Burnout Culture & the Importance of Doing Nothing

Words: Robyn Samuels

The Californian grizzly bear hibernates each year during autumn for 3-7 months. Unlike other bears, grizzlies don’t experience the typical deep sleep associated with hibernation periods. Instead, they enter a lighter state of torpor, while remaining vigilant and conserving energy. The average human, on the other hand, approximately works 260 out of 365 days and is overstimulated or overwhelmed for most of the year.

The thought of doing nothing feels wrong, mostly because many of us have attached our self-worth to our work.

Frankly, we could probably learn a thing or two from the grizzly bear, especially since this time of year is when we’re likely to experience end-of-year fatigue and burnout. If you can relate, then you’re probably a workaholic – coping mechanisms may include ‘thriving on chaos’ and ‘working well under pressure’. Anything to normalise our mind-numbing obsession with productivity, right?

Doing Nothing Is Everything

We’ve officially entered the land of delusion, where time is money and success is the highway to happiness. It’s all rather depressing and honestly, exhausting.

Before we can relax, we first need to do x, y and z; something more urgent always pops up on the agenda. We feel guilty for taking sick leave or any leave at all, even when we’re out of energy and running on ‘E’ (empty). But, there’s a reason why we are drunk on productivity.

‘Technology, social media and artificial intelligence have made our lives more convenient, but have they improved our quality of life?’

Like any ‘addiction’, productivity results in instant gratification, it feeds our confidence and makes us feel good. Every time we complete a task, we get a hit of dopamine; and with hundreds of project management apps, we’ve almost gamified the experience. When we clock out of work, we breathe a sigh of relief, only to preoccupy ourselves with meaningless tasks that distract us from doing the real work. It’s much easier to focus on external stimuli instead of making time for ourselves – AKA ‘doing nothing’.

During unconscious thought, our brains do some of the most important work. According to research: “unconscious mental processes have been shown to facilitate goal-directed behavior, memory consolidation, creativity and insight and decision making.” The only problem is that we don’t value downtime enough.

Work & Self-worth – There’s a Difference

Humans weren’t built to sit in front of computer screens for the majority of the day. Technology, social media and artificial intelligence have undoubtedly made our lives more convenient, but have they improved our quality of life?

In those often rare and quiet moments, we still struggle to recognise downtime for what it is. Part of our inability to bask in idleness is how we define ‘doing nothing’. Numerically, nothing has no value attached. It’s not measured by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), nor is it the equivalent of twiddling your thumbs – that’s procrastination. But the thought of doing nothing feels wrong, mostly because many of us have attached our self-worth to our work.

For those who work overtime, have demanding jobs, or are passionate about what they do, setting boundaries and unplugging from work can be a harbinger of guilt. At the same time, the more we’re tapped into work and our devices, the harder it is to connect with ourselves and the people around us. It’s that same yearning for connection that’s created a trillion-dollar wellness market.

The Benefits of Sensory Deprivation

Sensory deprivation pods have become increasingly popular. Once considered an alternative medicine practice, Flotation-REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) has entered the mainstream world of wellness, along with other restorative experiences.

The pods, which are filled with saline solution, are completely soundproof and lightproof, thus blocking out any external stimuli and creating a peaceful abyss. Sensory deprivation can reduce stress and anxiety, while increasing focus and creativity; participants also reportedly experience altered states of consciousness.

Locally, Sterrekopje, a ‘healing farm’ located in Franschhoek, provides an escape for city dwellers to reconnect with nature and explore the art of play. Visitors can participate in frequency and flow soundscape experiences, hypnotherapy, sacred sleep rituals and more – all guided by a team of holistic practitioners.

Darkness retreats have also caught the attention of celebrities and those seeking respite from life’s distractions. Sky Cave Retreats, a wellness oasis based in South Oregon, invites people to immersive experiences during which they are isolated in a 300-square-foot (~27m2) cabin and subjected to obsidian-black darkness for approximately three to four days. For many, the experience brings enlightenment and quite literally forces participants to sit with their innermost thoughts. Once reintroduced to the light, intense emotion and heightened sensitivity are often experienced, followed by a sense of connectedness.

But what if you can’t afford to sit in a tiny dark room for $250 a night?

How Doing Nothing Can Bring Mental Clarity

Carving out more time to do nothing can offer similar benefits. Doing nothing doesn’t mean avoiding life’s responsibilities; at its core, it means slowing down and allowing the mind to relax. There are simpler and inexpensive ways to explore the benefits of idleness:

  • Rest is the most obvious way to recharge. This is especially important if you struggle to sleep; 7-8 hours is crucial for maintaining homeostasis.
  • Less screen time: the blue light emitted from our screens makes it difficult for our brains to sleep and restart in the morning. Try avoiding screen time an hour before bedtime.
  • Simple acts like showering or washing the dishes are when we do some of our most valuable thinking. Focusing on one task at a time invites mental clarity.
  • Time spent in nature: besides offering exercise, walking or some form of activity in a nature setting allows people to reflect and might improve our relationship with others.
  • If you function better with to-do lists, allocate time in your planner to actively commit to doing nothing. It’s not easy, but it’ll be worth it.
  • Independent or ambitious people often feel the need to do it all, but that’s not always feasible. Try to accept help where you can to make time for the things you need.

At its very best, idleness offers us a fresh perspective. Author A.A. Milne said it best, “doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”

Discover how to honour your inner child and find a hobby as an adult. 

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