My husband and I recently attended a weekend Soul Care retreat for Pastors. It was designed to get us focused on caring for ourselves since so much of our energy is typically focused outward. One of the exercises they had us participate in was to go outside, find someplace quiet and do nothing for 40 minutes.
Let’s be clear, I would rather stab myself in the eye with an ice pick than do nothing for 40 minutes. Not that I don’t enjoy solitude or self-reflection, but my superpower is productivity. I need to have something for my mind to be focused on doing. Plus, I already feel like I don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done so sitting quietly doing nothing completely stresses me out.
But I did it. I found a rock in the sunshine and lie there in silence for 40 whole minutes. I didn’t fall asleep, but when the alarm on my phone went off to signal time was up, I felt more rested than when we had begun. In this I discovered there is something productive to doing nothing. So I did a little research on the subject.
It turns out I’m not alone on struggling with doing nothing. A study conducted at the University of VA found that a majority of people find it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for even up to 15 minutes.
People in the study were placed alone in a room and given a button to inflict electric shock upon themselves if they so desired. 67% of men decided to go with the pain of the electric shock rather than sit quietly and think. The same was true for 25% of women.
Why is that? I believe it is because we are conditioned to equate being productive with some quantifiable measurement of that productivity. A goal to be achieved, a task to be checked off, a plan to be created, etc. We often measure our days based on whether or not we "got a lot done", right?
Living an abundant life has quite the opposite scale of measure. Things that can be counted don’t always count and things that count can’t always be counted.
In the scientific journal, Nature, Kerri Smith summarizes the research on the brain at rest and shows us that our brains while at rest use only 5-10% less energy than when focused on task. This means when we are doing nothing, a lot of productivity is going on in our brains.
In Psychology Today, Ray Williams helps us understand Why Doing Nothing Improves Productivity. Among other things, he cites that quiet alone reflection time enhances our focused attention which results in greater productivity.
How Do We Apply The Research?
We must therefore, learn to re-wire our brains to value doing nothing as productive for our minds the same way we value physical exercise for our bodies and spiritual exercise for our souls. None of these three have immediate productivity measurements but all of them are of the utmost importance to living an abundant life.
Doing nothing may be important but it's easy to overlook doing because it's not urgent. That is, until our stress levels have the best of us, our bodies are exhausted with sleeplessness and our overstimulated minds are ridden with headaches. Therefore, we need to prioritize the important as much as the urgent.
Take sleep for instance. We accomplish nothing to check off our lists when we’re sleeping, yet our bodies and brains are doing tremendous restorative work while we sleep. So many people brag that they can make it on 4 hours of sleep but it is actually much more productive to sleep 8 hours so your body is restored and prepared to combat illness, fatigue and function creatively.
Back when I worked for AOL, we purchased the Huffington Post and as a result Arianna Huffington would sometimes come to our office to speak. She once told us the story of how she collapsed and broke her cheek because of a lack of sleep. It drove her to become a sleep advocate and she had nap rooms installed in all of the AOL offices while I was there so that we would not have to experience the same exhaustion she did. Sleep, like doing nothing, is productive, although not considered a productive activity.
How Can We Do Nothing For Productivity?
Bringing ourselves to the place where we create habits of sitting quietly is a way to allow our minds to rest and reconcile thoughts. When we don’t allow our minds to stop racing and actively doing, we run the risk of mental exhaustion and our nervous system becoming adversely affected causing anxiety to feed on itself in a vicious cycle.
One way we can create this habit of sitting quietly is to schedule a "do-nothing" task into our daily calendar as a priority just as worthy as any other task with measurable results. I know, your schedule is packed already and you have no time for anything, including bio breaks, right? That's ok.
Let me show you how you can do this without competing for too much of your time.
Here are 5 ways to incorporate doing nothing into your daily calendar this week:
Upon rising, instead of hitting the snooze button or jumping right out of bed to tackle the day, take 5 minutes to linger in bed awake. Be present in the new morning. Enjoy the feel of your warm blankets and cozy pillows. Let you mind be at rest. Listen to the birds chirping outside, or in our case, the wind which was blowing super loudly this week. Quiet your mind. Breathe deeply a few times and prepare yourself to anticipate the day with great expectation.
Take mini-escapes with your mind throughout the day. 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there. I did this while standing in line at the grocery store the other day. I just closed my eyes for a minute and breathed deeply a few times while I waited for the line to dwindle. I took in the sounds around me and just rested my mind for a moment. I instantly felt better and more focused as I concentrated on the task at hand of piling my groceries onto the counter rather than veering at the tabloid headlines crying out for my attention.
Calming your mind before bed is the most effective exercise for combating insomnia. The reason we can’t sleep is because we’re too busy. Take 5 minutes before bed and empty your mind of all thoughts from the day. I like to keep a notebook on my bedside table to jot down any thoughts that might try to keep me awake. Then, take 5-10 deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your nose. I find that as I take deep breaths and focus on nothing else but my breath it helps me relax. If thoughts try to crowd my brain, I write them into my notebook and proceed to focus on slowing myself down.
Be still and know that I am God.Psalm 46:10
Sundays used to be the day set aside for peaceful reflection. Things like going to church and “doing no work” were values we held as a culture, but now as there are more and more things to do and “get done”, Sundays have become just another day for most people.
I remember as a little girl, going to Catholic school, on chapel days one of my favorite things to do was to kneel in the quiet stillness of the church and wait for the mass to begin. To take in the smell of the leather and wood and incense and to just be. It brought such peace to my life knowing that I didn’t have to do anything in that moment but that I could just be who I was and God loved me.
I still do this sometimes, in my church now, at Hope Chapel. I pause in the sanctuary when it’s dark and I’m alone and I just stand in the stillness and take in the feelings of peace that God brings me. There is tremendous value in taking a full day to rest and reflect. In going to church. In not checking anything off of a list. Use Sunday to bring rest to your mind and refuel for your week.
Not entirely, but be somewhat antisocial. By that I mean, try to set aside some time to abstain from social media. Research on the brain has shown that anxiety increases when we are being watched. It’s no wonder that we are an anxiety ridden culture these days with the average person spending 1 hour and 40 minutes on social media per day. We are constantly being watched each time we post something on social and this is taking a toll on our minds. Try to take one day a week, ideally your Sunday when you are resting, to abstain from social media and allow your life to take place without any judgement from the outside. If you can’t abstain for a whole day, try for a smaller increment of time like one hour or what you feel could be attainable as a first step.
Doing nothing can be the most productive thing you do today because your brain will be recharged as a result and able to process even more creative and practical tasks you need to get done. Steps to take to make doing nothing a priority are:
Welcome to Honey & Figs! I'm Lisa. I love helping people with practical ways to live more abundant lives based on my own experience. You can click here to find out more about me.
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Your title really drew me in to read your article. I really enjoyed it. Great points about resting, sleeping, escaping, and simply doing nothing. Thank you, I needed this.
So glad it was helpful. Thanks for letting me know!
Wow! Great research! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced 40 minutes of doing nothing. Even in quiet times I still am praying or reading.
Right?! It was definitely challenging.
Wow, this is an idea I’ve never considered before. I want to start implementing this into my life everyday! Sometimes we look at rest as something like bingeing on netflix or wasting on social media, when in reality that doesn’t provide rest to our weary souls. True rest is being still. Thank you for sharing your insight! P.S. that soul care retreat sounds incredible….sign me up!
Thanks Dusti. It was a realization for me too for sure.
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