Doing nothing isn’t easy, but can be rewarding

  • Tue Jan 17th, 2012 7:12pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein, Herald columnist

Do-nothing. Do nothing.

It’s a noun: a person without ambition or initiative; idler. That’s what my dictionary says.

It’s a verb: To do nothing is, well, just what it says.

It’s an adjective: Get off the couch and mend those do-nothing ways, will ya?

It’s also a lot harder than it sounds.

On Monday, I gave it a college try. After days, weeks, months of being busy every day, I stayed home and basically did nothing.

Oh, I made meals and did dishes. I did laundry and almost finished a book. I checked email and took a walk. I watched out the window as my son and a friend used a skateboard deck, with wheels removed, as a makeshift snowboard.

Compared with my regular routine though, I did nothing. I tried neither to write nor to think of subjects to write about. I didn’t stay in touch with work. I didn’t buy anything or go anywhere, except for that solitary walk through Everett’s Grand Avenue Park.

It was a snowy day, but not a snow day. With my seventh-grader out of school for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I had planned ahead to take Monday off. Weather kept us from straying far from home.

It was both a lovely and enlightening day. In the morning, I felt nothing but freedom. As the day went on, unease set in. What should have been carefree hours started to feel — I don’t know — worrisome.

What wasn’t I getting done?

I checked Facebook a few times and emailed pictures to my father. For most of the day, I tried to stay off the computer and keep the TV off — just to see. Could I do it? I can, but not without an invisible tug that keeps pulling me toward an electronic connection.

I’m hardly the most wired person in the world. My cellphone makes calls or sends text messages, but I don’t have a data plan connecting it to the Internet. Even so, I’m feeling increasingly driven to know what’s up, all the time.

Weather wizards are testing us all this week, closing schools and turning even the most ambitious among us into snowbound house cats. Back at work Tuesday, I decided to Google “do nothing.” Up popped a website,, and a blog by Leo Babauta, an author of several books, including “Focus: A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction” and “The Power of Less.”

I just happened upon this site — by doing slightly more than nothing — and learned that Time magazine put Zen Habits at No. 35 on its list of “The 50 Best Websites of 2011.”

According to the Zen Habits site, Babauta, who has lived on Guam and in the Bay Area, started his blog to write about a transformation that began when he quit smoking in 2005. Since then he has, according to his blog, run marathons, improved his diet, written several books, organized his life, and freed himself from debt.

A section of Babauta’s site is devoted exclusively to “The Art of Doing Nothing.” As I learned on my day off, Babauta writes that doing nothing “can be overwhelming if you attempt to do too much nothing at once.”

It sounds crazy, but he’s right. A little nothing goes a long way. The author’s tip is to take it in five- to 10-minute chunks. Turn off the noise and breathe. If you get really good at what Babauta calls “the art,” he claims you’ll be able to do nothing in a waiting room or in the middle of a stressful day at work.

Doing nothing takes practice.

Look outside. It’s beautiful. Smile. If you are lucky, you have nothing to do and no place to go.

It isn’t easy, but do nothing. And enjoy it.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,