The art of doing sweet bugger all


The art of doing sweet bugger all

Niksen, the Dutch word for doing nothing, has entered the global lexicon. It's been hailed as a solution to an epidemic of exhaustion and a turbocharger of creativity. ANNELIESE BURGESS is a fan but says it's harder than you might think.


EVERY second Sunday, I have a completely off-from-work day.

There is no stuff that has to be done, no constant expectation to respond on work WhatsApp groups. No incessant pinging of incoming mail. No research, writing or setting up interviews. 

It is a perfect day for doing nothing, yet for most of my life I have struggled to indulge in joyful slothfulness because I grew up in a culture where it feels wasteful to do nothing when you could be doing something “useful or productive", as my mother would say. She lived by her lists of things to do. Drawn up every night before bed and executed with military precision the next day.

My mother did not do idleness. She was German. A paragon of productivity. Forever striking through “done items" on the little clipboard that was as much part of her make-up as the intricate blonde bun on her head. No wonder I became an obsessive list striker myself.

Last week I found a Sunday to-do list in my notebook from about a year ago.

  • Plant last zinnias
  • Tidy linen cupboard
  • Sort spices
  • Remember roast
  • Sort out subscriptions
  • Make a playlist for next week's walking
  • Mend Ilke's tracksuit pants
  • Dubbin handbag
  • A batch of pickled onions

That was then. This is now. I am still not a time-waster. The preciousness of time weighs heavily on my life, which is way past its halfway mark, but I have also learned the incredible importance of stillness, quietness and solitude. And the exquisite beauty of simply allowing the mind to wander where it wants. I still have lists of things I want to and need to do but I make time for idleness. Deliberately and consciously. And now I have a trendy word for it, too, although I still prefer to call it niksdoen. Afrikaans for doing nothing,

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Olga Mecking is the author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, and she put niksen on the map. She saw the word in a free supermarket magazine in 2018 and pitched an idea on the concept to The New York Times. The Case for Doing Nothing went viral and the concept of “niksen" entered the global lexicon.

She defines niksen as “doing nothing without a purpose”.

“We always have in mind some outcome," she says. “When we prepare meals, we think, ‘this meal will help me lose weight or will make me healthier’. If we go for a walk, it has to be part of our 10,000 steps. So we lose that fun of just eating or just walking. So it’s about letting go of the outcome. Not watching a movie, not scrolling social media, not reading emails."

Her article was a manifesto against “busyness" and suggested taking a step back from wanting to get things done and entering the moment with no plan other than just to be. Consciously engaging in pointless activities like gazing out of a window, sitting in the garden, watching the birds and the clouds go by. Lying on a beach, staring into the distance.

Just sitting. Stillness. No planned outcome. That is pulling off excellent niksen.

Great exhaustion

We’re in the era of “The Great Exhaustion,” writes Cal Newport, a contributor to The New Yorker, with people desperate to reestablish their relationship with work in order to reduce their pervasive sense of being drained.

“People feel so fatigued that they are cutting out activities that used to be commonplace and low-stress, like working out and going to the supermarket. Factor in recovering from the pandemic, inflation and global stressors, and you’ve got a recipe for complete physical, mental and emotional exhaustion."

Bestselling author and researcher Dan Buettner dedicated his professional life to examining “blue zones", regions globally renowned for fostering longevity and vitality. Through his investigations, Buettner reveals a common thread among inhabitants of these areas: their adherence to a human-needs-first lifestyle. This lifestyle emphasises consuming whole foods, cultivating robust social connections, engaging in regular physical activity and pursuing meaningful work over mere productivity.

Prioritising elements found in blue zones requires spare time, energy and money, not something most of us have in abundance.

But, says Buettner, the bottom line is that when we look at how people are living day-to-day, we don't see a picture of human needs being met; we see a picture of enduring our demands. “We have not built a human-needs-first society; we have built a business-needs-first society, and it is starting to show."

The stark reality for most people who might read this article is that we live in a culture where overworking is a virtue (and just having a job is a privilege). So having life-work boundaries is seen as a sign of being lazy or not a team player.

Not being constantly productive and busy is equated to being lazy. And laziness is a very bad thing. Not quite as bad as being a serial killer, but close.

No wonder the number of people suffering from burnout, anxiety disorders and stress-related diseases, as well as millennial burnout, is on a steep upward trajectory in many parts of the world.

Emily Ballesteros holds a master’s degree in industrial-organisational psychology and runs a “burnout management coaching business". She is the author of The Cure for Burnout: How to Find Balance and Reclaim Your Life

She says the many stressors we don't have control over contribute to the sense of being tired, exhausted and lacking in life energy. Things like inflation, financial stress, climate disasters, wars and tragedy across the world.

And one answer, one way to mitigate the great stress of our times, is to unplug and to practise the art of niksen.

The importance of boredom

In her viral first article on niksen, Mecking interviewed Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain who did fascinating research on the link between boredom and creativity.

She found that daydreaming “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas”.

But for that to happen, total idleness is required.

“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” she says. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind-wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”

So, what exactly is niksen? It is simply putting time aside to do nothing. To relinquish control over your thoughts, letting them carry you along like a helium balloon in the wind.

Meditation and mindfulness have always felt like work to me — yet another thing to do and do properly. Keeping track of thoughts and sensations and concentrating on breathing and mantras. 

Niksen is simple. And doable.

And there is no right way. It is sanctioned daydreaming. Deliberate idleness. You can do it anywhere. It has only one real requirement: unplugging from the world (which, of course, requires unplugging completely from all devices).

Ways to niksen

  • Driving in silence. No music, podcasts or the radio blaring.
  • Walking. No counting of steps. No earphones sending information into the brain,. No deliberate goal. Just ambling.
  • Just sitting in your garden, on the beach, on your couch, on a train.
  • Simply staring out the window (this is harder than you think).
  • Lying on your back and looking at the sky.
  • Watching trees blow in the wind.
  • Watching waves roll and crash and roll and crash.
  • Sitting with a pot of tea on and just thinking.
  • Lying in the bath, without music, without a book. Just feeling the water on your body and letting your mind wander.
  • Sitting in your car and just watching the world go by
  • Sitting in a quiet corner of a coffee shop, simply watching, listening, thinking. Letting the white noise of conviviality flow over you.

Let's change our attitudes to idleness and boredom.

Niksen is a life skill.

And it is now a permanent feature on my daily to-do list.

♦ VWB ♦

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