humility—and possibility.

João Sevilhano keenly observes that “The act of ‘doing nothing’ is, in truth, doing something, and it’s surely not the same as ‘not doing anything.’ It’s precisely when you have nothing to do that everything and anything is possible.”

The artist and author Jenny Odell, whose keynote talk on “how to do nothing” went viral (and turned into the book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy) reminds us why doing nothing is so powerful: “It's a reminder that you're alive.”

“Nothing matters more than what never happened”

The psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips knows that “nothing matters more than what never happened,” and his line is a blessing and a curse.

Martin A. Ciesielski is the king (or rather, the head) of nothingness and the founder of the School of Nothing. The school has no physical space, no staff, no students, no curriculum. Shortly before New Year’s Eve, he hosted a “Zoom of Nothing” (I wasn’t able to join because I had nothing better to do).

In an article about “The Three Nothings of Life”, Ciesielski cites from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes at the single hub;

It is the empty space which makes the wheel useful.

Mold clay to form a bowl;

It is the empty space which makes the bowl useful.

Cut out windows and doors;

It is the empty space which makes the room useful.

And concludes:

“Our current world—connected in ways we could barely imagine even 30 years ago—will surprise each of us with a growing number of unexpected events that happen out of nowhere. Many will be disastrous, deadly, and finite. And many political and business leaders will continue to tell us science fiction stories about technologies and markets that will help us avoid this. We should ask whether these technologies will help us wait, or create silence, or develop serenity.

Because in silence lies a great power, a power that might help us to deal with the things that happen to us out of nowhere, the things that did not happen to us, and understand that all life, possibilities, and experiences emerge from what was once nothing. Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to embrace nothing, to let it be our guide to a new way of experiencing life in all its forms and energies.

Nothing could be more beautiful.”