When someone asks you how you are, is your answer often “busy” or “stressed”? If so, you might need the Dutch practice of niksen.

Niksen is being touted as the answer for those who burn the candle at both ends. It is the latest European well-being fad set to burst onto the world stage. First, the Danish gave us hygge — a sense of cosiness and comfort. Then, the Swedes brought lagom, the idea of everything in moderation. Now, it’s time to bring some niksen into our lives.

A stressful workplace can shorten our lifespan by up to a staggering 33 years

According to a Harvard and Stanford University study in the US

Niksen is the practice of doing nothing or doing something without purpose, such as staring out the window or listening to music. It sounds simple. However, for many of us who are used to ticking off lists and achieving goals, niksen can be a challenge.

The Upside of Doing Nothing

However, the benefits of niksen are worth the effort. Experts say that niksen offers long-term health benefits from stress relief and boosts creativity. People sleep better and handle stress more effectively throughout the day.

It couldn’t come at a better time, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognising burnout in mid-2019 as an “occupational phenomenon”.

The WHO stopped short of defining burnout as a medical condition. Still, it did state that burnout results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Chronic stress is all around us, and with burnout a real possibility, niksen is a coping technique that might actually help.

You could be gazing out a window, but you’re not observing your thoughts or letting them go or doing anything like that. You’re just being

Netherlands-based journalist Olga Mecking

The idea of niksen, which literally translates to something close to “nothing-ing” in Dutch, is to be intentional about doing absolutely nothing.

“You’re taking the time to sit there and not do anything on purpose,” is how Netherlands-based journalist Olga Mecking described niksen to NBS News.

“You could be gazing out a window, but you’re not observing your thoughts or letting them go or doing anything like that. You’re just being.”

The Need for Nothing

Photo: 123RF

Samantha Taylor, founder of The Nurture Project, an Australian organisation that aims to help women everywhere lead lives free from anxiety, sees the value of doing nothing in her work every day.

“Doing nothing helps us to relieve stress, and returns us to our natural state,” she says. “It is turning our back on the hyper-connectedness of our world and just being.

“The world we live in is fast becoming a perfect storm in terms of generating the preconditions for stress, and if not treated, anxiety and depression. We are more connected and switched on than ever before.”

The 2019 Cigna Well-Being Survey, for instance, found 92 per cent of working Singaporeans feeling stressed, with women finding it more challenging to manage. More women than men also feel they are in an “always-on” environment, where they are always thinking and connected to work even during after-hours.

Samantha says that leads us to put pressure on ourselves and could potentially lead to burnout, but niksen can help temper that pressure.

Doing nothing is vital as it helps us to relieve stress and returns us to our natural state

“We expect more from ourselves and everyone around us — it is: be more, do more. It’s relentless and exhausting,” Samantha says.

“Rather than racing towards some achievement or goal, we can step out of that for a period, breathe, be, and feel the stress leave our bodies.”

Not only that, but niksen could potentially be a lifesaver. “Stress is responsible for everything — from heart disease to obesity to anxiety and depression — so I think anything we can use to help in the fight against stress is a good thing,” says Samantha.

A Harvard and Stanford University study in the US found that a stressful workplace can shorten our lifespan by up to a staggering 33 years. And while we can’t control our work conditions, we can control how we respond to them.

Nothing Leads to Creativity

Doing nothing can help us be more creative, according to psychiatrist Eugenio Rothe. He wrote in a 2013 National Geographic article on daydreaming that as our minds wander, different parts of our brains activate. This allows us to access information that may have previously been dormant and inaccessible.

“This accounts for creativity, insights and wisdom, and often, the solutions to problems that the person had not considered,” he wrote. This could also explain why many of us have our best ideas in the shower or while driving. Our brains are given a chance to unwind and relax.

Nothing Means Nothing

Photo: 123RF

“Doing nothing allows our creativity to expand,” says Samantha. “It’s in those moments of doing nothing — when you allow your conscious mind to wander and your subconscious to tickle at the edges of your mind — that you come up with solutions to problems, or with great ideas.”

But don’t assume you can phone in your niksen by browsing social media or texting your friends on the couch. Complete idleness is required for niksen to truly work.

“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” Sandi Mann, a University of Central Lancashire psychologist, told The New York Times. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity [boost].”

The Challenge of Doing Nothing

All these benefits sound great, but niksen is still challenging for many of us to do — even for five minutes at a time. In this world of busy when most of us say we want to slow down, why is doing nothing so challenging?

Samantha explains that this comes across as a challenge. That is simply because we’re not used to it, and we feel like we should be doing something else.

It’s in those moments of doing nothing that you come up with solutions to problems, or with great ideas

Samantha Taylor, founder of The Nurture Project

“There’s a guilt associated with being unproductive,” she says. “We feel anxious about doing nothing because we’re not used to it. Our brains are so used to being entertained or distracted that it doesn’t feel ‘right’ to do nothing.” 

Nothing Is Easier Than You Think

Photo: 123RF

But the good news is we can train our brains relatively easily to embrace the life-affirming nature of doing nothing. What it takes is practise and consistency. “This self-care [ritual] needs to be woven into the fabric of your daily life first,” says Samantha.

And, in more good news, you can reap the benefits in whatever time you have available to you. “In terms of how long, it’s up to you really, whatever feels right,” says Samantha. “For some, it is five minutes, and for others, it could be an hour.

“If you incorporate this into your life as a daily practice, you should see results in seven to 10 days, if not sooner. However, it’s incorporating this practice for the long run that you will really see the most benefits.”

What’s important is that we’re taking time out to slow down and allow ourselves to truly relax regularly.

We can train our brains relatively easily to embrace the life-affirming nature of doing nothing

“Our society has gotten really good at a lot of things like providing for our physical needs (think food, shelter and water), but at the same time, what we have done is we have moved away from meeting a lot of our deep-seated psychological needs.

“We’re so busy, hyper-connected and stressed that we don’t have time for self-care or self-reflection. We’ve lost touch with who we really are. Most of us don’t know what our version of success looks like, or what our purpose is.

“Ironically, doing nothing helps us to know ourselves better and ends up making us more fulfilled.”

Get Started On Doing Nothing

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Samantha says getting started with niksen doesn’t need to be hard. Here are the steps that will get you relaxing before you know it:

1) Give yourself permission to do nothing. Acknowledge that this time is necessary for your well-being and self-care.

2) Start small. Try five minutes, or even two minutes, if that works better for you at the beginning.

3) Extend your time gradually by a minute or two each time you sit down for your niksen session.

4) Take note of all your thoughts and feelings that come to you and allow them to come and go without judgment.

5) Schedule your sessions for the same time each day, so they become a habit for your mind and your body.

Text: / Additional reporting: Cherrie Lim