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Why We Stay Busy When We’re Not and The Benefits of Doing Nothing

Doing Nothing

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” ~Lao Tzu

How many times in a day do you tell yourself you are busy and have too much to do? In a week? In a month?

How many of those times are you actually busy doing “nothing”? You know the “nothing” that I am talking about—the nothing that means you are watching hours of mindless TV, roaming the internet, or playing a game that you can’t seem to tear yourself away from on your smartphone.

I’ve been there and done that, and I still do it sometimes. I know what it’s like to feel drained and tired and want a break from real life for a bit so that you can recharge and refresh yourself.

And I know what it’s like to choose to tune out/zone out/disconnect instead, and how that ends up causing you to feel even more worn out and overwhelmed than before you took that so-called break to do “nothing” for a while.

We tell ourselves that it’s okay to do “nothing” and that we deserve some downtime, but we really don’t believe it and that’s why we choose to occupy that time with activities that don’t allow us to recharge. We want others to believe that we are as busy as they are, so we distract ourselves with those mindless tasks.

I resisted “doing nothing” on its own for a long time without realizing it. I tried to do it while reading a book and watching TV and texting friends (yes all at the same time) and I burnt myself out.

I couldn’t focus anymore and I had trouble completing my work when I needed to.

I told everyone that I was busy and stressed out, but I really wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, and my workload was getting larger and the quality of my work was decreasing, all because I wouldn’t give myself permission to take a genuine break and “do nothing.”

It wasn’t until I left a stressful work situation and took some time to travel in South America for a few months that I learned the difference between being busy “doing nothing” and just “doing nothing.”

It was there that I was challenged to just be, as I was traveling by myself, didn’t have any work to bury myself in, and there was no TV or phone to distract myself with.

It was scary at first to be alone with my own thoughts and feelings, and I actually felt anxious, as I experienced sadness, anger, and worry without any way to divert my attention from them. However, as those feelings came up I was able to deal with them and release them, and that was what allowed me to feel rested and recharged.

Even better, when you stop distracting yourself, you also get to enjoy your comfortable feelings such as excitement, happiness, and joy on a more intense level.

Now you don’t have to leave your job and travel to South America to learn how to just do nothing; there are ways to experience this in our everyday life.

For example, we don’t give ourselves permission to take a walk in the park and notice the changing leaves. Instead, we check in with a friend or work on our cell phone and let them know we are busy “exercising.”

We don’t give ourselves permission to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with a friend as we talk about how grateful we are for what we have. Instead, we meet with a friend after months of trying to schedule something and end up trying to compete over who is the most overwhelmed.

We don’t give ourselves permission to have fun with our family at the beach, where the only thing we should worry about is remembering to put sunblock on. Instead, we get annoyed by our kids who want to play with us while we try to read “that book” that everyone is raving about, that we have no interest in but feel like we are supposed to read.

Well let me share something with you: All of those things that you keep busy with when you say you are “doing nothing” are distractions. 

They are distractions that are preventing you from connecting with others on a deeper level. They are distractions that are actually contributing to your feelings of exhaustion and unease.

I want to challenge you to try doing some nothing and enjoy the downtime. Spend some time just being where you are and enjoying this downtime either by yourself or with others. Tell yourself that it’s okay to spend some time really, truly “doing nothing.”

Now, you may be figuring out how to do nothing, and I don’t want you to waste your time worrying about that, so here are some ways to try this “doing nothing” thing out:

Sit on a park bench and enjoy the fresh air, take a nap if you need some extra sleep, enjoy a cup of coffee out while you spend some time people watching, call a friend or family member and only talk about happy events in your lives, like in your backyard and watch the clouds roll by, or get lost in a magazine or a few chapters of a funny book.

It doesn’t matter which “nothing” you choose, just make sure that you will not be distracted so that you can benefit from it (that means keeping your cell phone far away from you or even turning it off).

This may feel uncomfortable for you the first few times you do this. There are some things that you can do to make this easier for yourself.

Put this into your calendar just like you would a haircut, a doctor’s appointment, exercise, or any other type of self-care.

Also, before you start this process, give yourself permission to set the intention that you will be doing nothing and are okay with that.

There are a bunch of benefits that you will get to experience when you release your need to stay busy, which include feeling relaxed and less stressed, decreased tension, increased focus, improved connections with others, and a greater appreciation of all that you have.

Isn’t time you let yourself reap the benefits of really, truly doing nothing?

Photo by Evan Forester

Profile photo of Nicole Liloia

About Nicole Liloia

Nicole Liloia, LCSW is a stress+less coach and therapist who helps smart-yet-stressed women center themselves, develop self-care plans that stick, and transform their relationship to stress for life so they can stop feeling overwhelmed and start having fun. Join her in her 5-day Challenge to Stress Less at nicoleliloia.com.

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  • I LOVE this piece Nicole! It rings so true to everything I think society (myself included!) feels but just doesn’t want to own up to or admit.

    I’m someone who actually likes to *unplug* and put my phone away for long weekends or dinners out with old friends. But now that I am running my own business full-time, it’s been much harder to do. And navigating a schedule with *time off* is something I’m continually working on. In order to truly *recharge* — something I really do miss.

    Your piece made me think back to times where I truly was sincerely present in the moment — trips to Florida to see my grandfather, a trip to California late last year to explore the area, a recent retreat in the woods where I had no cell service anyway.

    Those have been times & moments where I’ve been really aware that life is to be lived. To be in connection, reflection, presence and centered-ness. Not wrapped up in unnecessary *busyness.*

    Which is why I sincerely thank you for writing this article! It made me actually stop and realize that I am running my own business full-time not to be *busy* but to take the advice I dish out to others to live life on your terms + do work you love.

    I don’t ever want to get to the point where the work I do feels like a regular job and I start to resent it. I did this because I wanted to establish more meaningful connections, create a platform of impact and cultivate positive change.

    But it does not mean I have to be working all of the time. In fact I actually just want to get back to *being* more. To travel, to see, to connect, to talk, to reflect, to love, to simply be. So for that THANK YOU Nicole!

  • Talya Price

    That is what I plan to do the end of this month. I am going to Austria to finally complete one of my goals of learning how to ski and snowboard. I have to make the most of my life because I only have it once.

  • This is wonderful. I practice mindful nothingness more than I have ever before and it really is harder than it seems. Sometimes I really do get caught up in the busy nothingness and I don’t feel better afterwards. This is something I’m trying to work on especially because I’ve been trained that there is always something to do no matter what. (Let’s thank my dad for that one)… But I’m starting to see how much better I feel when I’m not loading up on tv, phone, computer, and mindless tasking on my spare time. Thank you for sharing this

  • Great piece Nicole! The article made me smile because I been there in the busy nothing. When I changed, I learned that “doing nothing” was way better than accomplishing nothing. Life is way too short to spend it on distractions that don’t help us. Thanks for the article!

  • Nicole Liloia

    Thank you Veronica! This is definitely something we all do and it’s amazing what a difference an awareness of it can make!

  • Nicole Liloia

    I am so excited for your trip! It’s sounds like it is going to be an amazing and experience and taking the time to relax and do nothing will help you enjoy it even more!

  • A. Irie

    I’m great at self-care! My problem is juggling a million things and not doing them all perfectly or with a logic, thought out plan (which slows me down or stresses me out). Thankfully I’ve learned to cut off 95% of work when I get home. I do only pleasurable tasks when I feel like it (mentoring, looking up info, prep-work, etc). My self-care includes #music, listening to entertaining podcasts, #meditation, watching #netflix, or talking with friends. You have to take care of yourself, or else what’s the point of living?

  • Nicole Liloia

    Thanks for responding Mariel! I agree that it is SUPER hard to just do nothing!! But there will be a big difference in how you feel if you take time away from all the electronics and other distractions. It takes practice!

  • Tony Zipple

    Great piece Nicole. It inspires me to get much better at just doing nothing but doing it well. 🙂

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    This was really insightful…Just need to try & be more conscious/aware about this on a day-to-day basis! Thank you for sharing…

  • Nicole Liloia

    Self-care is sooo important — it’s great that you know how to do that for yourself! Something that helps with the juggling of everything is to just choose 2 or 3 tasks to complete each day and focus on.

  • Nicole Liloia

    yesss Tony! It is a process that will be come more natural over time 🙂

  • Nicole Liloia

    You got it! it’s all about intention + awareness! Let me know how it goes.

  • Nicole Liloia

    Hi Diane! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Doing just “nothing” doesn’t seem that it should be as hard as it is sometimes! However, taking the time to do that not only allows us to enjoy the simple things in life, but leads us to be more productive during the time we choose to do our work.

  • what a great article…and inspiration! I am one of those that tends to be “busy” quite a bit of the time. However, I now realize that much of that busyness is really distraction. I am one of those that does do “nothing” quite well but just not often enough. And it is true how much it helps to recharge you. Thanks for the reminder to do nothing more often!

  • You’re great Nicole. This is a new method that I’m working on myself.

    In fact… after reading your post last night, I literally shut my computer, flipped my phone face down and did nothing… or, well… I watched the few programs that I enjoy on the TV (which is not something I normally do).

    Specifically… I wanted to jump into THIS thread, as choosing 2 or 3 things to complete each day is the perfect plan!

    In this last year, I’ve been running 100 miles a minute, educating myself in the world of generating income online (after the music industry burnt me out)… and recently, as my platforms on YouTube & Facebook were complete… I found myself LOOKING for stuff to do, just to constantly be ‘doing’ until my back knotted up to the point where i literally had to stop, refocus and do exactly what you said here!

    It’s a bit poetic how you’re post landed in my lap the way it did 😀

    Would love to know more about what you do to leverage your time. are there any specific tools that you use on a daily basis that allow you to connect with people when you’re not at the computer?

  • Nicole Liloia

    Thanks for reading Kendra! Busyness can be a major distraction when it gets in the way of us enjoying our lives. It’s like always being on alert and waiting for something to happen — you never get to relax.

  • Loved the post Nicole ! It is really a competition between us of “who works more” while we really aren’t working that much. If you work, do so. If you don’t you gave great tips how to do nothing. By doing nothing we mean really nothing at all, just “plant” yourself up, or talk about good stuff to improve the happiness levels. Great one again!

  • YES! I used to run from meeting to meeting at work, and my brain struggled to keep up and stay present. I had to give myself permission to do less and have time to “just think” without feeling pressured, constrained, or overwhelmed. As I am becoming busier outside of work now, I am finding that I need more “do nothing” time in the rest of my life. Thanks for the reminder!

  • What a great article Nicole! I took a few minutes of doing nothing right after reading your article and it felt so good! I need to remember to do this more often! Thanks for sharing!

  • Nicole Liloia

    yeay! So glad you are giving yourself permission to do these things!

  • Nicole Liloia

    Thanks Martin! Try scheduling it — sometimes it’s hard to remember because we rush so much!

  • Nicole Liloia

    You got it exactly Nikola!

  • Nicole Liloia

    Hi Michael! I’m so glad that you were encouraged to take some time to do nothing. Ways that I connect with others are to just be mindful of their presence and not tune out so much — so if I go to the store or go to grab a coffee, I acknowledge the presence of others around — I make eye contact, I smile, and I say hello.

    When, I”m with family and friends I just try to stay present and when I catch myself distracted, I bring myself back. It’s just a practice and I keep practicing it:) Hope that’s helpful — let me know if I can clarify anything!

  • Erica Lee Strauss

    This was such a great post! I’m so guilty of this. And after awhile (every month or so) I’ll experience information overload to the point where I can’t sleep!

    Gonna try this at the gym today – no cell phone or watching their TVs. Just me and my workout. 🙂

  • hamza

    Great article! Me, when I want to do nothing, I go to a calm cafe and drink my coffee while listening to peaceful music and staring at the amazing places arround me ( garden, trees, sky, clouds). I feel very happy and grateful while doing that 🙂

  • Nicole Liloia

    That’s a beautiful way to do “nothing”!

  • Oh my god, if I weren’t a broke doctoral student I would hire you in a second. I am dealing with grief and PTSD right now. So I don’t know if you know, but what do I do if when I try this:

    “It was scary at first to be alone with my own thoughts and feelings and I
    actually felt anxious, as I experienced sadness, anger, and worry
    without any way to divert my attention from them. However, as those
    feelings came up I was able to deal with them and release them, and that
    was what allowed me to feel rested and recharged.”

    I descend into hysterical tears, feelings like I cannot cope and like I am going insane, etc. Is this just what I need to get through in order to be okay? Part of the grieving process? I can barely move these days because the stress of going through this is so hard on my body.

  • Nicole Liloia

    yea that is definitely part of the process at times — it is soooo hard for us to just be in the moment and feel these feelings — you might want to start small and just set a timer for 5 minutes and do it for that amount of time and work your way up.

  • Shin Ling

    This is so true. I love this website, keep up these amazing motivational pieces!! 😀 Thanks!

  • Nicole Liloia

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed!

  • Great article. I know that I used to make myself busy doing nothing, because doing simply nothing would mean being alone with my own thoughts, and keeping company with myself was a scary prospect. Being overwhelmed felt safer emotionally. When I finally learned to enjoy a relationship with myself, it changed everything.