We live in a fast-paced, hi-stress world where people are too often working long hours, suffering from exhaustion, anxiety and burnout. To counter this, medical professionals in the Netherlands have been prescribing a strategy called niksen — a word that literally means “to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use.” In short, nothing-ing. Practicing niksen in brief intervals on a regular basis is becoming increasingly popular —not only as a respite from the daily drill, but as a surprising wellspring of inspiration and creativity.
How does one “do” niksen?
Niksen, also commonly known as “niks-ing,” or “niks,” is not the same as mindfulness or meditation where you’re supposed to follow a particular discipline to get in “the zone.” And it’s not sloth, decadence or just grabbing a quick nap. It’s un-programmed, more like daydreaming, chilling. It’s about simply “being.”
Don’t overthink it. To get started, set aside a little time to sit and stare out a window. Turn off all devices, digital and otherwise, and listen to the silence. Let your mind wander aimlessly. You’re looking for that state you’re in when you’re just about to fall asleep. Drift without judgement, effort or purpose. Release control. Accept wherever it leads.
It will take a little time to get into this simply being state, so it’s important to do it on a regular basis, every day. In the beginning, you may feel quite restless. Start with just a couple minutes every day. Then slowly expand to a few times every day, or perhaps about 10 minutes a day.
In the words of one niksen-ite: “If I wake up and I want to just chill, then I will. I won’t beat myself up for it. I will listen and be in tune with my mind and body. Then when I feel a sense of urgency or boredom or start to feel bad about doing nothing, then I’m off to the next thing that I think my body or mind might need.”
What are the benefits of niks-ing?
In earlier times in the Netherlands, niksen was looked down upon as laziness, the opposite of being a productive member of society. But today, as stress levels are climbing globally and the health impacts becoming more apparent, the idea of taking time out periodically to do nothing is increasingly accepted as a positive, stress-fighting tactic.
People are looking for some way back to ease and connection. Research on stress and burnout strongly shows the benefits of slowing down via niks. Emotional perks include reducing anxiety and increasing the ability to maintain a positive attitude. Physical advantages become apparent like slowing the aging process and strengthening the immune function to enhance resistance to disease.
Creativity and Niks-ing
Another benefit of niksen is that it helps people come up with new ideas. According to the director of the World Database of Happiness, an archive of research related to enjoyment of life: “Even when we ‘niks,’ or do nothing, our brain is still processing information that can unleash the power to solve pressing problems.”
Niks-ing allows the space for your subconscious to expand, which ultimately boosts creativity. When we try too hard to focus on coming up with something, we can feel restricted, pressured. But when allowed to wander, to be distracted, the mind often jumps to concepts or solutions that are unexpected and remarkable.
People have noted breakthrough thoughts —like coming up with a great business concept or a creative answer to an inscrutable family problem — while just looking at a tree, showering, or doing the dishes.
It seems that there is a nexus between relaxation and revelation. A 2013 study published in Frontiers of Psychology, on “Pros and Cons of a Wandering Mind,” revealed that this process can help someone get inspired about achieving her/her goals and gain clarity about the actions to take in order to achieve those goals. So don’t let anyone tell you that doing nothing leads nowhere!
Are there any downsides to niksen?
Too much of anything, of course, can be counterproductive. The scientific literature suggests that a pitfall of letting the mind wander for too long could be getting overwhelmed in rumination, rather than feeling relaxed and refreshed. In that 2013 study, “Pros and Cons of a Wandering Mind,” researchers noted that in the short term some participants had an increased heart rate for the 24-hour period after the mind wandering exercise and trouble falling asleep the next night. These effects, however, were not predictive of emotional states in long-term niks-ing which were associated with higher life satisfaction.
Obviously, it’s not practical or wise to practice niksen constantly. The Dutch are known as very industrious people with a high level of life satisfaction. So it seems that the carving out of short periods of time to be idle, balanced with an active lifestyle can maximize the benefits of niks-ing. Feeling rested engenders a desire to participate in productive activity and social interaction which leads to happiness. It comes down to a healthy mix of relaxation and productivity begets contentment.
Niksen is an art and, therefore, it takes a certain honing to acquire the skill in a way that works for you. As adults, we’ve been trained to be purposeful and to feel guilty if we aren’t. Thus, we need to learn to allow ourselves permission to niks regularly without intention, to let our minds roam in free and far out ways. Go easy on yourself. Begin with some “gateway” inactivity’s to ease into the feel of real downtime, like sipping a cup of tea while looking out the window, meandering down a path in the park or watching a cat nap….
Will niksen catch on worldwide? Time will tell, but why not give it a shot? Here’s a video to help you get in the swing of refreshing nothing-ing.