“A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in.” – Robert Orben
Many of the world’s most successful and productive people who see the value of taking a break from the chaos of everyday life so they can think and be creative are scheduling time to do absolutely nothing into their calendars. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has a long-standing habit of taking breaks called Think Weeks to slow down, recalibrate and gain clarity on his best way to move forward. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur like Bill Gates to make slowing down a part of your life or restrict it to several weeks a year. Try taking a cue from other cultures: One of my favorite Italian sayings is “Dolce far Niente”, which means “the sweetness of doing nothing.” It does not mean being lazy, it is referring to the pleasure one gets from being idle. The ability to completely enjoy and savor a moment. For Italians this concept is a part of everyday life; spending time with friends at a café, sipping wine at sunset, taking a stroll around the moonlit piazza. Dolce far Niente is something Italians embrace and something they do very well.
Doing nothing doesn’t have to mean zoning out hard enough that you resemble a human-shaped vegetable, but if that helps you jump back into your daily routine feeling rested, recharged and ready for anything, why not? If it doesn’t, then it’s time to figure out what your version of dolce far niente is, or what it would take for you to achieve your own personal lagom. Is it something that you need to do solo, or with others? Is it immersing yourself into a pursuit that requires your undivided focus or allows your mind to wander? Maybe it’s simply stepping away from the daily grind for a couple of days a month so you can lose yourself in a good book or connect with nature. If you’re having trouble imagining yourself stepping out of your ‘busy’ state or aren’t quite convinced that you should, consider this: How much happiness and meaning has being busy brought you?
It’s kind of challenging, doing nothing however you do need to prepare!
Doing nothing sounds easy in theory, but how do you actually make it happen if rushing from task to task, checking off lists and barely having enough time to think is what you’re used to? If, like me, you tend to feel guilty at the thought of ‘un-busying’ yourself or struggle to find time for it on the fly in the chaos of everyday life, try taking a page out of Bill Gates’ book and pencilling your own Think Day (or Think Hour, if you’re truly pressed for time) into your schedule before it has to happen. This way, you’ll be giving your Think Time the priority it deserves instead of treating it like a trivial, by-the-way thing that you’ll get around to doing when you happen to have some spare time (which is likely pretty much never). I do this for the stuff that helps me keep my sanity, stress and waistline in check: My morning and evening routines, which typically include my meal prep time, workouts and writing, so making time for ‘nothing’ feels like a natural extension of what I’m already doing. If you consider yourself a beginner at dolce far niente, here are more ways to make time for it.
Overwhelm from having too many things that need maintaining or taking on more responsibilities than you can handle at the office and even struggling with weight gain that you can’t seem to get under control can all mean one thing: You need to trim the excesses that are showing up in your life, one way or another. This could be learning to say “no” to resolve the overwhelm, getting your emotional eating under control so you’re able to stop obsessing over food, or whittling down your possessions down to the bare essentials by cutting out the stuff that’s sucking your time, energy and money. The simplifying you do in all these different areas of your life can then free up more time that you can spend on what’s important to you, which in this case is slowing down, getting away from the noise and making time to get centred.
If you can’t imagine being separated from your digital devices, you’re probably spending too much time on them. Research suggests that the average European spends over 4 hours a day on their smartphones. Of this number, almost 2 hours are spent on social media. When projected into a lifetime, it’s estimated that you’ll spend an average of 5 years and 4 months on social media— enough time for you to travel to the moon and back 32 times, and more than what you’ll spend on eating and drinking (3 years, 5 months) and socialising (1 year, 3 months) combined. Just imagine all the time you could potentially recover to take better care of yourself by shutting down your computer, smartphone, tablet and laptop, then stepping away from them. Imagine how much space your mind will have to breathe, discover new ideas and re-discover old ones just from going on a digital break.
The first step to setting your daily priorities so you don’t drown in too many to-dos is to figure out what personal success means to you. Is it financial freedom? Starting your own business? Scoring a promotion at work? Or maybe it’s spending more time with your kids. Once you’ve got your answer, ask yourself this question: “What are the 3 things that I need to do today that will help me get closer to my personal success goal?” . After you’ve got this down, rinse and repeat, every single day.
3 tasks, really?
The most noticeable benefit I’ve experienced from doing this is a reduction of overwhelm. Plus, narrowing down my focus each day allows me to master the skill of doing what productivity author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport calls deep work, or the ability to focus without distraction on cognitively-demanding tasks for better results in less time. Feeling a little discomfort creeping into your gut at the thought of doing nothing? Good. The fact that you are makes it all the more necessary for you to dip your toes into this rewarding pursuit of inviting space into your body, mind and spirit. Think of it as your opportunity to take a step back from the busyness of life so that you’re able to become more effective at it.