Prescriptions for Life

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When’s the Last Time You Did Nothing? 9 Easy Ways to Relax

How to recover the lost art of doing absolutely nothing.

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Last week I was flying across the country for a television appearance and observed one of the strangest phenomena I’ve seen in a long time.

Unlike many people I absolutely love flying. I travel frequently and love the break from routine, the forced opportunity to read or work uninterrupted for hours. If a plane has Wi-Fi I ignore it, I’m proud that I have not logged on even once!

Few things make me happier than having an empty seat next to me – I lucked out on this flight, and spread out my books, healthy snacks and papers accordingly. I always ask if this is okay with the person on the other side of the empty seat; usually it’s a mild-mannered businessman who has much less stuff than I do. They usually just laugh good-naturedly at the astonishing pile that emerges from my deceptively small carry-on.

On this flight the person in the window seat was a fit-looking guy who seemed quiet and kind. Not surprisingly he had no problem with the installation of my in-flight office. As I happily laboured away, alternating between reading books, chomping on snacks and preparing my content for the television appearance, I noted some strange behaviors out of the corner of my eye.

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My seatmate looked out the window, a lot. He briefly turned on the seatback television, and then turned it off. And then he did the oddest thing. He would just sit in his seat, calmly staring into space, occasionally dozing off briefly. He didn’t pick up the magazine in the back of the seat pocket. He didn’t even want a drink or the complimentary cookie or pretzels. He did nothing. For over four hours.

Always fascinated by human motivation and behavior, I pondered the options. Maybe he was in mourning? Maybe he was living through a shocking life transition that had rendered him incapable of anything but profound reflection?

As I mentioned in a previous post, A Little Weird? Prone to Depression? Blame Your Creative Brain, I have an uncontrollable, embarrassing habit of spontaneously interviewing people I find fascinating. After the four hour mark, I couldn’t hold back anymore – I leaned over my pile of stuff on the middle seat and said “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Not at all,” he said, smiling gently.

“Er, I can’t help but notice that you’ve been sitting here for hours without even watching TV or reading a book or magazine, aren’t you bored?”

He shrugged. “Not really.”

“I’m sorry to be so fascinated by this,” I continued “but I blog for Psychology Today and I find people so interesting. Most people have to be entertained constantly, yet you are so incredibly relaxed and content doing nothing - I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Perhaps not the wisest thing to say on my part, as now he looked faintly alarmed and perhaps even the slightest bit offended.

I rushed to reassure him that I wasn’t in any way being critical or implying that he was strange. “Far from it,” I said, “I think so many people would be so much better off being like you, everyone’s so stressed and busy all the time, nobody knows how to relax anymore. I think you’re amazing!”

“I’m just a pretty mellow guy, I guess,” he told me.

We chatted a little more and he was truly baffled by my fascination with his way of being and his behavior. It wasn’t as if he’d taken some kind of “mindfulness” course that taught him how to be this way. He wasn’t consciously using the flight as a respite from his crazy life. This was just how he was. You should have seen how clear and untroubled his eyes and skin were, he looked incredibly healthy and I’ve no doubt that a big part of that vitality came from his amazingly relaxed approach to life.

Could you sit on a plane (or anywhere) for over four hours and do absolutely nothing, without getting the least uncomfortable?

Many of the coaching clients I work with have “Relax More” or “Minimize Stress” or “Learn to Chill Out and Enjoy Life More” as a significant goal that we work on together.

One particular client comes to mind here – she had such an incredibly difficult time relaxing on weekends that we had to actually make a schedule for her to be able to do “nothing”. E.g. “10 am: Go for leisurely walk with dog in nearby park; 11 am: Go to a bookstore and browse the titles casually, buy a fiction book that you’d really like to read; 12 pm: Enjoy leisurely lunch; 1 pm – 3 pm: Lie on couch and read fiction book.”

As you can see, this wasn’t truly doing “nothing”, but for her the plan was a massively radical shift. Initially at least, if she didn’t have a clear and regimented plan for relaxing and enjoying her weekend, she would end up turning on her laptop and getting sucked in to doing work, because she didn’t know how to unwind and just enjoy being.

If I had told her to just sit and do nothing for three hours, like my plane companion, there’s no way she could have.

I hear it from people all the time: “Whenever I try to relax, I get anxious. I feel like there’s something I should be doing. I feel guilty. I don’t enjoy myself.” On and on it goes. Isn’t it sad that so many of us have come to this?

I used to feel like this too. So did my grandma – she was famous for always doing and fussing from morning to bedtime, she never stopped.

Does this sound familiar to you?

How can you re-cultivate the lost art of doing nothing? If you suffer the same “busy-ness withdrawal symptoms” when you try to stop, here are some suggestions (please note that all include the basic expectation that your smartphone is turned off and out of view):

1) Go out in a park or some other natural setting and just sit on a bench and be.

2) Go to a cafe alone without anything to read or do; order a cup of coffee or tea and sip it slowly, for as long as you can.

3) Put on soft music and lie on your couch to listen to it (sit upright if you tend to fall asleep! Napping is highly relaxing but doesn’t meet the goals of this exercise).

4) Go for a long aimless walk alone, stopping to sit and relax whenever you see an appealing bench.

5) Sit and watch an entire sunset or sunrise.

6) Go to a body of water (ocean, river, lake, whatever’s closest) and relax beside it, watching water and boats go by.

7) Lie on a patch of grass on a nice day and watch the clouds go by overhead.

8) Put a comfy chair by a window in your home and just sit and gaze out, watching the goings-on in the world outside. (Just like a cat! Possibly the most relaxed animal on earth…)

9) (Inspired by you-know-who) Don’t bring along a thing to read, watch or do the next time you take a plane, bus, subway or train ride.

Don’t be alarmed if you hate it at first, if everything inside you screams “DO SOMETHING CONSTRUCTIVE ALREADY!” The more you need to do nothing, the more your psyche will rail against it at first.

If you stay strong and stick with it, you may even find that amazing revelations about yourself and your life start to bubble up. Even if they don’t, you’ll be amazed at how unusually good and peaceful you eventually feel.

You still won’t probably ever find me on a plane doing nothing, so don’t bug me if you ever catch me watching a movie and working on my laptop at the same time. I manage to get sufficient nothing time in, in the other ways I recommended, okay?

Do you struggle with doing nothing or relaxing? What’s your experience? Have you found ways to relax that you could add to this list? Would love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, media health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—contact susan@susanbiali.com or visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.

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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2012

Susan Biali, M.D., researches health and happiness. She is also a professional flamenco dancer and author.

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