Life

How and why to own the art of being lazy

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Anna Brech
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A cat lies on a sofa

Have that sofa on standby – being idle is good for your health (but be warned, it won’t come easily)

Ask someone how they are these days, and the response will likely be a variation of “busy”, “tired” or “great but full-on!”

We’re never just doing nothing. Even the traditional down-time of weekends are expected to be tightly scripted with things to do, places to be and people to see. 

But according to a new thought piece in the New York Times, we’d actually be far better off doing sweet nothing – at least for some periods every day. 

Netherlands-based writer Olga Mecking looks to the Dutch concept of niksen as a guide in this philosophy. 

Niksen can be defined as “doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music,” says anti-stress coach Carolien Hamming

It means the opposite of being productive or useful, and is sometimes used in the phrase “Lekker niksen?” (meaning, “are you deliciously doing nothing?”)

As Mecking says, we’re conditioned to think of doing nothing as being lazy or wasting time. But she lays out research that points to the opposite, showing that idleness habits such as daydreaming can help with creative ideas.

Doing nothing also helps us problem-solve and wards against modern conditions such as stress and burnout; both on the rise right now, due to our inability to switch off.

A woman sunbathes in a retro costume by a pool
Lie back and take it easy – real life can wait

But before you nosedive gleefully into the nearest sofa, be warned: being lazy is a lot harder than it sounds. For many people, it just doesn’t come naturally.

“I think the real reason for the resistance is that many of us have created a ‘busy habit,’” says behavioural scientist Susan Weinschenk, writing in Psychology Today. “We’re addicted to doing stuff. We have to prove something to ourselves and the world.”

When you’re used to taking life at 100 miles an hour, it might feel strange to simply stare out of a window for five minutes, or sit doing nothing at all.

The experts Mecking consults in her piece say you need to really focus on doing nothing, and make time for it, as you might a workout.

It may feel counter-intuitive at first, or conversely like a real effort. But do it often enough, and you will apparently hit a light-bulb moment when you recognise the riches that being lazy brings. 

Using your phone or TV during this time doesn’t count, because both demand your attention. Equally, something like meditation would involve “doing” something, as opposed to just being lazy for the sake of it. 

A woman stroking a cat
Having trouble being lazy? Try channelling your cat

Really, doing nothing is about cultivating a benign sense of boredom where your mind happily drifts. Watching a sunset might fit the bill, or equally, you could spread out in a sunny patch of your garden for five minutes.

The key is to avoid feeling guilty about the things you haven’t done, but instead just let your mind meander and enter that coveted “flight mode”. This in turn generates big ideas, while also providing an escape route from a forever busy world.

Struggling for inspiration? Try channelling your cat.

As author Stéphane Garnier points out in the book, How To Live Like Your Cat, our feline friends are masters at the art of doing nothing.

“Judging by the way cats simply lie there, or sit, staring at the world, scrutinising the tiniest detail, you might think they’re a bunch of lazy bones who do nothing all day long,” he writes. 

“[But] there is a marked difference between doing nothing and taking the time to live […] sit back, relax, and observe the world around you. Imitate your cat and you’ll feel a little serenity return to your life.”

You heard it here first.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.