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Latest in health: What doing nothing can do for you

Alexandre Chambon/Wikimedia Commons
One way to practice niksen is by simply looking out a window, Olga Mecking said.

Everyday life can be draining, especially with plenty of tasks to do. Dealing with this busyness can be stressful, but the Dutch concept of “niksen” -- literally “doing nothing”-- may be just the way to take a much-needed break.

Olga Mecking, who lives in the Netherlands, is a writer and journalist who wrote a piece for The New York Times called “The Case for Doing Nothing.” She joined “Take Care” to talk about niksen and how best to practice it.

Recently, there have several trends relating to wellness, including the Danish “hygge,” a quality of coziness and comfort, and other practices around the world. However, Mecking said, niksen is different.

“Those trends, they all tell you to do more, … but actually, doing nothing doesn’t require you to do anything,” Mecking said. “It actually requires you to do less.”

That is the beauty of niksen, according to Mecking; it is literally doing nothing, nothing more. This can include simply looking at a wall or out a window, Mecking said, as long as it does not involve a task or work.

Niksen can help break the habit of reaching for a device when boredom hits, Mecking said, which helps in a world where technology is everywhere.

“If you’re bored, … it’s just so tempting to grab your phone or your iPad or something and just entertain yourself that way when actually, with niksen, you don’t have to do that,” she said. “You can train yourself to not grab your device right away.”

Doing nothing can be a great thing to help us when we want to do something, too. Mecking said that, just like the adage that the best ideas come in the shower, practicing niksen can help the brain take a break. That break can help us think more clearly once that break is done.

“The best ideas come to us actually when we’re not looking for them,” she said. “It’s actually all the moments where we don’t do anything and don’t do much and let our brains rest a little, and then, it will often come up with a solution or a good idea.”

Rest assured, Mecking said, doing nothing does not brain our brains stop working. Even when we are not doing anything, everything in the body is functioning as normal. Mecking described niksen as letting a car idle -- the engine is still running, but the car is not going anywhere.

“We’re still doing nothing, but, of course, our bodies and our brains are always working,” Mecking said.

Some ways to practice niksen include counteracting habits involving technology and instead replacing them with doing nothing, Mecking said. So, instead of checking Facebook when bored at work, turn and look at the window or just stare at the desk for a few minutes.

"I don't think there's a wrong way to do niksen, to do nothing."

Still, doing nothing can seem like an altogether boring practice for plenty of people, and not just Americans, Mecking said. 

“It’s very uncomfortable sometimes if you just sit there … because we’re so used to doing one task and then another task and then doing this and that,” she said. “And it’s very hard to stop that.”

One way to counteract that feeling of boredom is to start gradually, Mecking said. Instead of trying to do nothing for a long stretch of time like an hour, try it for a few minutes or even a few seconds. Every bit counts.

“It starts with baby steps,” Mecking said. “It doesn’t have to be very long.”

Niksen, like mindfulness and other practices, can have plenty of benefits, from making us more aware of our surroundings to improving our creativity and mental health, Mecking said. Unlike mindfulness, though, niksen does not require focusing on individual thoughts or on the details in one’s surroundings. This quality makes it easy for anyone to do.

“[Mindfulness] sounds easy, but it really isn’t,” Mecking said. “Niksen doesn’t have this requirement, I think, of looking at your thoughts. If you’re angry or annoyed or feeling anything, and you set there on the couch feeling annoyed, I think that’s still niksen.”

While some may feel bored doing nothing, others may feel anxious or ashamed of the practice, Mecking said. This feeling is not unique to America, as all over the world, many feel a responsibility to their work, family, organizations, etc., and see doing nothing as neglecting those responsibilities. Mecking stressed that niksen does not mean ignoring those tasks.

“It’s important to work,” she said. “It’s important to have a network of people to rely on. It’s important to take care of your families, but it’s also important to have time to yourself and time for your own thoughts and ideas, maybe just not doing anything.”

Work and niksen can go hand in hand, Mecking said, which is why she recommends that employers should practice niksen and encourage their workers to do the same. This can help alleviate the stress of the workday, she said.

“Maybe the whole pressure of always being on and always being available, it wouldn’t go away, but it wouldn’t affect people as much,” she said. “If you take breaks during work, it’ll make your work better.”

In all, niksen is beneficial in many ways, and anyone can do it, Mecking said. It requires no skill, no action and no thought process; it is simply allowing our brain a break from working, even for a moment.

“I don’t think there’s a wrong way to do niksen, to do nothing,” Mecking said. “There’s no way you could go wrong with this.”