The Importance of Being Purposefully Purposeless

Add “nothing” to this week's to-do list.

Saturday to-do list: Training session. Brunch. Clean apartment. Work on freelance project. Buy present for John’s birthday. Attend said birthday…

Sound familiar? If so, you, like many of us, are a chronic producer. Being perpetually productive appears on the surface to be a positive quality—you are always in “on” mode, constantly working towards and completing tasks. You fall into bed at the end of the night mentally checking off all of the things you accomplished.

And you’re not alone in rating the day’s success based on what you did. But what you didn’t do, is an often overlooked—and important—piece of the puzzle.

There’s no sign of the hour you wandered through the park or got sidetracked in the bookstore and ended up on the floor in a corner flipping through exotic travel magazines anywhere in your completed to-do list. If anything, they are categorized at the end of the day as time wasted.

What’s lost in that perspective is the value in leisure—engaging in activity for the sake of engaging and not as a means to an end goal—and the self-reflection it allows us.

It’s not hard to understand why our gut reaction to doing nothing is opposition: with so much on our plates, it’s not surprising that the things we do “just for enjoyment” are demoted. But the stress of constantly being in “on” mode can weigh on our health.

“Some [people] are so caught up in the ‘rat race’, with little to no time dedicated to relaxing and chilling out,” said Nakya Reeves, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Creative Solutions Therapy. “For young adults who are planning for their futures, it can seem important for them to be involved in as much as possible, but they should be careful. Overexerting can cause higher levels of anxiety and this can be counterproductive.”

A study published in Psychology and Health led by Dr. Matthew Zawadzki, found that rumination, or the stress within a person’s mind, can have adverse affects on our health.

The antidote? Leisure time. These activities, when mentally engaging, break the cycle of rumination and worry, allowing the person to recharge before tackling the sources of their stress.

“Making time in our schedule for nothing is crucial to sustain a busy schedule,” said Kali Rogers, Founder, CEO and coach at Blush Online Life Coaching. “If we don’t take time to rest our bodies and our minds, we will eventually burnout. We’ll either quit a project prematurely out of exhaustion, decrease our efficiency during our work hours, or start resisting productivity out of lack of rest.”

Another recent study lead by Zawadzki and published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed that leisure had a consistent benefit on a person’s daily health and well-being: when individuals engaged in leisure, they also reported better mood, more interest, less stress, and exhibited lower heart rate than when they weren’t engaging in leisure activity.

And not only did it offer immediate stress reduction, but also improved one’s ability to cope with stress over the few hours following the activity.

When Leisure is Quantified is it Actually Being Done Leisurely?

You have tons of hobbies and participate in a handful of activities each week—so you’re good to go right? Not necessarily.

The first problem is the tendency to quantify our leisure time. Hobbies have, for many of us, become defined by productivity: exercise has been reduced to calories burned and personal records; we must finish our latest read in time to discuss it in-depth at our next book club meeting; our blog post’s success is based on the number of likes and shares it receives.

When reduced to facts and figures, are our leisure activities actually relaxing and unhurried (which is, in fact, how doing something in a leisurely fashion is defined)?

The second problem the study revealed is that the key to reaping the benefits of leisure activity is engaging in it in a way that absorbs the person’s whole attention. Those leisure activities that haven’t been reduced to a number in some way often become background noise to other tasks—we watch our favorite TV show while catching up on emails, and read a book on the train during our commute to work.

And when our leisure activities aren’t fully engaging, the health benefits don’t translate.

“Almost everyone has leisure activities,” said Zawadzki. “The intervention would be finding ways to enhance those, such as doing them in a way that absorbs the person’s attention. It’s important [people] immerse themselves in the activity and protect their leisure time from external stressors. Even watching TV or going to a movie can be effective, if you’re just focusing on the movie and having that mental escape.”

Scheduling “Nothing” Into Your Life

“Rest time should be implemented into the calendar daily; Spend at least thirty minutes a day enjoying the bliss of absolutely nothing,” said Rogers. “Try to decrease multi-tasking during this time and only focus on relaxation. It will make a big difference in your work performance and sustainability!”

Obviously, this is easier said than done—especially for those who are constantly one the go and have a hard time turning “off”. Begin by simply recognizing the potential for personal growth that comes with leisure time, and carving out some wiggle room in your day to day to explore that.

“My advice for anyone looking to add something new to their daily routine is always to tie it in to some other activity they are already practicing regularly,” said Reeves. “That way it’s easy to remember and can more seamlessly become a part of their regular life. So, for instance, add some time for ‘doing nothing’ right after lunch. Or right before starting work. If you work at home, you can do it right before or in between some work on the computer. It’s easier to remember a new activity when you begin to associate it with something you already have as part of your routine.”

Here are a few prompts to help you get comfortable with planning to do nothing:

  1. Every weekend, leave an open space in your schedule to put on a movie or TV show you’ve been meaning to check out. Shut off all other electronics and tell your roommate or significant other to leave you alone (unless they want to watch—and are making the popcorn) and let yourself be completely engaged in what you’re watching.
  2. Set aside time before breakfast to listen to music, free-write in a journal, or read a fashion magazine or tech blog (as long as you don’t work in those fields—this is leisure time).
  3. Take a walk with no clear destination in mind. Slow down your pace and silence your cell phone—no emails or business calls allowed! (Yes, this will feel extremely strange, go with it).