How the Art of Doing Nothing made me 99.5 percent happier and more productive
For three weeks in January I departed from any usual work routines and practiced the art of doing nothing. I love pushing my edges, but things had gone a little too far lately. I'd pushed myself so hard to produce and show up and do my work, to try and keep the fires out, balance everything and still be grateful and happy and fulfilled...at some point I realized I was going nowhere fast. I’m no stranger to the Great Art, and taking space for life. Along with that piece I wrote after an extended break in 2012 was this one after my next online breather (big revelation: double ice cream cones). This time was a little different, though. I decided to run it more like an experiment…
“What if I let go of everything I believe matters, and focus entirely on what's really calling me at this moment?” That’s what I asked myself, and what I attempted to do. Every day.
So, one of my biggest revelations was, no more working my ass off to change the world… I’m bringin' Happy back. That was probably the best one, along with getting a little more of my sense of humor back (helpful if you want to actually enjoy your life regardless of what magic you may be making).
I promised to talk a little more about what I actually did during this period, and why you might consider doing everything possible to spend a few weeks practicing the art of doing nothing. (And I have some very scientifical evidence to prove that doing nothing is at least 99.44% more effective and joy inducing than trying to be productive.*)
But first, let me tell you a little story, since stories are fun.
One day about 10 years ago in a moment of crisis in northern India, a very wise man gave me some sage advise.
I was in a panicked fight-or-flight situation after awakening in the middle of the night to a bizarre attempted burglary through my window, involving my wallet, a large bamboo pole and a strange, handsome priest I’d met earlier (who unfortunately knew where I lived).
Thoroughly spooked, I could not figure out what the heck to do with myself -- or the bamboo pole that was abandoned on the floor of my room -- but later that morning my friend offered me some sage advise. With his usual British wit and a half smirk, he said, “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything at all…”
Then he went back to his perch, took a long pull from a soda bottle bong, picked up his sitar and started playing one of his usual 20-minute-long Beatles infused Indian Ragas.
I liked the contrariness of his advise. It went against all logic and instincts, and perhaps in spite of, or because of this, I was intrigued. As it turned out, with a little mental distance and slack I was able to relax enough to eventually find a solution. I also figured out I was probably in no real danger, which was helpful.
Lesson learned: Sometimes the best solutions are the most counter-intuitive ones, coming from the least expected places...and sometimes doing nothing at all is really the best thing you can do.
But you don't actually believe that do you...?
The proof and the pudding (how to get it right).
According to an article at Inc. Magazine, the world’s most successful and productive people are up for hours in the morning getting sh*t done before breakfast. Doing nothing is highly underrated — a sign of weakness, laziness and failure. But the truth is, there is nothing better you can do for cultivating happiness, productivity and making magic in the world.
Just read my last post about the Happy Ukulele Songbook, and tell me that isn’t somewhat inspiring, even if you don’t give two sh*ts about the ukulele. (I assembled all that music and content in a 1-2 week period, while I was doing nothing. It was pretty much effortless, and the most fun I’ve had doing anything, let alone nothing, in a long time.)
Now, if you read the Inc. piece a little closer, you'd see that 5 out of the 12 practices of aforementioned world's most successful, productive and wealthy people are cornerstones of the Great Art:
- Spend quality time with family. (AKA loved ones!)
- Connect with your spouse or partner. (Intimately and/or deeply)
- Meditate. (Or do some spiritual practice to center you)
- Write down things you're grateful for. (Or, just things that are really awesome)
- Work on a personal passion project. (Note: This can never be planned, as in, "I'm taking a sabbatical to write my book..." IXNAY. It must arise spontaneously from the nothingness, or it will cancel itself out.)
The main problem with the approach outlined by the experts is the motivation:
"Have sex because it makes you smarter, energizes you and boosts your income...meditate because it clears your mind, and helps you be more productive, etc..." MEH. This is a total distortion of the Art. Like selling your entire collection of original paintings for exclusive use by Denny’s Diner for a few G’s. (OK, maybe not that bad.)
I much prefer Tara’s approach:
I say Sane/Happy/Successful People… They meditate to cultivate equanimity and compassion, so that they cause less suffering to themselves and to other human beings. [...] If they make love in the morning, it’s not because it will help them be more productive, but because it feels wonderful and connects them to someone they love." ~ Tara Sophia Mohr, Before Breakfast
Don’t distort your art with false pretenses, and ulterior motives. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it right:
No agenda, no ulterior motives, no attempts at manipulating your productivity. If there is any goal, and agenda behind your practice, let it be this: To create a simply effortless, joyful sense of ease and spaciousness in your life. To become comfortable with emptiness, and not seek to change it, modify it, or improve it in any way.
It’s very zen, so the minimalists and simplicity freaks will probably love this.
Personal experience. (Usually the best evidence.)
Here are some examples of moments of abject FAILURE during my three-week experiment:
- Thinking about bills and debts that need to be paid.
- Worrying about my future, and what I’m going to do next.
- Thinking about all the people wondering what’s happening with me, waiting to hear from me.
- Spending time worrying about the dozens of emails I have not responded to from people I don’t know, but very much appreciate.
- Opening my email in the afternoon, and impulsively responding to a message that did not warrant any response at all.
- Worrying about the big decisions about my life that need to be made, and languishing on others.
Some examples of sublimely mastering the art:
- Going to the beach often, swimming and floating in the ocean, sometimes way far out into the water.
- Finding really cool shells and rocks, and spending time in reflection with their presence.
- Remembering the part of me that really loves rocks, crystals and shells, and dropping into that space from long past.
- Spending time with my lady, just hangin' with no agenda.
- Watching good shows on Netflix with dinner.
- Eating lots of yummy tacos, and cooking up some amazing, simple meals.
- Perfecting some of my favorite recipes, and writing them down even!
- Forgetting about all the people, and the “stuff” that supposedly needs to happen.
- Spending a half hour before bedtime writing a random email about what’s making me happy right now, in response to a message from an old acquaintance online.
- Sitting on my balcony and playing a lot of ukulele — sometimes hours each day — with the crashing surf in the background.
- Joyfully pouring endless time and energy into a new ukulele songbook project that emerged out of nowhere.
- Forgetting about the future, letting go of the past.
- Sleeping as much as possible, sometimes waking without an alarm.
- Letting my mind and reality stretch into the outer reaches of a new personal reality.
Outcomes I experienced as a result of practicing the Great Art:
I’m much more inspired over all about my direction moving forward, and my work, and my life. And as a result, I’ve noticed I’m more happy and ease-filled over all.
Which I’ve also noticed has created more opportunities for serendipity, and enjoyment, and accomplishment in my life.
One thing you may have noticed in reading these lists...
The majority of my FAILS were around mental processes and beliefs. Clearly my biggest sticking area — too much mind. However, as you can see by the second list, each of these experiences was effectively neutralized by my total embrace of the Art.
Strangely: While embracing fun and serendipity, I also seem to have become slightly more practical. It’s like the perspective gave me just enough distance to frame my own experience, and my work, a little more tightly.
So, while there’s an impulse towards lightness and enjoyment, there’s a parallel impulse towards practical, grounded and effective work.
Net outcome: More professional opportunities, more personal enjoyment, and at least twice as much productive flourishing and happiness overall.
So, I guess you could call that WINNING all around. :)
Conclusion: Stop being boring.
Do you need to take three weeks out of your life and totally reset your mind in order to be happier, more fulfilled and more productive? No. But if you want a dramatic improvement in your experience of life, you're going to have to take some serious steps... here's where you can start:
Make time for awe (The Atlantic), now scientifically proven to expand your mind, and your capacity to be truly immersed in the present.
Reduce stress (Greatist), proven to make you more likely to have an open mind, step outside your comfort zone, and enjoy your life.
Stop being boring (Lifehack), life is so much better when you mix it up! Like Kid President says, "The world needs you to stop being boring. Everyone can be boring. Boring is easy!"
Know what you love (Entrepreneur), become enraptured with whatever makes you come alive, and then spend as much time as possible pursuing those things, no matter how ridiculous they might seem.
Learn the other lost art (Moi), use these 5 questions to root you into your own brilliance, affirm the essential vision and themes of our existence and become a great artist of encouragement.
You, stressed out and over-worked, worried about your future and the 9,000 starving children every day, is doing nothing to make things better. If there’s anything we need to do more of, it's bring more fun and flow, ease and joy into our lives, and work from that place. It's the only thing that's going to make your life, and the world, a better place to be in.
F*ck routines. Do stuff different…every day. Know what makes you come alive and pursue that as much as you can. Do less, and go deeper instead.
...and remember, sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
*OK I admit the science behind my findings may be lacking, though there's some great research in the articles section 4 above. I really go for a more experiential approach, trusting my own experience above all else and using a combination of observation, discernment and intuition to determine what's working. Don't just take my word for it, though -- take the wonderful book I’m reading right now by Pema Chödrön, for instance, When Things Fall Apart, completed during her year-long sabbatical of “doing nothing.” And if you're dying for some more tips on practicing the Art, this article from Leo Babauta is a great primer, but I suggest you start now and try it out for yourself (only one way to find out for sure!).