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The Art of Doing Nothing: Why It's Imperative To Make Time For Stillness

Living in a world without an off-switch leaves little time to be static- but with mental health problems sky-rocketing amongst the UK population (1 in 4 will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year), the art of doing nothing has never been more important for mental health.

Re-programming our understanding of 'stillness'

As a society, we have been conditioned to correlate stillness with inactivity, and in turn, inactivity with perceived failure. We are in the peak of a generation that accepts burnout and over-working as the nature of reality, and if at any time we aren't doing something that aligns with our goals, we're not making use of our time. This way of life creates a generation of people unable to to just 'be'.

A study undertaken by the University of Virginia in 2014 highlighted just how opposed we humans are to 'just being'. Over 700 people were asked to sit in a room alone with just their thoughts for 6-15 minutes alongside a shock button that they could press if they wanted out. 25% of women, and 67% of men chose to shock themselves instead of sitting quietly and thinking.

It is crucial to understand the psychological imperative of stillness. We are not put on this earth to be on the go 24/7, and doing so has detrimental effects. When our individual identity becomes drowned by overworking, burnout, and fatigue, we begin to lose sight of who we actually are, and we press pause on the real purpose of life.

Reasons to incorporate 'doing nothing' into your daily routine:

Whilst we are 'doing nothing', our brain is super-powering itself: it's completing unconscious tasks or processing our conscious experiences.

During natural resting, our brain is allowing for neutral networks to process experiences, consolidate our memories, reinforce our learning, rebuild our attention span, and regulate our emotions. This in turn allows for us to be more productive in our day-to-day runnings, and without realising, re-charge. A 2009 study into brain imaging looked at people faced with a strange task, and uncovered that they were still actively coming to grips with the new skill during what appeared to be a rest period.

Creativity needs stillness and nothingness in order to thrive.

We have access to a multitude of studies which all reiterate the same thing- those who are deeply creative individuals have mastered the art of rejecting structure and allowing their minds to wander. For Einstein this was the 'sacred intuitive mind' (the opposite being the rational mind, which was viewed upon as it's 'servant'). A well established study known as the 'incubation effect' looked into this further: People who knew they would be returning to a task at a later point actually did much better at it when they resumed, as opposed to those who didn't realise they would be returning to it. This research suggests that not focusing entirely on a project actually seems to signal to your unconscious to get to work and aids the development of the most creative and unique ideas.

It won't be possible to achieve what you want to the fullest, if you don't incorporate 'down time', and work intermittently.

You need to allow your mind some time to breathe as continuously working in a constant state of focus actually has the opposite effect. Over-working leads to stress, and you are likely to start neglecting things that actually matter (your mental and physical health, your family etc). Reaching an early saturation point can be prevented through working intermittently on your task.

You will become more mindful as a result.

It's so easy to get caught up in every day life without actually taking time to reflect on what a gift it is to be living; incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine will help in bringing you into the present moment. It also works in unison with reducing stress levels, improving your memory, empathy, general decrease of anxiety, and an increase in life quality.

Human beings aren't built to be continually expending energy whilst conscious.

Studies have been undertaken which show that not getting enough sleep, and not incorporating time to 'do nothing', is the highest predictor of burnout. In particular, a Harvard Study found sleep deprivation to be costing American companies $63.2 billion a year in loss of productivity.

Tim Kreider argues 'idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets'. It is vital for us to be able to spend time doing nothing in order to be able to see life as a whole, and live it to the fullest.


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