The Joy of Doing Absolutely Nothing

how to do nothing

“It’s about nothing! Everybody is doing something, we’ll do nothing.” So declared George Costanza on an iconic episode of Seinfeld(itself a show, many would contest, was about nothing) called “The Pitch.” Costanza’s coffee shop decree may have been about a TV script, but, as our current cultural messaging about hustling harder becomes more of a constant, it may be one worth reflecting on in a bigger picture way. Learning how to embrace the art of doing less—the Italians, of course, even have a name for it: “il dolce far niente”—in this climate of work life imbalance is a practice with discernible benefits. We talked to Gemma Gambee, a New York-based meditation and spiritual teacher, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, about why less can, in fact, be more.

Being Bored is Good for Your Brain

As Immordino explains, boredom can actually help the brain function more optimally. “When you’re bored, you’re not doing nothing,” she says. “Stepping back from the do-do-do, run-run-run mode and getting into a place where you can have free-form narrative reflection is really important for emotional health, memory formation, for development of a sense of purpose, and for connecting moral, ethical, and personal values.” That’s why some of our best ideas happen when we’re taking a shower or walking the dog and our brains are out of their usual task-focused mode.

Doing Less Means Distancing Yourself from Your Phone

“I think we need to be really strategic about how we use our technology and what we want to leverage it for, and not let it dictate for us that we need it,” says Immordino. For all the conveniences they offer, our phones are designed to distract us, and developing better habits about how we engage with them can require real discipline. They’re addictive, and, much like with any addiction, the first step is understanding the power of their influence over us. And then, as evidence from psychology suggests, making a daily habit of getting our phones out of our sight. Literally. If it’s anywhere in your sight line even if you’re not picking it up it’s still commanding some of your attention, explains Immordino who suggests turning it off and putting it in a drawer far away from you for a chosen amount of time each day. Which will, at first, likely make you anxious, even uncomfortable. That, says Immordino, is a normal adaptive withdrawal response to something you are, in varying degrees, basically addicted to. “The phone is maintaining your outward vigilance because we need to be giving it a little bit of our attention all the time,” says Immordino. “When you’re doing that you’re keeping yourself from getting into the subtly inward space associated with the brain’s default mode, which is the mode where you construct stories, you think about the possible future, you imagine and remember the past, you build personally significant memories, and you have emotional experiences. So, it’s a very important dimension of human functioning and we are training our brain not to engage in it when we have something that’s constantly waiting to ping at us.”

Meditation Doesn’t Have to Be About Meditating

“Meditation is a state of consciousness which helps shift the body chemistry and it’s one of the quickest ways for us to be able to de-stress our nervous system and realign ourselves,” explains Gambee. But, for many, developing a meditation practice can be, in a word, challenging, so Gambee suggests easing into it by building little rituals around basic routines. Like when you take a coffee or lunch break, really make it a break: step away from technology, go outside, invite a friend or coworker, even just take a moment to enjoy what you’re eating or drinking. For many of her New York clients, Gambee advises making their commute mindful. “We all tend to walk out of the house with a to-do list in our heads, so instead put your phone away or put it on do not disturb for your commute, and just slow down, bring awareness to the content of your thoughts, and be present,” she says. “If you can’t sit and meditate for 20 minutes every morning these mindful walks on your commute can help shift your nervous system in the same way.”

Slow Down to Speed Up

Gambee likes to repeat that credo often, because the truth is that doing less is not only good for our pysche, it’s also good for our productivity. “When you go back to your work after slowing down, there’s going to be a refreshing, a new clarity to your intentions, and you’re going to be able to produce a little bit quicker,” she explains. And these so-called periods of boredom can actually help fuel new inspiration. “Inspiration comes from the Latin word which means to breathe into or in spirit because the breath was this unifying, divine force,” says Gambee. “When we are really able to sit back and have a mindful practice or go exercise or just lay in the park under a tree and watch the leaves, this is all information that feeds our creativity later.”