HUGH CULVER

Doing Nothing (On Purpose) – It’s a Fine Art

Updated to Habits, Productivity on January 22, 2023.

Note: this article on doing nothing, originally published in March 2015, was very popular so I decided to sand some rough edges, add more body and give it a new coat of paint. Enjoy.

Last night I brewed some Sweet Morocco green tea, turned on the fireplace (something my Dad would never have said), and sunk into a Lee Child novel. It was bliss.

My day started at 5:00AM with my morning routine, followed by weights, meditation, daughter to soccer, office, yoga, more office, groceries, walk dog, dinner. And finished with same daughter calling to say there were now three men working to tow our car out of a ditch.

Ironically, I was proud of her for 1) trying to learn how to drive a standard (unsuccessfully), and 2) asking for help.

Back at the home front, doing nothing was looking pretty good.

In our world of pop-up notifications, 24/7 Facebook “news” feed, and To-Do list apps that help you organize all the tasks you’re going to procrastinate about, it’s time to enjoy doing…nothing.

First, the why.

Why you need to do nothing

We live in a Fitbit, To-Do, pack-it-in, life-is-short, ROI world. And it’s not how we were designed.

Sure, we all value initiative, hard work and results – pillars of modern society. But, here’s the rub:

Being busy, always working, and struggling to achieve more will inevitably back-fire. I know – I’ve been there.

When I launched the BOSS program two years ago if felt like I’d taken on a mountain of work ON TOP of the mountain I already had. Yes, I wanted to get BOSS off the ground. The problem is I hadn’t changed my behaviour or taken anything off my plate.

I was running with the errant thought “I’ll just find a way to make it happen.”

Within weeks I was sloughing through 12 hour days and feeling like I was back in the tourism industry, cranking out back-to-back trips and living on drive-through meals and coffee.

The only difference was I was 25 years older, didn’t drink coffee and only frequented drive-throughs in moments of weakness. What I needed was down time—an appreciation for doing nothing.

I was ignoring the warning bells telling me a break from my knee-jerk workaholic disease would be good medicine and not a waste of time.

Sometimes, doing nothing is the best medicine.

It helped me to understand that we are designed to hunt and hibernate.

Why doing nothing is really doing something

We are designed to hunt and hibernate (read more about this in the very entertaining, quick read Younger Next Year, by Crowley and Lodge).

Younger Next Year

We are designed to hunt and hibernate

Work hard, overcome resistance, make stuff happen and then…rest. It’s the cycle all athletes build their performance on.

You should as well.

When you’re in hunt mode, your brain fires off the hormone Cortisol (along with Adrenaline) to get bursts of energy, reduce sensitivity to pain – even improve your memory.

And then you need to chill.

Prolonged periods of stress, keeps Cortisol levels up and can lead to decreased cognitive performance, higher blood pressure, decreased bone density, increased fat and hair loss (I added that one)…need I go on?

So, while hunting is good, hibernating is even better. When you put the two together you have a perfect duo for long-term productivity and a healthy life. Read more about the hunt and hibernate cycle on page 97 in my post Younger Next Year.

Enter the Relaxation Response

Forty years ago, cardiologist Herbert Benson (and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute) made something old new again. He recognized that with a simple breathing exercise, muscles relax, organs slow down, and blood flow increases to the brain. A perfect trifecta of good health.

The Relaxation ResponseEffective breathing triggers the body to return to a pre-stress state and allows it to heal.

The Relaxation Response was more designed for disease prevention and cure (as a side note, Benson first published his results in the American Journal of Psychology with the mouthful of a title “A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state”) – Benson would document impressive results for conditions, such as: fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension and anxiety disorders (but not hair loss).

At the end of this post I have included a 4 step summary of Benson’s instructions for using the Relaxation Response (if you don’t have a meditation practice, this is a great place to start).

Good old, daily relaxation is actually good medicine for anyone’s health. For more evidence, read how one recent Harvard study found that after just eight weeks of meditation they could measure a “major increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

Okay, I think you know relaxation is a necessary part of high performance.

Check.

Got that.

Let’s look at 6 easy ways to get started (even if you’re a high achiever and hate the lotus position).

Instructions for the high achiever

Someone wisely once said “Advice is cheap – doing is what takes work”. My recommendations will take some work – the good news is, not very much.

The Clutter Cleanse takes 5 minutes (every week), Zone Out 3 minutes, Escape into a novel 15. You’re probably spending more time reading about happy people leading wonderful lives on Facebook every day than it will take to complete any one of these practices.

Here are 6 ways  of doing nothing and making it a natural part of everyday, just like brushing your teeth and syncing your Fitbit.

1. Do a clutter cleanse.

Clutter Cleanse

Reducing clutter increases brain capacity

This is a no brainer – reducing clutter increases brain capacity. Think of it this way:

when you see something “unfinished”, like a half-read book, sticky note, orphan computer cable, or client file, you’ll think about it.

“I should deal with that.”

“Ugh, not now…I’m swamped.”

“Right. I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“Yup, that’s it – tomorrow.”

….and on it goes for weeks.

I wrote about cleaning up your clutter in this post (my fav. is the ‘one month test’).

2. Zone out

Here’s a simple 3 minute mind-break for mid day. Zone out.

Start by picking one object (like a pen, or coffee cup) and giving it all your attention. Focus on slowing your breathing and enjoying a full exhale/inhale rhythm. Let the rest of your attention fall away.

It’s like a mini-vacation from thinking and doing – I always feel more relaxed and ready to focus on the next task.

I talked about this in my post: Don’t just stand there – do nothing.

3. Escape into a novel

Think of your next novel as brain therapy

I love having a fun who-done-it on the go for some mindless mental entertainment. In fact, knowing I have a great read waiting is a good incentive for me to shut down whatever I’ve been working and to start wrapping up my day. My favourites are: Lee Child (Jack Reacher series), Michael Robotham, Robert Galbraith (J.K Rowling) and James Patterson (Alex Cross series). Fifteen minutes before bed is all it takes to make you feel you own your day.

4. Build your unplugged habit

Use line-ups for coffee, waiting for the bus, or time before a meeting starts to unplug, chill, and restore. Fidgeting with your phone won’t help – there’s lots of time for that. Gaps in your day are invitations to unplug, allow, and re-balance – take them.

5. Get into nature

Just a few minutes in nature can make a world of difference

It’s so simple, but we ignore it – take a walk in nature. Even a patch of green behind your subdivision is all it takes to allow the world to drop away and to recover a sense of belonging and peace. In one study, researchers found that even after just one long walk in nature volunteers were more attentive and happier.

6. Wax on, wax off

One of my new practices is 10 minutes of meditation at the end of yoga or following a workout. I don’t do anything special. I just: get comfortable, set a timer, focus on my breath, and allow thoughts to slide away.

Here is an entertaining quick run down on how to get started by author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Doing nothing might sound counter productive – even bizarre. But it might just be the most powerful weapon you develop against an already-busy life. Like runners who jog between hard intervals, we all need to pause if we want to show up at 100%, fully present and ready to contribute.

So, get out there and…do nothing.

What are you doing to do nothing? I want to know – tell me in the comments below.

4 STEPS TO RELAXATION

Following is the Relaxation Response technique taken directly from Benson’s book The Relaxation Response:

  1.  Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. If you struggle to quiet your thoughts, try starting by relaxing your tongue.
  4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word “one”* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say “one”, in and out, and repeat “one.” Breathe easily and naturally.

Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.

Don’t worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.

When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”

With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.

*Choose any soothing, mellifluous sounding word, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.