Doing Nothing is Doing Something

The Undeniable Power of Doing Nothing

When two of my favourite things to do are sitting around a campfire and listening to the rain, it’s rare that I get to enjoy them at the same time. They tend to be mutually exclusive.

But on Saturday night, as a light rain fell on my umbrella, I sat in front of our small backyard campfire and did nothing at all.

No camera to document the moment.

No conversation.

No planning.

No phone to tweet or Instagram my evening.

No urgent need to rush off and be productive.

No anything.

I sat in front of that fire and listened to the rain drops hit the hot coals. I watched the smoke rise up and over our wooden fence. I felt the warm, heavy weight of our dog as he slept on my knee. I heard the distant rumble of thunder.

And it was beautiful.

But it was hard. At least to begin with.

It was hard to sit there and do nothing. More than once I thought, “I’ll just run inside and grab my phone. I can take a photo.” Unspoken were the additional tasks I would then do – check Twitter, maybe Facebook, definitely take a moment to Instagram the fire photo, possibly check a news website and see if any urgent emails had come through. (Urgent emails? Really? Who am I – the Prime Minister? Come on.)

But I did none of those things, and I was rewarded. After about 15 minutes, I noticed my brain doing two unexpected things.

First, I got really creative. Words and ideas and stories and pictures formed in my mind. I head-wrote a book chapter, I thought through two or three blog posts and I imagined a series of photographs I want to take.

My brain was unencumbered by constant input and was allowed to create output. The only stimulation was the flickering of the fire and the patter of the rain. My brain had room to be creative and I was amazed at how clear my mind felt.

The second thing that my brain did, was that it let go. I got sleepy. It was only 8:00pm and I felt properly and deliciously drowsy. My body relaxed and I felt comfortable enough to simply sit there and enjoy the feeling.

My eyes and brain are used to staring at a screen of some description in the evening. Be it the TV, while watching our current series of choice on Netflix, or my iPad, while reading a book, my brain is often exposed to the blue, flickering light of a screen at night.

Considering those blue, flickering screens actually promote wakefulness, it’s no surprise that I felt sleepy in their absence. My brain was just doing its job, after all.

So I sat by the fire for an hour or more. I soaked in the peace. I let my thoughts wander where they liked. I looked at the world around me. I noticed little things that so often go unnoticed. I ignored the need to do something, and instead, I did absolutely nothing.

In a world that values action, and results, and success, this felt like a counter-cultural thing to do.

How often, when asked what we did over the weekend, will we respond, “Oh, nothing much.” When the reality is that we cleaned the house, visited friends, took our kids to sport, grocery shopped, watched a movie, had a BBQ, bought a birthday present, cleaned out the garage, paid some bills and felt overwhelmed.

These things have to happen, they are everyday tasks – mundane, even – but they are not nothing.

Saying these tasks are nothing simultaneously makes them seem insignificant (they’re not, it’s called life) and makes you wonder why you’re so tired when you haven’t done anything (because you never actually stop).

We need to carve out a little more space in our lives for truly doing nothing.

  • Lay on the grass and stare at the sky
  • Sit on the lounge and close your eyes
  • Light a campfire and watch the flickering flames
  • Walk out the front door with no idea of where you will wander, then do it aimlessly
  • Turn off every single screen in your home and lie quietly on your bed

Let your thoughts go where they will, and resist the urge to get up and do something.

If we all embraced the need to do nothing at all, a little more every day, I wonder how different we would feel?

31 Responses to Doing Nothing is Doing Something

  1. I had a similar moment last week, and when my (adult) son asked why he hadn’t seen a picture of it yet….I explained that I was LIVING my life…not RECORDING it for others. I’m not sure he really understood.

  2. I had my second baby nearly six months ago and I love spending time just sitting quietly, whilst he sleeps in my arms. I find I can’t quite capture the moment as well this time around. Life is sometimes too busy and too loud with a three year old already running around. Any time spent in the silence of the woods is a haven. I also love being in a moment without recording it. I only check my phone briefly throughout the day, I don’t want it to consume me.

  3. I absolutely enjoyed every word of this! Beautifully written! I was just drafting a post the other day about our obsession with upward mobility and how it leads to busy, busy, busy. I couldn’t agree with you more about how less input can lead to more output. Love!

  4. My favourite do nothing/do something moment: standing at the window and watch the children in the school have their break on the school yard. The way they move in groups is beautiful and impossible to capture with any device. (Thank you for that post!)

  5. I love that after reading this post (and others of yours) I feel better about my day. So often it is the opposite–I read about something I should be doing, researching further, learning, etc. but am not, causing subtle stress that can mount up the more I read. Thank you for breathing fresh air into my day!

  6. Lately I’ve been trying to just let go & stare out the window & day dream for awhile, instead of constantly checking my twitter or facebook. I can’t imagine what life will be like for our younger generation who are constantly plugged in.

  7. Reading this made me crave a campfire! I LONG for this kind of relaxing, but it’s amazing that even when I get the chance I will choose productivity instead. Life is so much better when we “be” rather than “do”. Thank you for this, it was beautiful!

  8. Terrific insight. And the irony is that this sort of open time and mental space is especially important for writers – and then we get so caught up in the “business” of writing that we can lose room for inspiration and quiet living.

  9. Your post made me feel “there” with you…and it reminded me of how much I love sitting in front of the campfire at my favorite remote tent site overlooking Lake Superior at Tettegouche State Park in MN. My dog is either next to me or on the rug next to the tent flap (her way of telling me that “it’s bedtime already!)” Thank you for taking me to that place of memory. Thank you for reminding me that I need to make time for more of that same experience.

  10. Reading this reminded me of when I was working on my master’s thesis. I had a ridiculously tight deadline, so I was spending almost every waking hour studying. But no matter how busy I was, I would make a point of sitting outside at dusk and watch the fireflies come out as darkness fell around me. Even now, over ten years later, I still remember that sense of peace I had at those moments. I rarely have the time these days for such moments…and I wonder why I’m so stressed out. Thank you for reminding me of the need for time out.

    • Jude, I love this! Just thinking about sitting outside at dusk and watching the fireflies makes me feel relaxed. (Also, we don’t have fireflies here in Australia, so it sounds magical too!) But you’re right, we so easily fall out of the habit of making time for those simple but IMPORTANT sanity breaks, and then we wonder why we’re strung out so often. I hope you enjoyed the fireflies over the weekend! :)

  11. These words are so beautiful, so true, so needed : “If we all embraced the need to do nothing at all, a little more every day, I wonder how different we would feel?”
    Love your blog! This is one of my favourite pieces.

  12. Wow I don’t have to feel guilty ever again. Tuesday is my do nothing day and has been for the last 15 years. Yes I work but I disappear into my head on Tuesdays and it’s heaven. Thanks again

  13. I have found that when I have that feeling of “Where did my day/weekend/week go?” and I feel that I’ve done “nothing”, it is time to once again track all the things I do in a day. I pullout a spiral notebook and a pen and as I go through my day I write down everything I do. At the end of the day I have proof my brain can not refute that I have been indeed accomplishing things.