Doing nothing is good for you – here's the science of why

Written by Ellen Scott

No plans this weekend? Brilliant. These experts say you should fill your time with absolutely nothing. 

Do you feel guilty, or like you’ve failed, if you end up doing absolutely nothing over the weekend? You’re certainly not alone. In the midst of a hustle culture where productivity rules, doing zilch is cast as a waste of time. 

But here’s the truth: doing nothing is good for you. It’s certainly of value. In fact, it’s absolutely essential. 

Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott are the authors of The Creative Thinking Handbook. They reckon that doing nothing can actually be productive – you just need to reframe it. 

“When you have a to-do list as long as your arm and a million errands to run, the productive power of doing nothing probably sounds like a lovely, slightly unhinged fantasy,” Griffiths and Medlicott tell Stylist. “It’s true that doing nothing alone won’t help you get more things done, but when you use the power of doing nothing correctly, it can actually increase your productivity and boost your energy so you can better tackle a heavy workload.”

The key to the power of doing nothing is… actually doing nothing. Not scrolling TikTok. Not watching The White Lotus. Not half doing email admin, half beating yourself up in your mind. 

You need to be doing “just plain old nothing”, say Griffiths and Medlicott. “Or at the very least, almost nothing: a mundane, repetitive task that is neither entertaining nor demanding of your attention.”

Why? It’s all down to what doing nothing does to your brain, which is enable it to completely relax and rest. Once your brain is in that space, it can go on to be more creative and energised, as well as allowing you to better solve problems. Let’s break down the science.

Griffiths and Medlicott explain: “Our brains are incredibly complex machines, and depending on what you’re doing, different parts fire up. For a long time, scientists assumed that our brains were most active when we were doing focused work. You can see the logic behind this. When you’re concentrating, you’re surely using more brain power, right? Well, it turns out that’s not quite the case.

“Research from the University of British Columbia found that when we concentrate our brains operate more like spotlights than light bulbs. With our attention on just one thing, our brain’s usage narrows in order to give full energy to the task at hand. What’s even more interesting is what happens when we kick back and let the mind wander.

“Where once scientists had believed that it was just the brain’s basic ‘default network’ that was engaged when we went into daydreaming mode, we now know that it actually causes large parts of the brain to light up – including the brain’s executive network (the part associated with complex problem solving and ideation).

“While this can all sound quite technical in theory, you’ve more than likely experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Have you ever had an idea strike you in the middle of the night, or stumbled upon the perfect solution to a problem while on the drive to work? If it often seems that our best ideas appear when we’re thinking about something else entirely, that’s because it truly is the case. One study even found that 72% of people report experiencing interesting new ideas while taking a shower.

“By taking time away from work to do nothing, you’re actually increasing the time your brain spends unpicking problems and making crucial connections. Thus allowing you to tackle your work with fresh creative verve.”

The power of doing nothing isn’t just in giving yourself space for ideas to strike, however. It’s in being able to actually rest and recharge. 

Griffiths and Medlicott note: “You wouldn’t expect your laptop or phone to keep running without plugging it into charge now and then, so why do you expect endless productivity from your brain?

“Countless studies have shown that regular breaks help to prevent stress and overwhelm. When we have a lot to do, spending time doing nothing sounds counterintuitive, but by avoiding breaks you only cause the depletion of your energy reserves to happen even faster.

“In our techy world, many of us are tempted to spend our breaks away from work still plugged in and logged on – whether answering messages or checking social media – but while these things may feel like they require less energy, they don’t have the same rejuvenating power of truly doing nothing.”

You can’t do nothing all the time – it’d get pretty boring, pretty quickly. But carving out small windows where you can just sit down, ditch your screens, and let yourself be is good for you, good for your brain, and good for making you more productive in the long run. No more feeling guilty for a weekend spent doing nothing – it’s vital.

Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott are the authors of The Creative Thinking Handbook. Chris is also a keynote speaker, and founder of productivity and mind mapping app, ayoa.com

Images: Getty

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