How I'm learning to embrace doing nothing

by - December 27, 2021

It's that time of year when, for those of us lucky not to be working over the break, the days blur into one and no one really knows what time it is. For many, this is one of the few holidays of the year so days are spent cramming in family catch-ups, activities with the kids, and catching up on precious sleep.

For me, these holidays mark the end of another busy year and the first when I truly have absolutely nothing to do. I sold my small business earlier this month and have decided to give myself a couple of months off before I decide what it is I want to do next. This is the first time since childhood that I haven't had study or work on the go and, to be truthful, I'm struggling.

I'm normally an extremely productive person who loves nothing more than ticking off a to-do list but after four years of running a small business to the point of burnout, I know a couple of months of nothing is the best thing I can do for myself. The problem is it kind of feels like without having that to-do list urging me on, I actually don't know what to do with myself.

Turns out I'm not alone - psychologists say productivity can be like an addiction.

“You feel good for being productive: it’s a dopamine release just like with any other addiction,” psychologist Marny Lishman tells Headspace. This dopamine rush increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and stimulates the nervous system; research shows that a release of dopamine also increases motivation to take on more. “While this productivity addiction might be good for a while, it’s not good for you in the long run.”

The truth is our culture equates busyness with both moral virtue and high status. In an article on Shondaland, journalist Tracy Chabala writes; "lazing around and relaxing without talking on the phone, checking emails, or consuming books, podcasts, or articles, signals to the world that we aren’t as valuable as those who have a phone that’s blowing up, as intellectually engaged as those who are constantly consuming information, or as virtuous as those who always have their nose to the grindstone."

So where does that leave me? I know embracing the art of doing nothing is important if I want more creativity, relaxation, and mindfulness in my life and that I shouldn't feel guilty for taking a couple of months to rest after the craziness of the past couple of years. But getting there means a little more work overcoming that compulsion to "get shit done".

The first step, according to Lishman, is to figure out exactly what 'doing nothing' means to me.

“[Doing nothing] can mean just sitting to stare out at nothing, and just being in the moment,” says Lishman. “Or it can mean doing something that’s just for you, something with no outcome to it, that you’re not doing for a specified reason. That could be cooking, gardening, playing with your kids or going for a walk; it’s not productive, so it switches on the relaxation response in your nervous system.”

Sitting with the discomfort of doing nothing and resisting the urge to do more is also something I know I have to get used to. "When you have a busy mind, sitting down and doing nothing is quite hard,” says Lishman. “Meditation can help, and the more you do it, the more you’ll want to do it."

A podcast I listened to earlier this year talked about a full life vs a fulfilling life and how we often think busy or full automatically equals fulfilling which, we all know, couldn't be further from the truth.

These holidays I'm going to start small. I'm going to give myself some grace and know that it's not as simple as just stopping. I'm reading a lot, talking walks on the beach and even enjoying the process of planning family meals (cooking them is another story!).

I'd love to hear if you've overcome a productivity addiction and how slowing down impacted your relationships, creativity and wellbeing. Feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment below.

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