Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 3, 2020

New Year's resolution: do more niksen

Turning the calendar page from one year to the next used to prompt me to make New Year's resolutions. In the past, I would list several - reduce clutter, eat healthier, organize family photos, walk more, and so on. I was successful achieving some, but usually broke others.

This year, my resolution is to do more niksen!

I had never heard this Dutch word until I was reading a recent online Washington Post article, "Does happiness in your 50s signal the end of ambition?" sent by friend Bryce. That article was about how older people are more selective in what they do and whom they spend time with, preferring happiness over hassle. But embedded within that article was a link to another Washington Post piece, "The Dutch have a name for doing nothing. It's called niksen, and we need more of it."

In the article, author Emily Maloney said she quit her job in corporate middle management, where she was stressed all the time.

... work followed me everywhere: from the first email in the morning, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., until the last texts late into the evening. I'd put on weight and was exhausted all the time.

My experience is not unlike a lot of people's: Americans work too hard and too long, spend too little time on vacation, and our idea of self-care is exercising until we are drenched in sweat ...

Burned out from my job, I quit. I was still able to work and support myself, and soon the demands on my time were far fewer.

Still, my anxiety persisted - that nagging feeling that I should be checking email right now, the restlessness of not being able to sit and read a book. I tried therapy, meditation, yoga, "taking the day off." ... The feeling that I should be doing something all the time was interfering with my life.

So when I heard about this Dutch concept of doing nothing, or "niksen," I was willing to give it a shot. Apparently it's about as straightforward as it sounds: You can actually actively engage in doing nothing � like looking out a window for a few minutes � and not feel guilty as if it's a waste of time. Lots of studies have shown that daydreaming and letting your mind wander increases creativity.

Olga Mecking, the author of a soon-to-be-published book, "Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing," said: "... when you're waiting for the coffee machine to make your coffee, do nothing. Or when you just finished a project and don't want to move to another one, don't spend that time browsing Facebook. Instead, sit for a moment and do nothing." She also said to look for niksen-friendly hobbies, such as taking pictures of nature or birdwatching.

I do take a lot of nature photos and I love watching birds, so I'm good there.

It sounds easy enough, but for most of us, the idea of doing nothing is foreign to how we grew up. We seem to be almost wired to stay busy all the time.

Husband Art and our daughters Mariya and Katie have often said I'm "antsy." It's hard for me to sit still long enough to watch a complete television program or read a book or sit and watch our Christmas tree lights. Even now, as I'm writing this column, I keep glancing at my to-do list: clean refrigerator, put Christmas boxes and wrapping paper away, water plants, finish sending (late!) Christmas letters, do laundry and so on. I even have a notepad and pen ready and waiting for me on my bedside table so I can write down things to do if I can't sleep.

I'm not the only one who has a problem doing nothing, though. Alan Lightman, physicist, novelist, professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT, and author of "In Praise of Wasting Time," said he feels guilty if he doesn't fill up extra minutes with activities. He thinks part of our guilt about wasting time lies in our Puritanical roots. Most Puritans who colonized America in the 17th century subscribed to the idea that idleness was considered a sin. Lightman said other things influence our need to be constantly busy.

... Beyond this deeply ingrained theological imperative not to waste time is simply the fact that it�s hard to slow down in today's accelerated world. The pace of life has always been driven by the speed of communication, and human civilization has never before witnessed such an increase in that speed as in the past 30 years, with the advent of the Internet and the smartphone.

... Then there's the time-equals-money equation, imprinted on us since the Industrial Revolution and the use of time to measure labor ...

... I suggest that the psychological destruction caused by our frenzied lifestyles, while subtle and sometimes invisible, may be as catastrophic as the destruction of our physical environment by our heedless pollution and consumption.

... we need to develop a new habit of mind about our pace of life.

Researchers have long said our minds need periods of rest and contemplation for replenishment and to make sense of all the stimuli we've been exposed to during the day. In my Aug. 11, 2017 column titled "Doing Nothing", I wrote about similar concepts - that our learned constant desire for connection and access to information has come at the price of losing insight and creativity.

I've heard it takes at least 21 days to establish a habit, although studies by psychologists have shown it could be longer, depending on whether you want to drink three more glasses of water a day or run two miles a day. So it might take me awhile to accomplish my resolution of niksen.

But I'm going to give it a shot!

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Other columns from 2020 may be found at: 2020 Index.
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