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How to Do Nothing So You End Up Doing Something

Love doing nothing but can’t stand having to think about your nothingness (aka mindfulness)? Well, have I got a concept for you: It’s called niksen, and it’s a hot Dutch lifestyle trend that encourages you to do nothing. Or rather, the word means “doing nothing for nothing,” or “doing something without a purpose, like staring out a window, hanging out, or listening to music,” as Olga Mecking explains at Woolly Magazine.

How does it work? Well, according to Mecking, who lives in the Netherlands and spoke to stress coach Carolien Hamming about niksen, it’s tuning out on purpose, for no purpose other than to tune out. The Italians do nothing, too — la dolce far niente. And it’s restorative and relaxing so you can get back to doing something.

Wait, you’re thinking, I already do nothing all the time without even trying. Why just this morning I stared out the window while listening to music when I should have been doing my Highly Efficient Seven-Minute Workout Using Only Week-Old Garbage Found Within a One-Mile Radius of the Nonprofit Where I Volunteer. And according to the internet, that’s what’s wrong with me.

Well, niksen says that’s exactly what’s right with you. There aren’t a lot of specifics about how to do nothing, but I can tell you from personal experience that it mostly involves setting aside chunks of unstructured free time where you don’t have to be anywhere or talk to anyone. And then you just, well, sit there. Do nothing. Or think of nothing. I stare at a wall for a bit. I might play records. I clear all obligations so that my day takes shape by itself on my own whims, and without any pressure to show up anywhere.

Mecking says there’s even a Dutch phrase for asking someone if they are really enjoying the nothing. It’s “Lekker niksen?” which she says translates to “Are you deliciously doing nothing?”

I am indeed. And I concede that, until I read about niksen, I had no idea how lucky I was to already be good at doing nothing (I’m also really good at sleeping). Apparently, many people feel enormous pressure to have done something. “When we ask each other on Monday, ‘How was your weekend,’ nobody says, ‘I tried to do as little as possible,’” Hamming told Lifehacker in an interview. “That’s not sexy.”

I’m not so sure about that. When Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) comes back into work from a weekend of doing nothing in the cult film Office Space, he sure makes nothing sound exciting:

Plus, I do think people try to act like THIS weekend they will finally do nothing, but that’s more of a humble brag about how busy they are. Even though we might not think of the Dutch people as the most likely group globally in need of some nothing, Hamming says they offer it to the overworked Dutch folks who “feel pressured to fill their free time with productive and goal-oriented activities.”

I’m not tight with any Dutch people, but always doing something sounds like most people I know in Los Angeles. They’re always making plans, always going to a thing, always embarking on a project designed to better themselves. Time for another 5k this weekend! If they have kids? Boom: We pick strawberries from a local farm every weekend before hightailing it to the hot new art exhibit downtown, because otherwise we’ve failed to properly schedule every minute of our free time to do all the things.

Social media feeds the pressure to Always Be Doing Something, too, because if you don’t do anything, you have nothing to post online. That means that not only are you not busy all the time like everyone else, it also means you suck at this long exercise in bullet journaling we call life.

And if you post nothing online, people forget you exist. If you don’t remind people you exist and are Doing Stuff, then what will they have to be jealous of? Also, spend too much time sitting around doing nothing and you might actually remember you’re gonna die. Put that in your bullet journal.

Dutch children, just like us, are taught to be useful and to contribute, and work and earn. But above all else, to do. I’ve grown up around a lot of do-ers in my life. People who wake up at the crack of dawn and spend their free time always engaged in some sort of task or another. Most of these activities make perfect sense for a useful use of one’s time and are a mixture of the necessary and the voluntary: Bathrooms must be cleaned; garages must be organized. If you also want to squeeze in a little guitar practice, who could argue with that?

But our obsession with lifehacks and optimal living — what Nikil Saval at Pacific Standard called a “cult of self-optimization” back in 2014 — now borders on mania. Saval wrote:

Variations on a blog post called “50 Life Hacks to Simplify Your World” have become endlessly, recursively viral, turning up on Facebook feeds again and again like ghost ships., one of the many horses in Gawker Media’s stable of workplace procrastination sites, furnishes office workers with an endless array of ideas on how to live fitter, happier, and more productively: Track your sleep habits with motion-sensing apps and calculate your perfect personal bed-time; learn how to “supercharge your Gmail filters”; oh, and read novels, because it turns out that “reduces anxiety.” The tribune of life hackers, the author and sometime tech investor Timothy Ferriss, drums up recipes for a life of ease with an indefatigable frenzy, and enumerates the advantages in bestselling books and a reality TV show; outsource your bill payments to a man in India, he advises, and you can enjoy 15 more minutes of “orgasmic meditation.”

Weirder still, Saval notes, the life hack movement is actually rooted in turn-of-the-century industrialized manufacturing which sought to squeeze every bit of hard work out of poorly paid, unprotected workers it could without killing them (and sometimes killing them). It did so by scientific methods of increasing productivity and efficiency, and the stroke of evil genius was in finding a way to make the worker internalize the supervisor’s judgment so they’d toil on their own, even when no one was looking. Only now, with life hacking, the supervisor is the app or the chart. And the stopwatch is you.

If nothing else, niksen gives you permission of a sort, if you need it, to do nothing and no longer feel guilty about it. But — and yes, there’s a catch — it only works if you then go do something, too.

I do the nothing to recharge so that I can then do the productive things I care about with energy and focus. That’s important: You can’t do nothing all the time, or else the nothing is your life. It’s important to have goals and make an effort. Kind of like how you can’t experience real joy if you don’t also experience profound sadness; You can’t live a meaningful life if you never stop to smell the roses. So this weekend, do stop, but don’t smell the roses. Just hang out, maybe rose-adjacent, look around, and zone out.