Don’t just do something, sit there. “Huh? Sit there and do nothing?” you ask. I can imagine you rolling your eyes, glancing at your to-do list, booing and hissing. You’re up to your eyeballs in work, deadlines loom and you can’t find enough hours in the day to answer emails. You want to end the madness, not prolong it. And someone who writes about mindful productivity suggests you do nothing? It’s counter-intuitive, but doing nothing actually fuels your productivity. Doing something is productivity’s gas; doing nothing is productivity’s brakes. You need both to be successful. Without the pauses of doing nothing, you’re only using gas without brakes. If you were a car, you’d burn out your engine or crash. But you don’t have to let that happen to you to be successful.
Take it from the Italians
The Italians have a name for it: “il dolce far niente”—the sweetness of doing nothing. It doesn’t translate in the United States, where tasks and schedules define us. The closest translation we have is “killing time.” But “il dolce far niente” demands more: to intentionally let go and prioritize being alongside of doing. Doing nothing has been compared to the pauses that are integral to a beautiful piece of music. Without the absences of sound, the music would be just noise. One day I watched a man, arms outstretched from his side, balance on an old sea wall. In that moment, with all the time in the world, no hurry to get anywhere, all he cared about was navigating his body against the warm ocean breeze. Unbeknownst to him, his “il dolce far niente” provided brakes that would recharge his productivity later on.
The sweetness of doing nothing gives you moments to chill, live in the present, and savor your life to the fullest. Putting on the brakes and stepping away refills your dwindling reservoir, replenishes your work mojo, and provides an incubation period for embryonic work ideas to hatch. In those moments that might seem empty and needless, strategies and solutions that have been there all along in some embryonic form are given space and come to life.
Finding Your Sweet Spot
Every time you get caught in the stress of the moment, step back, take a breath and chill in that sweet spot. Achieving balance between the gas (doing your job) and brakes (being in your life) is a never-ending dance. Especially in our culture where doing is more valued than being, and the adage, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” blinks in your brain like a neon sign—where you’re taught to believe that the more you do, the greater your worth. If you’re like most people, you will continue to struggle to find that sweet spot—the middle way between doing something and doing nothing. Job pressures will continue to track you down. Some people (including yourself) will make unreasonable demands. Whether Mercury is in retrograde or not, life won’t always go your way, hardships and obstacles will occur, and family obligations will challenge you. At times it might even seem like the world is conspiring against you. But it isn’t. You’re simply experiencing life on its own terms, not yours.
Make a To-Be List
What if you made a to-be list alongside your to-do list? What would you put on it? Meditating a minimum of 5 minutes a day is at the top of my to-be list. I’m fortunate to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains with dazzling views. On a clear day, I make it a point to be outdoors as much as possible, watch the sunsets, and listen to nature: birds tweeting, insects in the bushes, or frogs croaking. If you were to start your list now, you might jot down elbowroom to stretch and deep breathe between appointments, time to walk around the block and clear your head. Or meditate, pray, practice chair yoga at your desk, watch the grass grow, or just contemplate the universe.
Five Minutes of ‘Sweet Nothings’
The more you practice stilling your hurried mind and centering on the quiet places within you, the more you can access a calm state even in times of upheaval. When you’re peaceful and centered, your heart and respiratory rates slow down. Muscles loosen. Your mind is open and clear, actions are reflective and balanced, and you’re more productive. Just five minutes of “sweet nothings.” You’re mindfully present in each moment where your busy life coexists with idle moments without imperatives, nothing to rush to, fix, or accomplish. After applying the brakes and doing something for nothing more than the sheer pleasure of it, you’re ready to go again. Then watch your resilience, creativity, and productivity soar.
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