Doing Nothing (When There’s Nothing To Do)

Remember the Saturdays of our childhoods, when hours were forever, and the day was interminable? When our young worlds turned so slowly that super cool ideas for the day became passé by lunch, leaving us facing a void of unexpected idleness?

What did we do with all that extra time? We probably spent it trying to think of something to do. And failing at that, we either plopped down to watch lazy summer clouds, or we happily supervised convoys of ants clearing their little tunnels. Essentially, we did nothing.

As we grew into adults, however, things changed. We were expected to spend the largest amount of our time doing something. If we risked just sitting there, we could have lost employment, or become known as lollygaggers, or been accused of vagrancy. So we were compelled to keep up at least the appearance of being busy. Some of us might have even relished the admiration incurred by being the one who, as “the busiest person we knew”, was “the person to ask if we wanted something done”.

Now advancing age is gifting us with weeks full of Saturdays. Communities and families make fewer demands on us, our personal needs are simpler to satisfy, and we hesitate to start anything long lasting like adopting puppies. Our futures are shorter, but time has obligingly slowed back down, requiring us to reintroduce ourselves to it.

“Shouldn’t I be doing something constructive?”

“Isn’t sleeping late unhealthy?”

“Why do I feel guilty about just sitting here?”

These are common vexations of a mind no longer having to go full throttle: a mind which can still be quite content contemplating clouds and ants. A mind which has earned the right to sometimes be joyfully still.

But what if we are capable of maintaining the tempo of our youth while believing that idleness is the devil’s workshop? Then, by all means, keep the throttle open. If, however, the prospect of idleness someday begins to tempt us, let’s not hesitate to yield to it. With remorseless grace we can reject well-meaning offers of busyness, politely silence tenacious cajolers, and ignore the nagging of our arrogant consciences. We may still be dynamos, but we should realize that the faster we spin, the harder it will be for us to slow down when we choose. Achieving stillness is an art that requires time, patience, and confidence in the promise of more Saturdays to come.

When we were children, periodic moments of doing nothing were normal and welcome. Some adults even praised those times as growth spurts. Unfortunately, if we sit still nowadays for too long, some concerned passerby will inevitably question our mental or physical health.* Maybe we should wear a sign that reads, “Don’t bury me yet. I’m just having a growth spurt.”

So how do we do nothing? Well, think of it as fishing alone with no bait. No exertion, no expectations, no effort, no guilt. Even better: no pole.

When an opportunity calls for doing nothing, settle in, breathe deep, and live in the moment. Like meditation or prayer, doing nothing is a conscious decision to enjoy stillness for a bit. Think of it as withdrawing dividends from years of investment of our precious time. Dividends that are not meant for sharing but for freely spending on ourselves.

Such opportunities are numerous, like waiting for doctor appointments, taking long road trips, living with a disability, or simply running out of something to occupy us when projects are complete. Unfortunately, rather than reveling in tranquility, we too often search for ways to avoid it, like turning on a television or starting a new book. We enlist activities designed to mask stillness, as if serenity is a character flaw that must be hidden. As if, by doing nothing, we will expose our true slothful nature.

Accomplishment is a basic human drive, which is why we have achieved so much during our mere 200,000 years of walking upright. The drive to accomplish is why we are so averse to doing nothing. Interestingly though, doing nothing is similar to sleep, which we often long for and cherish. We say that doing nothing is boring, but sleep is delightful. Doing nothing is a waste of time, but sleep is productive. Doing nothing makes us look lazy, but sleep makes us look adorable. It’s a distinction without a difference.

So let’s embrace those rare moments. They reflect snippets of our past interrupted by submission to ringing phones, crying babies, buzzing alarm clocks, demanding bosses, tax collectors, solicitors, and needy relations. It’s payback time, and those depleted minutes are now coupons that are ours to redeem.

Let’s take comfort in periodically doing nothing, and doing so with the conviction of one who has earned every blessed minute.



Dan Roberts

*If moments of stillness evolve into hours or days of inactivity or a compulsion to sleep obsessively, that could be a sign of clinical depression, a condition needing professional attention. More information can be found at