Why You Should Be Making Time to Do Nothing

In today’s world, it seems harder and harder every day to do nothing. Now, that may sound like a good thing — after all, we should strive to be more productive and manage our time efficiently, shouldn’t we?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is a little more complicated than it may seem. While productivity and good time management skills are certainly useful traits to possess, there’s something to be said for the increasingly lost art of doing nothing. 

If you’re wondering why anyone would ever possibly want to do nothing, give me a chance to explain. For those of us who grew up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, doing nothing has always been a rare occurrence. As children, there was always something to grab and hold our attention, whether it was finger painting, coloring, watching television, playing sports, etc. At the time, these activities were hobbies — that is, they didn’t serve a higher “productive” purpose. We just liked finger painting, so we did it (much to the dismay of our parents, who had to clean up the resulting messes). 

When we reached young adulthood, our attention was seized by new and exciting things, many of which were more connected to our career prospects than our personal interests and hobbies. Side hustles became the rage, and it seemed like we were all in a rush to learn useful, marketable skills that would improve our job prospects or help us make a little extra cash in our free time. 

Woman looks at a photo on Instagram on her phone. Photo by Kate Torline from Unsplash Even social media has become increasingly connected to being productive. It demands that we’re always “on,” always sharing our thoughts, always updating our LinkedIn connections about our latest achievement, certification, side hustle, and so on. And this isn’t just a problem on LinkedIn; just the other day, I came across a particularly agonizing tweet claiming that having any free time at all was a symptom of poor time management.

As a recent college graduate, I've felt more pressure than ever to make the most of my free time — and I'm not the only one who feels that way. "With quarantine times leaving me unable to attain the level of productivity I’d been accustomed to, my self-esteem really took a hit," says Annalise, University of Central Florida '19. "I had somehow linked my level of productivity to my self-worth."

That’s the funny thing about the free time, though: isn’t it supposed to be free? As in, free to use in whatever way we please? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using your free time to learn a skill or earn money. Personally, though, I’ve been feeling more and more drained with society’s ever-increasing emphasis on optimizing and commodifying our dwindling spare time. More often than not, the activities that bring me the most joy or peace are those that, in the eyes of a LinkedIn influencer (yes, those exist), would amount to nothing: reading a fantasy novel, picnicking in a park, or writing short stories that will never see the light of day, much less a paycheck. 

a picnic blanket set with cherries and pastries Photo by Анна Галашева from Pexels In her New York Times bestseller How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell writes about the intrinsically capitalist way we perceive productivity with more eloquence than I could dream of mustering: “Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom? The happiest, most fulfilled moments of my life have been when I was completely aware of being alive, with all the hope, pain, and sorrow that that entails for any mortal being. In those moments, the idea of success as a teleological goal would have made no sense; the moments were ends in themselves, not steps on a ladder.”

Annalise has found happiness in staying balanced. "It's still a struggle, but I’ve managed to cope by reminding myself that this year has affected quite literally everyone," she says, "so we all need to be gentle with ourselves and focus on balance in life instead of how much we get done. I love musical theatre — especially big dance numbers — so I’ve had a ton of fun trying to learn the choreography from YouTube videos. Also, just reconnecting with nature helps me mentally."

Of course, I’m not saying you should drop all of your side hustles and flee to a cottage in the forest (as much as I would love to do exactly that). But the next time you have some free time, consider doing something for the joy of it rather than its productivity potential. Pick up a new book, go for a walk in the park, or call a friend to have a one-on-one conversation with them — or, do anything else that you want to do just because you want to do it. It’s your free time, after all. It may seem like you’re doing nothing, but taking care of yourself will pay off more in the long run than any side hustle, I promise.