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Why We Stay Busy When We’re Not and The Benefits of 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 nothing for a while. 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?

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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