COPE CopeLine Supervisor

July 2019

Your Wellness & Work-Life Newsletter

Doing Nothing is Something

The Dutch call it Niksen. Niksen means doing nothing or, more specifically, "doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music." Why is this a topic worthy of discussion? Because study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or mentally depleted during the workday drastically reduces performance and productivity.

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disabling as rickets," essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. "The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration---it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

The Empirical Evidence

In the mid 1990s, neurologist Marcus Raichle and his colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis demonstrated that the human brain is an energy glutton, demanding 20 percent of all the energy the body produces but requiring only 5 to 10 percent more energy when solving a calculus problem or reading a book. Raichle also noticed that a particular set of brain regions consistently became less active when someone concentrated on a mental challenge, but began to fire simultaneously when someone was simply lying about letting their thoughts wander. Eventually this mysterious mental phenomenon that coincided with daydreaming became known as the default mode network (DMN). In the last half dozen years researchers have discovered that the DMN is just one of at least five different resting-state networks---along with circuits for vision, hearing, movement, attention and memory.

The researchers also determined that downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, and to address fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives. We replay conversations we had earlier in the day, rewriting our verbal mistakes as a way of learning to avoid them in the future. We craft fictional dialogue to practice standing up to someone who intimidates us or shuffle through neglected mental post-it notes listing half-finished projects. We mull over the aspects of our lives with which we are most dissatisfied, searching for solutions. In other words, idleness makes us more creative, more efficient at integrating and memorizing accumulated information, and better at problem solving.

Put Your Mind at Rest.

Here are a few simple tips for making idleness work for you:
• Figure out when you are productive, then notice when your mind begins to shut down---for example, if you start to perform tasks just for the sake of doing them. That's a signal to take a break.
• Resist the need to stay busy. If you begin to feel restless or guilty about your niksen, remember that taking a break is critical to your mental health.
• Reorganize your surroundings if necessary. Make your physical space conducive to down-time by keeping electronic devices out of reach and orienting a comfortable piece of furniture around a window or fireplace.

Source: Scientific American

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