“Niksen” Is the Dutch Secret to Making the Most of Your Downtime

updated Dec 4, 2020
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When was the last time you did nothing? Not scrolling on your phone. Not catching up on the latest episode of “The Undoing.” But just sitting quietly, doing absolutely, positively nothing

If you find that you can’t even remember, you’re definitely not alone. Amid today’s fast-paced, productivity-focused world, it can be easy to overlook the importance of doing nothing at all. In fact, many people have been conditioned to think that doing nothing is “lazy” or a “waste of time”—but neither of these beliefs are remotely true. Rest is necessary for our bodies and minds, and can actually make us more productive, explains Olga Mecking, author of “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.”

“Our bodies can’t be active all day long, with no breaks. We know that,” the Netherlands-based writer tells Apartment Therapy. “But our brains need breaks too. We spend so much time thinking, focusing, planning, managing, organizing—all of that is work that our brains do. But after a few hours of focused work, we can’t think clearly anymore.”

That’s where the concept of niksen comes into play, which is defined as the Dutch art of “doing nothing,” and the topic of Mecking’s viral 2019 New York Times article that preceded her upcoming book. But, as the author notes, in order to put niksen into practice, one must do nothing without any specific purpose. “We don’t do nothing to become more relaxed,” she points out. “We do it ‘just because’—or because it simply feels good.” 

For folks who are used to having every minute of their day filled with activities (not to mention having a million ways to stay connected to the world through phones or other devices), the leap to doing absolutely nothing can seem pretty daunting. However, there are things you can do to slowly make niksen a part of your everyday routine. Ahead, learn more about why doing nothing is really good for you, and how to move from that task-oriented productivity mindset toward the glorious world of simply existing in a state of rest.

So, what exactly does it mean to “do nothing?” 

When you think of doing nothing, you probably still imagine doing something—perhaps reading, watching TV, playing video games, or at the very least, meditating. But the truth is, none of those things are part of niksen.

“Many people have asked me, what does niksen mean?” Mecking muses in her book, which will be available for purchase on Jan. 12, 2021. “Do I do nothing when I browse Facebook? When I sit on my couch and worry about my children? When I’m thinking about an article I want to write? When I meditate? The answer is no. You might call those things nothing, but in reality, they are not. These things are not niksen.” She adds that there’s a lot of activities that look like doing nothing because they’re often invisible, ranging from the helpful (like mindfulness) to the exhausting (such as emotional labor). But those aren’t right either.

In her Times article, Mecking described it like this: “The idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.” 

If “just hanging out” feels too difficult right now, take small steps to get there

Many factors, including living in a capitalist-driven society, have contributed to the idea that productivity equals completing a task. This has especially been true this year, given that many folks are at home more than ever, and might be feeling a pressure to fill that time with “productive” actions. (Remember those viral tweets from March that reminded the world how Shakespeare supposedly wrote “King Lear” during quarantine?) 

It’s understandable if the idea of completely turning your brain off seems daunting. If that’s the case, Mecking recommends beginning with an activity that might still keep your hands busy but allows your mind to be free, such as “coloring books, crocheting, [and] cooking,” she lists.

Because niksen should also be somewhat fun, Mecking advises selecting an activity that you truly enjoy. “My brother runs marathons and he once told me, ‘When I run because I’m training for a marathon, that’s not niksen. But when I run just because I want to, that’s more like niksen,’” she recalls, celebrating the mindset that you should do something just because you want to. “I think we’ve forgotten to do things ‘just because,’” she points out. “Everything has to have a philosophy behind it these days. I think that’s a pity, because it takes a lot of pleasure out of life.”

Yes, you can—and should—schedule “doing nothing” into your day

If you’re a planner, consider finding a window of time designated to that bliss of nothingness. “After all, you schedule your doctors appointments and Zoom calls,” Mecking says. “These are important things, so why not add doing nothing to your agenda as well? Then you’ll consider doing nothing important, too.”

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to take up a ton of time. In fact, it probably shouldn’t. Mecking advises finding a place for niksen in between other activities, which can help transform it into a regular habit—and one that’s useful. “Let’s say I’m reading a book and something catches my attention, maybe a sentence or a scene,” she explains. “I’ll put the book aside and do nothing for a few minutes. And after a while I’ll start thinking about the book which might lead to a new article idea, and then I’ll get up and pitch it to a magazine. Or perhaps I’ll get back to reading. Or I’ll remember that I need to do laundry.” 

Remember: you deserve to rest

Niksen, as Mecking puts it, is not selfish, boring, or lazy—rather, it can be playful and fun. Most importantly, turning our minds off and letting go of all active thoughts can serve as a reset button, and can help us be more efficient when it’s time to go back to work. 

“Doing nothing can enhance creativity,” she explains. “When not focusing on anything, our brains will search for their own distractions and might end up in places that we haven’t thought possible. That’s how we get new ideas and find solutions to complex problems.”