How often do we dream of having nothing to do, nowhere to be, no one to meet? Doing nothing sounds great, huh? But how often do we actually do it? When was the last time you honestly had nothing to do, AND you decided to enjoy doing nothing?
I mean, no phone, no emails, no distractions.
Soaking it in.
All of a sudden, the whole concept of doing nothing isn’t so glamorous anymore, right? One could say it even makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. And hey, it’s only natural if we look at the state of modern society:
We glorify the 24/7 hustle, constantly pushing ourselves to do more, achieve more, earn more money, be more efficient, sociable, likable, etc. We build mental piles of "should's" and "must's", putting busyness above all on a pedestal, seeing it as the golden standard. Suppose we somehow have a pocket of free time, for example, while standing in a line. In that case, there's probably an urge arising in each of us to immediately fill it with anything from checking the inbox, replying to messages, or scrolling through social media (I'm guilty as charged here).
Yet, it wasn’t always like that. The concept of prioritizing work above all else is relatively new:
“Somewhere along the way, society gave up notions such as relaxation, idleness, and living in the moment as an important part of daily life“, says Rachelle Williams in her article for Chopra.
Why relaxation is an essential part of daily life?
How exactly “doing nothing” can be beneficial to us?
What does it even mean?
Let’s start with the basics…
Inside the brain of a 24/7 hustler
Usually, when discussing the importance of rest, people focus on how constant busyness lowers our physical health, immunity, effectiveness, productivity while increasing exhaustion, stress levels, and the risk of experiencing burnout. Yet, more or less, we’ve heard that, right? We know what’s up. What is often omitted or excluded is discussing the impact of such a lifestyle on our emotional health.
It wouldn’t be a true Dwen-Day article without taking a look at our command center – the brain! And so it happens that in the process of evolution, the human brain has developed 3 emotion regulation systems: threat, drive, and soothing.
The Threat System
Welcome to the most primal system of all, developed in evolution to protect us from predators and danger. When faced with a life-threatening situation, the threat system activates responses essential to our survival. In the past, it was a great tool for our ancestors to have under their metaphorical belts. There’s a roar? You see a fire? Maybe you can sense potential danger? Threat system has you covered! The release of adrenaline is making you alert and super aware of your surroundings.
Unfortunately, evolution didn’t predict that most humans don’t need to fight for survival every day, making our threat system faulty. It reacts to both: the actual, external threats as well as the projected, internal ones. That includes our judgments, beliefs, predictions, imagination, memories that pop up, etc. That, in turn, results in us misinterpreting threat-free situations as dangerous and unconsciously activating our threat system when there’s no need to do that to ourselves. Once the response is triggered, the stress hormones such as cortisol or adrenaline are released, and we end up feeling angry, anxious, or scared for no real reason.
And it gets worse: since our deepest, most primal instinct is to survive, the threat system is our dominating, default mode. We often experience daily life from that level, perceiving the external environment as potentially hostile and dangerous. Threat system gets activated whenever we feel unsafe, whenever we can lose something or fail somehow. Think of a stressful working environment, being reprimanded by your boss, running late because of traffic yet again, having unanswered emails piling up, looming deadlines, etc. Isn’t it often our bread and butter?
The Drive System
Moving on, we have the motivational system. As displayed in the name, this one drives us to pursue our goals, aspirations, and dreams in life so that we can thrive. If it wasn’t for the drive system, we would not only miss out on incredible opportunities to achieve what we want, but we wouldn’t be able to focus our attention on such a pursuit. Once we get the desired result, dopamine, aka the reward chemical, kicks in and makes us feel fantastic. We did it! We’re on top of the world!
I should mention a teeny tiny detail here: the drive system is a tricky business. Ages ago, the drive system helped humans secure resources such as food, shelter, sexual partners to reproduce with, and safety. Now, the modern equivalents of these resources are mainly centered around achieving social rank and status, pursuing big goals, competing with others, getting richer, faster, more efficient, etc. We all know the drill. Generally speaking, Western culture places colossal importance on achievements, simultaneously pressuring us to set unrealistic goals – working long hours, being constantly on the go, never stopping to take a breath or rethink our life choices.
“When in balance with the other two systems, the drive system can help keep us activated in the pursuit of important life goals (…) at the extreme, the drive can lead to addictive and compulsive behaviors“, explains Dr. Andreas Comninos.
Sadly, most of us base our sense of self-worth on the number of achievements. The drive system narrows down our attention to the single endeavor we set our minds to, blocking everything else and dismissing it as irrelevant to our current pursuit. Unavoidably, we set standards that are just impossible to meet, and, sooner or later, we fail. That’s when we’re more prone to experiencing anxiety and depression. Since we derive our sense of self-worth from achievements, we try to make up for the failure with yet another goal to achieve, simultaneously struggling with self-criticism, perfectionism, increased stress, and control issues.
Sounds familiar? Personally, that one hit close to home for me.
The Soothing System
Just like the former two systems, the soothing one has also been hard-wired in human brains throughout the process of evolution. Nowadays, we often (unknowingly) describe it when discussing the importance of taking a rest, ‘unplugging’, or ‘recharging batteries‘. While the threat and drive active us, the soothing system deactivates us by releasing feel-good neurochemicals such as oxytocin, endorphins, and opiates. As a result, we can experience feelings of safety, calmness, and contentment. That, however, can only happen when there is no danger to defend ourselves against (threat system) or goals to pursue (drive system).
Thanks to the soothing system, we can experience giving and receiving: care, support, encouragement, love, compassion, acceptance, kindness, warmth. According to Kali Gillette, when our soothing system works properly, we’re equipped with “the ability to accept our emotions, look at them objectively, self-calm, and then let them pass, versus reacting to a perceived threat“.
“We now know from the research that these behaviors can
down-regulate and weaken the toxic effects of the threat system.
In this way, the soothing system can bring us a sense of calm, safeness, and peace“.– Dr. Andreas Comnino
Connecting with your soothing system is one of the best gifts you could offer to yourself. Think of it as you would think of a caring, wise friend. It’s here to listen to you, help you get in touch with your actual needs and desires, embrace your imperfections, be a catalyst in self-forgiveness, and witness here and now, grounding you in the present moment. That can only happen if you let it happen, surrender to the present moment and let go of “should’s” and “must’s” of the threat and drive systems.
Really, it’s not all THAT hard. I mean, just take a look at Italy’s culture.
The Sweetness of Doing Nothing
What if doing nothing was a part of your every day?
Ok, ok, ok. Before you think: “Say what? Who can lead such a lifestyle? It’s a luxury that I surely cannot afford!” give me a moment.
‘Il dolce far niente’, which literally means ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’, is a concept of savoring life ingrained in the Italian culture. What has a particularly sweet taste is the idleness and pleasure of experiencing a specific event as it is happening. It’s the ability to soak in the present moment, enjoy, and rest in it for a while. It doesn’t have to be something grand. In fact, the sweetness of doing nothing can be found in the most simple and pure activities. For Italians, it’s the mindful art of enjoying the taste of your afternoon espresso or a delicious piece of creamy tiramisu.
Il dolce far niente hides in the warmth of the sunshine on your face as you walk in the park. You can see it in the colorful diversity of the people you pass by on the street, sit next to in the subway, stand in line with at the post office, etc. The sweetness of doing nothing is omnipresent, just like your soothing system. It is there, waiting for you to use it, to surrender to the present moment and savor it. It’s there to release your worries, distress, and anxieties. It’s here to offer you joy, relaxation, contentment, mental clarity, and moments of connection with yourself and others.
Even though the resource is available to us, it can be challenging to break through the constant mental inner-chatter and relax. That’s why I want to share my personal lessons learned on how to activate your soothing system…
How To Master The Art OF Doing Nothing – 5 Simple Tips
- 1) One step at a time:
The soothing system works best when we just let it take over. When we surrender. When we don’t overthink our decisions or have a goal to fulfill.
That’s why it’s a good idea to start your journey of doing nothing by taking one step at a time. No need to plan out a whole day of deep relaxation. Just find a little moment throughout your day when you can enjoy your coffee, read a book, mindfully eat your lunch with zero distractions. Keep it simple. No need to complicate your life, right?
“Doing nothing is a skill you may have lost touch with
but can be reacquired with a bit of practice.”– Rachelle Williams
Do it day after day. Stay consistent with your practice. Commit to experiencing those small moments when it feels like time has slowed down.
- 2) Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend:
Now, that is one of the fundaments on which the soothing system is built. Before engaging in doing nothing, think of your best friend. What would you do if they failed? If they overcriticized themselves for no reason? If they felt anxious or depressed?
My guess is you don’t further put them down or scold them. You’d treat your best friend with kindness, open heart, and gentleness.
You can activate the soothing system and genuinely enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing only when accepting, compassionate, and patient with yourself.
- 3) Embrace the solitude:
Simply hanging out with yourself without any form of distraction can feel weird, overwhelming, uncomfortable, awkward, and so on. Most of the time, we’re often unconsciously in the threat or drive systems, making our nervous systems chronically over-stimulated.
Taking a step back, distancing ourselves from it, and deriving pleasure from being on your own is a long process of readjusting our minds and bodies. I invite you to embrace & celebrate your solitude, and while we’re at it, check out this article where I focus on the topic of intentionally spending time alone.
- 4) Practice mindfulness:
There’s a saying that goes: “awareness is the first step towards the change“. Makes sense, right?
Enjoying the art of doing nothing to the maximum requires the ability to stay grounded in the present moment and rest our awareness in it. The practice of mindfulness helps us broaden our focus so that we can fully experience the present moment. It allows us to become aware of our internal worlds of thoughts and emotions as well as the external surroundings.
Mindfulness, however, just like any skill, takes practice. And with training comes mental flexibility and resilience. I invite you to daily flex your mindfulness muscle by becoming aware of your current state. It can be anything from the taste and texture of the food you eat, the shifting weight of your body as you walk, the sounds of a busy street to the sensation of your chest rising and falling when breathing deeply.
- 5) Surrender to the experience:
Whenever you start noticing the sweetness of doing nothing as it happens to you – nurture it. Dive deep into the experience. Surrender to it. Let go of any expectations. Try broadening your awareness and savoring it to the fullest! Here are some prompts for you to contemplate on:
- How does it taste/sound/feel/look like?
- What sensations does it create in your body?
- How would you describe the way it makes you feel?
- How can you make it happen again?
Tension is who you think you should be.
Relaxation is who you are.”— Chinese Proverb
If you’re still feeling discouraged, confused, or unfit for this whole ‘doing nothing’ thing, let me stop you right there and applaud you for the simple fact that you sustained your attention long enough to read this article until here. It just shows what great potential you have to break out of the hustle mentality, nurture yourself through activating the soothing system, and master the art of doing nothing.
Feel free to ask me anything or share your journey in the comments down below!