Cawley: The positive effect of doing nothing

This past weekend, I found myself feeling guilty for spending my day off on Memorial Day doing a whole lot of nothing.

I caught up on a TV show I had fallen about a month behind on, continued an old series I’ve been watching on Netflix and listened to music. With a day devoted to leisure and nothing productive, I felt even more guilty when I didn’t even head to the gym for a workout that night, thinking to myself, “well, you’ve got to at least do something.”

By the time early evening rolled around, I was having a crisis of sorts, deriding myself for choosing to spend my time doing nothing in particular, essentially wasting my time, when I could be instead be figuring out some kind of five-year plan or what I wanted to do with my life.

How embarrassing, I thought to myself. What a wasted opportunity to explore somewhere nearby or get in better shape for the terrain race I’m dreading running next month.

But growing scientific research shows that I, and others like me who chose to spend their holiday doing nothing, or actually take time off on their day off, may have been more productive than we think.

There have been numerous studies of late, which show that taking vacations, time off, or even just a lunch break can make someone more productive at work.

Breaks foster creativity and well, provide time to think rather than just simply grind through a task. Research shows that if you push yourself too hard, your brain begins to push back and turns even the simplest task into a difficult one.

It’s just not healthy to continually be exerting energy. Working through exhaustion may seem admirable in our society, but what good is that work if it’s mistake-prone due to being unable to concentrate?

It may seem like a hard concept to grasp, especially since we live in New England, which is known for its fast-paced and unyielding lifestyle.

Even when professionals are off the clock, we find ourselves responding to email or work-related texts, planning for the next day, or in my case, much to the chagrin of my editor, who has to respond to those last-minute texts, double- and triple-checking stories before they’re published.

Essentially, many of us never really leave work for the day. So, we never really have the opportunity to unwind and recharge, which if that continues, can lead to stress, sleep deprivation and even job burnout.

Despite research and common sense telling us time off is important, many of us still view taking advantage of it as being lazy.

But a New York Times article I read last month makes “the case for doing nothing” and describes doing nothing, or “niksen” as the Dutch call it, an acquired skill.

With niksen, people are encouraged to intentionally sit still, embrace being bored and take mental breaks, which is aimed at recharging. The author argues that it may be uncomfortable at first, but eventually someone will become better at it, like their muscles adjusting to a new exercise.

For me, it’s something that I’ve really had to work at. I think back to years ago when I was living at home and stressing about something, my father took a stand, forced me into a reclining chair, turned on a movie and told me he was giving me a lesson on how to relax.

Taking time off shouldn’t be guilt-inducing. Every time I feel guilt coming on when I’m pressing “watch next episode” for Gossip Girl for the fourth time, I have to remind myself that I’m choosing to invest in myself.

So, eat lunch away from your desk, use the vacation time provided instead of letting it expire, and take a coffee break during the workday when you can no longer concentrate. Research says your brain will thank you and it will make you better at your job.


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