Learning the art of doing nothing

Among the purposes of this first month of the sabbatical were to sleep, relax, recover and “do nothing”. But even on holidays, we are always doing “something”: reading, birdwatching, organizing photos, strolling on the beach, snorkeling or nowadays, writing a blog. So, what do we mean by doing nothing?

We started thinking that “doing nothing” could mean doing something that one likes. But then Frank pointed out that he actually does like his job a lot (and so do I, by the way at least some parts of it).

So, maybe, “doing nothing” means not having to do something, like something that is voluntary (doing nothing) as opposed to obligatory (doing something). So, we do things, because we “want to” as opposed to because we “have to”.

This last interpretation of “doing nothing”, at least for me, resonates with not having deadlines. It is not only that at work we need to perform certain tasks and achieve certain outcomes, but that they also need to be done in time. When we “do nothing” we do not have any particular deadlines: no slides that need to be prepared for a particular class, no project application that needs to be submitted before a certain date, no grading that needs to be uploaded certain days after the course is finished.

Not having deadlines has an important implication which is that one can take time doing something. For example, I like to cook things that take time and that I wouldn’t dare to do during the academic year. Like baking bread by hand or preparing marmalades from fruit gathered directly from the tree. Or read hour after hour while swinging in the hammock. Or listen to my favorite music, singing along and dancing when nobody is watching.

The latter has an important implication that we discovered today in a funny way. Enjoying a sabbatical and “doing nothing” means also that we do not need to be efficient in everything that we do to save “time” and do as many things as possible in the day to meet the deadlines.

Two things happened today that gave rise to this insight. First, regarding the muesli that we take for breakfast and second regarding the visit of the talkative gardener.

The muesli insight: Here, in Costa Rica, we have had some difficulties finding unsweetened muesli for breakfast at a reasonable price. So, we ended up buying a large bag of unsweetened traditional corn-flakes, a bag of oats and a small bag of Granola with fruits and nuts, which we mix for breakfast. For the shake of efficiency, we were discussing mixing all three in a larger zip bag so as to have it ready for breakfast. Then we realized that we do not have any need to be efficient since it does not matter if it takes a bit longer to mix the three types of cereals in each breakfast bowl.

The talkative gardener insight: Also today, the gardener that takes care of the house where we are staying came before we had breakfast. That wouldn’t be any news except for the fact that he is a very talkative guy. We didn’t want to start eating while he was talking to us and he obviously wanted to update us with all the things that had happened in the neighborhood yesterday. I could sense that Frank was starting to get irritated. He wanted to start breakfast and the gardener wouldn’t stop talking to us. And then something changed, and I could see that he relaxed. After the gardener finally left, Frank told me that he suddenly realized that we had the entire day for ourselves and thus, we could perfectly start our breakfast later. No need to finish breakfast at 07:45 to walk the dog before going to work; No need to be efficient in the way that we wake up-shower-dress-prepare-and-eat breakfast. Just flow as the day unfolds.

The funny thing is that we realized that we are NOT trained for that. What comes “naturally” to us is to think about how to be more efficient, how to be practical, how to meet deadlines, how to arrive on time or how to keep performing at a high level.

So, part of doing nothing, at least for us, is to rewire our brain to think differently. To realize that we do not need to do anything at a particular time, in a specific order or in an efficient way.

Could this be what people mean by being in the here and now?

5 thoughts on “Learning the art of doing nothing

  1. I think it is living in the here and now! Being there with the gardener and not thinking about breakfast but just being present with him and hearing him out – that is mindfulness.
    Miss you both!


  2. No, it’s not living in the here and now; but it will bring you closer. Read up on mindfulness if you want to understand it better.


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