Doing Nothing is Productive


Doing absolutely nothing, such as staring out a window, allows your brain to strengthen neural pathways while increasing learning abilities. Creative Commons Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Ashley Grady, Staff Writer

At Menlo, there is always something to keep busy. There are a multitude of different clubs to join—from Girls Leadership to Model UN to Beekeeping. There’s always another test or project to prepare for or research paper to write, a new article to read or a debate to have. I am so appreciative that we are fortunate enough to be in an environment where boredom is rare and there are so many avenues to explore. But it seems like there is one thing that almost every high school student overlooks — doing nothing. No, not laying in bed on your phone and watching TV for hours “doing nothing,” consciously doing absolutely nothing.

It is not just Menlo students that disregard the idea of doing nothing. It seems like a cultural norm in America to believe that if you aren’t working, you are wasting time. There are so many high-achieving students always striving to be better, never taking a pause before their next goal or project. Perhaps these corporate-style values are learned from their accomplished parents who may have learned them from their parents.

Whatever the origin, cutting out free time and putting in extra hours in the school or work day may put you a step ahead for your next project or promotion; however, it can also lead to added stress. According to The New York Times and the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, stress not only has negative effects on mental health, but it can actually rewire the human brain. For example, stress alters our brains’ decision-making skills, which can lead to a higher likelihood of addiction.

The concept of doing nothing has its own name in the Netherlands; niksen. Hard to define, the Dutch concept essentially involves “doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music,” according to Carolien Hamming, managing director and coach at CSR Centrum, an organization dedicated to alleviating stress. Although niksen is similar to mindfulness and meditation, a defining difference is it is not about being conscious of your body and surroundings, it is about letting the mind wander freely.

During these periods of relaxation, the brain is far from idle. It actually needs downtime to strengthen neural pathways, improving memory and increasing learning abilities. Doctor Marcus Raichle, a professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, has observed that certain areas of the brain become active when daydreaming or not focusing on any specific goal. This neural activity is like exercise for the brain, allowing it to function at a higher level.

Taking a step back from busy everyday life and partaking in niksen can be just the thing to increase overall productivity and inspiration. Who knew that idleness and even boredom could be good? Studies conducted by Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, phycologists at the University of Central Lancashire, also show that “boring” activities help spur creativity. So, the next time you are feeling burnt out, give your brain a break, take your foot off the pedal and just stare out a window for a while, allowing yourself to just be.