I love getting stuff done, or, as I like to call it, GSD’ing. It’s in my bones. As a child, I remember my dad reading multiple newspapers, working out, picking up breakfast, getting us to school, going to work, making it to my swim meets, having dinner ready, helping me with my homework, doing the laundry (yes, he did the laundry in my family!). Now, when he visits, he still can’t help himself: He picks up diapers for my children, replaces the battery in my car keys, cooks us dinner, and cleans up the basement.
I’ve followed his lead. My days are spent moving from one activity to the next, checking boxes off my list, and cultivating a sense of accomplishment as I exercise my productivity muscle. I beam whenever someone acknowledges how much I get done in the face of having two kids, a husband who works long hours, and a (more than) full-time job. I’m a proud doer!
It’s part of why I became a coach. “If only I could help others become even half as productive as I am!” I very “humbly” thought.
Knowing this, you can imagine my surprise when the “art of being” was one of the first things we learned at coach training. The gist: Take time to press pause and, well, not GSD for a few moments. I remember thinking: Are these hippity-dippity trainers out of their minds? Isn’t coaching all about getting things done? Why are they telling me to “just be”? I felt cheated.
For the better part of a year, I struggled with the concept—and I started my own personal quest to “just be” better than anyone else. I downloaded Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast and listened furiously on my runs. I meditated every night between putting my kids to bed and hopping back on my laptop to send more emails. I tried yoga class after yoga class. I was determined to get this “being” thing down.
It wasn’t long before I became frustrated. I wasn’t seeing any benefits. I was more stressed than ever, I was getting less accomplished, and I simply hated all of this “being.”
I was complaining about this to a mentor one day when he asked, “Lisa, are you a human being or a human doing?”
It stopped me in my tracks. I had been so busy with all my doing that I had forgotten about the human being under all of the checklists.
I was running through life—hustling through coach training, trying my best to lead a team at my corporate job, existing next to my family but not connecting in any meaningful way, and literally running through my meditations. I was doing everything and being nothing.
The Dance of Being and Doing
Since that day, I’ve been on a different path. Instead of being the best be-er there is, I’ve slowly started shedding my need to do everything and anything. With less attached to “being” and “doing,” I’ve found that there’s a beautiful dance that happens between these two ways of showing up in the world.
There’s a Dutch concept called niksen that sums up this dance pretty well. Niksen is the art of doing nothing and savoring idle time. Instead of constantly letting your mind be occupied by your to-do list, niksen is the practice of slowing it all down.
As I began learning more about niksen, a question asked by Dutch-based writer Olga Mecking really hit home for me: Are you deliciously doing nothing?
It turns out that niksen is similar to mindfulness except that you don’t have to “stay in the moment” or “clear your head of absolutely everything.” It’s about giving yourself permission to do nothing and letting your mind go where it wants without guilt or expectations.
Mecking explains it’s all about indulging in doing nothing—not forcing it or making it a chore. “I’m just not sure every moment is worth being present for,” she explains. “But, as I see it, moments of nothing are almost always worthwhile.”
Since my niksen awakening, I’ve started living as a human being, but on my own delicious terms. A short yoga class once a week helps me understand the power of my breath. Now, when I’m stressed, I can come back to my breath to regain focus. And finding space to go for a short walk in the middle of the day (without a podcast or tracking my steps) allows me to clear my head and be in greater service of my clients. I’ve found a way to make the art of being a treat—not a hassle.
As the ultimate do’er, I couldn’t write about niksen and not tell you how to do it. And while it sounds easy—it’s doing nothing!—there’s a bit more to it than you might think:
1. Let the Guilt Go
We all know that self-care is anything but selfish, but “doing nothing” might still feel indulgent. The problem is, if guilt overtakes the practice, you won’t be able to reap the benefits. One way to release those feelings is to focus on the science and benefits behind niksen. Not surprisingly, giving your brain a rest actually increases productivity and creativity, helps you stay focused, and cultivates stronger long-term memory.
2. Start Small, Expect Nothing
Since niksen is about letting go, commit to practicing niksen without any expectations. So often we engage in self-care with an expectation for it to immediately transform our lives.
In his book, 10% Happier, Dan Harris points out that being mindful doesn’t change the problems in your life, but it may prepare you to respond differently rather than react negatively. Niksen might also give you a deeper benefit that won’t be immediately visible.
3. Build a Practice
You might have to “do” niksen to start out. Even with all the best intentions of “just being,” our lives are complex and busy. We often need to schedule things to get them done.
Block some time on your calendar to practice niksen. Try scheduling it at different times so you can see what works for you. You might be surprised at when you can truly let go.
Eventually, you might not need such a forced practice, but, as you get started, this is a good way to get in the groove.
4. Notice the Marginal Gains
When you’re around someone a lot, it’s hard to notice changes. I see my children all of the time, so I’m always surprised when my parents visit and exclaim, “They’ve gotten so big!” I don’t notice their growth because I see them every day.
You are with yourself more than anyone else, so seeing your own transformation can be hard. Without measurable results, us do’ers can lose motivation.
Try keeping a journal of any changes you notice. Even if it’s something small, like feeling more focused during a meeting, note it and watch it trend over time. Keep in mind that you’re not doing it wrong if you get very tiny results. Most strategies deliver tiny results and require consistent practice over a long period of time. The key is to embrace these daily marginal gains rather than dismissing them because they are small.
The irony of writing an article about how to do nothing is not lost on me. But the truth is that we are programmed to constantly be on the run, to respond to emails, to add to our stories. So why not try niksen? Find your dance between being and doing, and be open to what happens.