If you’re reading this, congratulations! You’ve taken a moment out of your probably jam-packed day to read something that can benefit your wellbeing, relationships, and productivity.
Time spent not ‘doing’ anything is often seen as time wasted, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you can’t remember the last time you felt still and alert in the present moment, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s explore why doing nothing is the key to a better life and how to get started.
1. Stillness is profoundly productive for the human brain
The idea of stillness as ‘doing nothing’ is a bit of a misnomer that ignores the critical importance of taking time to recharge.
We all have a limited amount of mental capacity and energy to achieve everything we want to do in a day.
Spending every waking moment ‘doing’ is like constantly withdrawing from your bank account without depositing anything back in. Eventually, this can lead to hitting a wall and seeing our productivity nosedive.
Before we even reach the point of total burnout, a lack of stillness can impact our sleep and mental health, filling our heads with clutter and making us subtly but significantly less productive.
Embracing a lack of conscious mental activity can also be a creativity and innovation superpower. While most of us avoid stillness because we feel it’s boring, it turns out that boredom is beneficial for our brain function.
When ‘bored,’ the brain relaxes, and the prefrontal cortex goes into autopilot. This part of the brain is responsible for planning, memory, and attention but also filters out thoughts and ideas deemed less ‘useful’.
Creativity comes into play when we allow the mind to be quiet so fresh ideas arise to fill the space. This explains why we often have our best ideas when in the shower, stuck in traffic, or waiting in line at the grocery store.
If fear of boredom is one of the reasons you avoid slowing down, gently ask yourself if you can lean into the bored state intentionally and watch the magic unfold.
2. We are not designed to be constantly ‘doing’
Humans naturally ebb and flow between high performance and deep restoration.
We often have harsh expectations of ourselves to always be at our ‘best.’ But if we always performed optimally, that would become the new normal baseline. We would then raise our expectations and continue to run ourselves ragged, trying to achieve some imaginary ‘good enoughness.’
The human body is cyclic in many ways, including our ability to focus. Every 90 minutes or so, most people experience a dip in cognitive alertness. Unfortunately, our deadlines, childcare, or other responsibilities often force us to ignore these energy slumps.
Instead, we rely on quick fixes like caffeine, sugar, or dopamine from scrolling on our phones before returning to the grind. This pattern is a significant factor in why so many report feeling ‘wired and tired’ – a sign that our stress hormones and rest schedules require serious attention.
3. Staying busy keeps us disconnected from our emotions
Rushing around ticking things off our to-do list is sometimes necessary; we are too busy and feel chronically short on time. Other times, we may unconsciously use our busy schedules as a distraction from uncomfortable thoughts or emotions.
Researchers at the University of Virginia found that most people dislike spending time alone with their thoughts. The study participants reported feeling anxious, bored, and restless when left with nothing to do but think.
The researchers believe this aversion to introspection is because when left alone with our thoughts, we are more likely to dwell on our problems and worries, sometimes creating feelings of anxiety and depression.
Some research participants could not spend 15 minutes thinking without escaping by using their phones or choosing to self-administer an electric shock by voluntarily pressing a button that they knew would hurt them. For these individuals, physical pain was preferable to sitting quietly with their minds.
Uncomfortable feelings don’t go away if we ignore or try to suppress them. They merely get pushed down into our subconscious mind, where they can fester and grow stronger. This can lead to many problems, including anxiety, depression, and physical health problems.
Learning to make peace with silence or the challenging thoughts that arise when being still can help us understand ourselves better and practise self-compassion.
4. Stillness is a foundation for mindfulness
Facing our internal world head-on helps us become more mindful in the present moment. A significant challenge for people starting a mindfulness practice is the internal resistance to sitting still without external distractions.
Even the most experienced meditators report feeling bored or distracted at times. These feelings don’t mean that your meditation isn’t working. Instead, it’s an opportunity to lean into what the restlessness or boredom tells you.
Are you bored, or do you feel vulnerable without something to watch, listen to, eat or drink, or do with your hands? Are you always busy because you need to be or because you are releasing pent-up energy or anxiety through constant doing?
Mindfulness is not the magic solution to these challenges but rather a doorway into an alert, calm mental state where you can ask yourself these more profound, meaningful questions about your inner world.
5. Stillness is how humans are meant to live
The fact that sitting still is uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, and sometimes even painful is a sad commentary on how far removed we are from our natural states of living.
We are called ‘human beings’ not ‘human doings’, for good reason. We gain a critical perspective on the world when we pause and come up for air amid our frantic lifestyles.
We can see the bigger picture, devise solutions to challenges, give attention to suppressed worries and emotions, and allow the subconscious mind to be creative and free-flowing.
Feeling bored is nothing to fear; it often simply means we are slightly less stimulated or engaged than usual. While this can be a sign that we need to find more meaning or passion in our activities, it can also be a way of entering a mental hibernation where your reserves replenish and your neural connections repair and re-organise themselves.
Breaking free of the myth that you must earn the right to rest isn’t easy, but the journey is worth it. Deep, true rest is an inherent need we all share, regardless of our schedules.
Finding a balance between focused activity and profoundly productive rest could be the key to finding more joy in life, enjoying better relationships with others and yourself, calming your nervous system, and even improving your physical health.
Start right now
If you’re anything like me, you have a laundry list of healthy habits you will implement one day.
Ideally, when all the stressors in my life magically disappear, and my morning routine has the serene, aesthetic vibe that we see all over social media. But in my experience, the most lasting changes have occurred when I find the courage to start something imperfectly and maybe even suck at it for a while.
If you want to find more stillness, start with a short and simple exercise. Close your eyes, place your hands on your stomach, and breathe deeply into your belly for a count of five. Hold the breath for a few seconds, then gently release it as slowly as possible. Repeat this a few times, noting any bodily sensations, then gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings as if seeing them for the first time.
By immersing yourself deeply in the present moment, you can open yourself up to embracing stillness and unlocking your capacity to find tranquillity and mindfulness amid life’s ups and downs.