How to Improve Your Life by Doing Nothing – Niksen

Being bored has done wonders for my financial life. Ditto for my physical and mental health.

I used to be one of those moms who thought she could do it all; no to-do list was too long or laborious for this mama. Being busy was a badge of honor. Ticking off tasks and scheduling in every minute of my day meant that I was being a good mom, business owner, friend and wife.

Not surprisingly, I burned out. Bad. I spent a month not working much and outsourcing most of my tasks—I hired a proofreader, virtual assistant, cleaner, signed up for meal prep services and extra hours at my son’s daycare—so I could recover. 

Now that that chapter’s behind me, I’ve made it my mission to schedule at least half a day each Friday by myself to unwind and relax. 

No agenda. No pressure to be productive. Just sit around and allow myself to get bored.

Turns out, doing nothing is a thing. There’s a Dutch concept called niksen that’s all the rage recently, according to major media outlets like the New York Times.

And it can help you combat burnout, anxiety and stress-related diseases. 

What is niksen?

Think of niksen as the opposite of hustling. In a nutshell, it’s doing something without it being for a specific purpose—just for the pure joy of it. 

To those of us with crazy work ethics (or moms of young children) this may sound like laziness, but I assure you it’s not. At all. Think taking a stroll in the park or lounging by the pool. It’s like taking a break from a society that glorifies the hustle culture. 

The struggle is real: Stress accounts for more than half of the 550 million working days lost each year due to absenteeism. By one count, 54% of Americans found themselves lying awake at night due to stress and 75% of Americans experience at least one symptom of stress, like fatigue, anxiousness, irritability or anger.  

Megan Bearce, a LMF licensed therapist and author of Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When A Job Keeps You Apart, believes stress can have a damaging effect on our health. 

“We can easily be in a nonstop hypervigilant, fight-or-flight state,” she says. Whether it’s feeling like you need to look something up on Google right this second or like you just can’t wait for that Amazon delivery in two hours, Bearce says we need breaks.

Niksen, she believes, is a good answer. Bearce’s mom allowed her to take “personal maintenance days” when she was in high school if she was ever overwhelmed, a habit she continues to this day. Think of it as being proactive with your health—you’re preventing illness and recovering the effects of poor decision making. 

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How to ‘do nothing’ (actually)

I’ll admit, it was really weird doing nothing. I realized that I had to start small to get used to the idea.  That meant watching three minutes of a random Youtube video in the middle of the day in another room when my family was home, or sitting at my porch with a cup of coffee while my son took a nap. During the weekdays when my husband’s off at work and my son is in preschool, I would pick a random Spotify playlist and lay on the couch.

Bearce agrees with my approach. Instead of taking an hour to practice niksen, she recommends starting with five minutes first. “Can you set your alarm five minutes early and ‘just’ lay there and take some deep breaths instead of sleeping until your child wakes you up? Can you have your partner do bath time and you take a walk around the block?” 

As a freelance writer, my schedule is much more flexible than if I had a 9 to 5. That said, niksen is a very flexible concept. Look at your schedule to see if you have random pockets in the day, Bearce recommends, like a lunch break or a few minutes in the morning. Then make that time nonnegotiable. For example, maybe you can take 10 minutes during your lunch hour so you can walk to the park, sit down on a bench and stare out at the pond.

How niksen helped my bank account

When I was close to burnout, I spent way more mindlessly than normal, and not just indulgences like takeout meals—think twice about what I’d normally spend on food. Instead of doing my errands by bike like I usually do, I ended up spending $100 on rideshare services in a single month!  I’d forget to pay important bills or I’d stuff my pantry so full we’d have to throw out rotten food. I’d forget to go to doctor’s appointments. I was just overwhelmed.

Giving yourself space to be idle can help with better decision-making. Studies have shown that stress-related exhaustion can truly impair cognitive function.

I found that when I was less tired and anxious, I was more motivated to use my bike instead of opting for Uber. I started enjoying cooking again, drastically reducing our grocery bill back to what it was before. My husband and I were able to have real money conversations, like deciding on a savings account for our son and our investment goals for the year.

How niksen helped my family life

Practicing niksen helped to improve other areas in my life as well. I was a lot more present for conversations with my husband, which helps keep our marriage healthy. I remembered our conversations so much more—I didn’t have to annoy him by asking him to repeat what was previously said.

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Giving myself space to think led me to track my time so I could see where I could be more efficient. Turns out I can get the same amount of work done in four to five hours that I previously spread out over 10 hours. This gave me more time for spontaneous trips to the park with my son.

TLDR: Practicing niksen can have positive effects on all areas of your life, reduce your stress and help you make better decisions that can benefit you and your family.

Yeah, but what about my kids?

I hear ya. Really I do. 

When I started taking these half days for myself, I felt so guilty I ended up meal prepping for the next two weeks and making ten pounds of kimchi! 

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It’s hard to make time for yourself when you have little ones to care for, especially when society tells us that they should always come first.

But Bearce says it’s usually possible to find some time for yourself if you take a hard look at your to-do list to differentiate between what’s necessary and what’s not. “Think carefully. Do any of those ‘necessary’ things make you feel stressed, resentful or bad? What happens if you don’t do it? Are those ‘shoulds’ yours, your family’s or your culture’s?”

A lot of my work-related tasks weren’t as necessary as I thought. I cut some out (like engaging on Twitter) and found out that nobody seemed to care. I never looked back. 

How to start doing ‘nothing’

Own the fact that you’ll be doing nothing and tell yourself it’s for the sake of your health. 

Drink a hot cup of coffee while doing nothing else. Stare out the window and count leaves. Find a place where you won’t be reminded of your to-do list. I carved out a corner in my bedroom—no phones or electronic devices allowed.

Try to find opportunities to practice niksen by spacing out when you’re waiting in line at a store, or grab a pen and paper and doodle with your kid at your side. 

At the end of the day, there’s only one guiding principle: Anything that helps you slow down.