The Power of Doing Absolutely Nothing

Published January 27, 2020

Busyness (and the stress that comes with it) has become a defining aspect of our lives and work.

Ask someone how they are, and you’ll likely hear about how busy they are. We live at an exhausting pace. It’s tempting to think we need to run harder and faster and more efficiently to get it all done.

If you stop for a minute and get quiet, you may begin to feel just how tired you are. 

We’re doing good things, right? We’re building into our businesses, our teams, our families for the better. So, more must be the answer.

There’s an interesting Dutch discipline that runs counter to this narrative of busy and more: the practice of niksen—the practice of doing absolutely nothing. 

What, you say? Do nothing? Be idle?

This is the opposite of the productivity! Or so we think.

In the July 2019 TIME Magazine article titled What is Niksen?, Sophia Gottfried unpacks the concept: Whereas mindfulness is about being present in the moment, niksen is more about carving out time to just be, even letting your mind wander rather than focusing on the details of an action.

Research is showing the benefits of slowing practices like niksen:

  • Enhanced creative problem solving
  • Increased clarity
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Enhanced immune systems

Any of these sounding helpful or desirable to you?

At GLS19, Jo Saxton reminded us that our leadership lives in our bodies. She challenged us to pay attention to the stress and anxiety we are carrying in our bodies, minds and emotions. We cannot sustainably lead otherwise.

Let me be clear. I am terrible at this.

As a perfectionist, and a performer, I am tempted to hold up all my doing and achieving to show you who I am—to define my value and prove my worth.

As we brave the stillness, we find our way. We find what’s true. We find ourselves.

It’s taken major stops in my life—stops like breast cancer—twice—for me to learn the value of the slowing. Of paying attention to my body and to my soul. Because I can’t lead well, or at all really, without them.

And it’s terrifying, honestly. The stopping and the slowing. Because in this place, I’m not producing. I become empty. I do nothing. I wait. And I listen.

We are so unaccustomed to the stillness. It seems so unproductive, after all. In truth, it makes most of us terribly uncomfortable because we fear the quiet. If we are still, we won’t be seen, heard, pursued, valued. If we are still, we will hear the voice of self-doubt lurking just beneath the surface.

As we brave the stillness, we find our way. We find what’s true. We find ourselves. 


Finding a New Rhythm

In the Bible, the psalmist invites us to “be still and know” (Psalm 46:10).

Know God. Know yourself. Know what to do next.

As leaders, it’s imperative that we craft a way of life for ourselves that is responsive to body and soul.

Jesus observed this rhythm, withdrawing often to lonely places after productive ministry seasons (Mark 6:31). Sustainability was more important than their stories of success.

What does practicing moments of stillness look like in your organization?

Perhaps you could take time in meetings, at the beginning and at key junctures, for prayer. Or you could establish a norm for you and your staff to take a day of solitude each month. Or consider scheduling regular periods for personal silence during your work week. Or perhaps you could make it normative to take all vacation time and completely unplug.

During strategic planning days and retreats, it is a regular practice for our Roots&Branches team to begin with an extended time of quiet. We each pray silently and listen for the ideas, thoughts and priorities that rise in our minds and hearts. When we come back together, each person shares what they’ve sensed in this time.

Without fail, we begin to see themes arise. Clarity comes. And we have a unified sense of direction.


Practicing Nothing

New rhythms require new practices. If you’re a beginner, a few minutes a day is a great place to start.

New rhythms require new practices.

I encourage you to begin with a five-minute sit every day and see what happens….

If sitting still is hard for you, take a walk in silence. If finding time is hard for you, write this rhythm into your calendar. As you build your muscle for rest, solitude and silence, try longer stretches of time. Experiment with new practices alone and in community.

Try it now for a minute or two. 

  1. Shut off all media.
  2. Sit comfortably in your chair with both feet on the floor.
  3. Take a few slow, deep breaths.
  4. Settle into the silence.
  5. Do nothing.

If thoughts of all the things you need to do start flooding your mind, take a moment to jot them down and release them, knowing you can come back to them later.

  1. Breath. Release.

Slowly a new rhythm is formed.

By releasing yourself from “doing,” you will feel sustained and renewed.

And—ironically—your leadership clarity, vision and even productivity will grow by doing absolutely nothing.

About the Author
This is the author headshot for Susan Carson.

Susan Carson

Founder and Director

Roots&Branches Network

Susan Carson is an author, speaker, podcaster and pray-er. She is founder and director of Roots&Branches Network, a citywide listening and healing prayer ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio. Susan’s new book, Rooted (IN): Thriving in Connection with God, Yourself, and Others, and her podcast, rooted (IN).ten.tionally , offers spiritual paths and practices for living more deeply rooted in love with God and your true self.

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