The expansive joy of doing nothing

We are filled with busy-ness, wearing our full calendars like badges and armor. I know I often find a certain pride in turning to a new week in my diary and seeing it crammed full of scheduled meetings, lectures, lunches and dinners. I feel like I’m doing something! going somewhere! accomplishing! 

Recently though, I’ve found myself burning out, fizzling, slowing like wind-up toy winding down. All the busyness was keeping me, well, busy, but when I looked back on the past few weeks, I realized I hadn’t actually done anything. I haven’t felt creative in months, I’ve hardly done any writing and I’ve even struggled with reading more than a chapter of a book a time – a problem if you’re doing a PhD, as I am now. 

So, paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of work I needed to catch up on, I found myself one weekend unable to do anything at all. It’s like all the distractions, all the busyness finally added up and tipped the scale. I came to an abrupt halt. My body, dense and heavy and unmoving like a boulder, did not want to get out of bed. And finally, finally – I let myself stay there. 

There is something to be said about the value of rest – the negative to ‘doing’ which is just as valuable as the doing itself. Just as gym trainers advice us of the importance of having regular rest between vigorous work-out sessions, we need to accord ourselves that same mental stillness between all the things we do each day and each week. 

It is about breathing out, as much as it is breathing in. 

It is about allowing ourselves – body, mind and spirit – to take in as much as we expend in all our frantic doing. 

I know the idea of letting all of it go can be frightening. A part of us balks at the thought of absconding responsibilities, cancelling on people, not showing up. But this isn’t about giving up what we have to do. It’s about balancing all the things we have to do with moments of ‘doing nothing’ – and most importantly, allowing ourselves to sink into it, guilt free, knowing that this is just as important as the other things on our task list. (I have known people who, unable to relinquish their planners completely, schedule in time to do nothing). 

We can bring this whole, expansive nothingness into our lives in three ways: 

Do nothing during a task.

Allow yourself mini breaks between whatever it is you have to do, even if it’s just five minutes every hour. Do absolutely nothing but take 10 deep mindful breaths. If you can’t sit still, pick up your knitting for a few rows. Drink a cup of tea. Listen to your favorite song. 

Do nothing every day.

Find some time every day to just do nothing. This can be as short as 10 minutes when you first wake up in the morning, after work, or right before you go to bed. Give yourself time for you, whether it’s to ease into a new day or, at the end of the day, to let all the busyness you’ve had settle and dissipate. 

Do nothing for long(er) periods of time.

This could be taking a weekend to lie in bed, eat greasy takeout and read trashy novels, or going on a holiday. Proper periods of rest after being on the go for extended periods are so helpful for pressing that reset button, getting clarity and finding new inspiration. Let an auto-responder deal with your emails and don’t try to get updates from friends and colleagues.  

Whether it’s micro breaks or a big lush holiday, you’ll find that something magical happens in that empty space. When we’re not trying to fit ourselves into tightly constructed to-do lists and precisely divided hourly segments throughout the day, all the parts of us exhale and expand.

Instead of mentally and physically donning different hats to fulfill the multiple roles we set up for ourselves – student, employee, daughter, sister, friend, partner – we let ourselves just be. 

More importantly, as we relax into a place of doing nothing, the rigid boundaries we set up for accomplishing goals, finishing tasks and meeting people lift away.

All the different parts of ourselves reach across and connect to each other. Thoughts and events from one part of our life find their way over to other parts of our minds and inspire new thoughts, new ideas. 

As you sit and do nothing, a remnant from a conversation with a friend reminds you of a new approach to a work problem; a piece of music you’re listening to inspires you to start practicing the piano again and revive a much-loved hobby; a meditation helps you process the emotions from a nagging, difficult encounter and let it go. 

Actually, you realize, in that space of doing nothing are opportunities for an infinite number of juicy, awakened, energized, inspired somethings. 

But this won’t happen as long as we keep trying to force ourselves into perfectly planned schedules and run rings around ourselves to complete as many things as possible in a day. We need to gift ourselves space to expand and dream and float because that’s exactly where all the goodness happen.

Give yourself the treat of doing nothing this week. You might be surprised to discover that you end up accomplishing far more than you thought you would. 

Jamie Khoo is currently doing a PhD in Women’s Studies at the University of York, UK, where she is researching contemporary constructions of feminine beauty and body image. She has also written for Elle Malaysia, Huffington Post UK Blogs, Time Out Kuala Lumpur, elephant journal and the be you media group. Sick of being told by mass media and society what “beautiful” is or isn't, Jamie founded the website a beauty full mind to challenge conventional beauty ideals and create new conversations around what beauty can mean today. Say hello to her on Facebook or email hello (at) abeautyfullmind (dot) com. 

Need some extra support? Head to the Calm app and listen to our 7 Days of Calming Anxiety program, designed specifically to support you living a calmer and happier life.

3 tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving and the holidays are a time for celebrating, spending time with our loved ones and acknowledging all the good we have in our life. But they can also be the cause of a great deal of stress and anxiety - whether it’s family pressures; expectations on how the day should turn out; or even just wanting to make sure the day runs smoothly. 

Here are 3 simple tips for having a calm and stress-free Thanksgiving, so you can relax and enjoy this special time with your loved ones.

Use the S.T.O.P technique.

When you notice stress building you can use the S.T.O.P technique. S stands for stop, T stands for Take a breath, O stands for Observe and P stands for Proceed. 

By stopping, taking a breath, observing what’s going on within and then proceeding, we can get present and de-escalate our stress before it grows. 

Notice how it feels to stop and break the cycle of stressful thought. It’s important to do this especially when stress is high. 

Try this practice the next time you feel stress starting to build.

Let go of expectations.

A large part of the reason the holidays can overwhelms us is because we place high expectations on how things should be, and resist what is.

We have this idea that whatever is causing our stress shouldn’t be happening. And this resistance is a huge part of what exacerbates stress. 

Stressful things happen in life. People don’t act the way we want them to. Things may not turn out as we had planned. 

We often can’t change the external events of our life. 

But we can choose to surrender to what we can’t change rather than resist it. 

So in times when there’s nothing we can do to change our circumstances; in times we feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed; the most kind and compassionate thing we can do for ourselves is to let go of our expectations and surrender to what is.

Be present.

Pay attention to everything about the people you converse with – their body language, the emotion behind their words. Offer them your full attention and resist the urge to drift off into thought about what to say next before they’ve even finished their sentence - just listen. 

Each time you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back in a gentle, patient way.

Being fully present in the moment and paying attention through mindful listening is one of the best ways to connect and deepen relationships with your loved ones. Give it a try. 

Need some extra support? Head to the Calm app and listen to our 7 Days of Calming Anxiety program, designed specifically to support you living a calmer and happier life.

3 simple ways to manage stress during the work-day

Instead of unthinkingly propelling yourself straight into your busy day, a more mindful start will help you feel better equipped to deal with the stressors that arise at work and home.

This simple body-scan practice is a great way to start your day. It allows you to harness the post-sleep calm of your mind, before it begins racing away.

Find a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe in a natural way. Bring your attention to your in-breath and follow it through to the end of your out-breath.

Once you feel fully relaxed, bring your attention to the top of your head and notice any sensations you feel. It might be tingling or heat.

The particular sensations aren’t important, simply notice your feelings.

Now move your attention down to your face, jaw, neck and shoulders, maintaining awareness of each body part.

Notice your arms and hands, stomach and back. Then bring your attention to your pelvis and sitting bones, your legs and feet, while breathing in a relaxed way.

Finally, take one last deep inhalation, smile softly and acknowledge your intention to bring this peace of mind into your day.

If you notice anxiety and stress rising during the day, try these simple exercises:

Slow down the breath.

When we feel anxious, we tend to take quick shallow breaths, which deepens our anxiety. To counter this, slow your breathing. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of four. Hold your breath for one to two seconds, then exhale slowly to the count of four. Repeat several times.

Question your reactiveness.

When you respond to stressful situations, ask yourself: am I jumping to conclusions Am I magnifying the situation? Is this an opportunity to better communicate my needs? Can I trust that with time this situation will be resolved?

Take a break.

If something at work is causing you stress, remove yourself from the situation to calm down, clear your mind and offer a change in perspective. Grabbing a snack, changing the room you’re in or stepping outside for some fresh air will help you to relax and recharge.

For more ideas check out our post on 20 ways to take a mindful break.

How to use a daily journal to gain clarity and calm your mind

As part of your mission to create a calmer life writing in a daily journal is a great way to quieten the chatter in your head. It can also act as a healing process, clarifying what’s occurring beneath the surface and helping you to identify concerns and challenges.

Research shows that keeping a daily journal can reduce stress, increase feelings of self-esteem and help us deal better with traumatic experiences.

More surprisingly, it can also benefit our physical experience: psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas has studied writing and immunity, and found that keeping a journal strengthened immune cells.

Writing can be a healing end to a hectic day, a great way of clearing the mind in anticipation of the new day to come.

Your journal will become a wonderful thing to have in future years too.

When we think now of the great diarists of the past from Samuel Pepys to Virginia Woolf, Alan Bennett to Tony Benn, what makes their writing so compelling is its immediacy.

When we read it, we are instantly transported back to the time and place they were writing about.

This is something you can treasure about your own writing.

To get started, we suggest you answer 3 key questions every day.

  • What made you feel calm today?

  • What are you grateful for?

  • What were three highlights of today?

Buy a notepad and keep it on your bedside table or alternatively you can record it digitally using a tool like Evernote or Day One.

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