Why is Doing Nothing so Hard?

Short Answer: False ego (inflated concept of self worth) and thus rat race and pressure to perform and meet expectations to get approval from the society and have a false sense of achievement.

Long Answer:

Before delving deep into the fantastic as well as innovative idea of doing nothing, it would prove insightful to read the story of Alexander the great and Diogenes.

According to Wikipedia, Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. He succeeded his father Philip II to the throne in 336 BC at the age of 20, and spent most of his ruling years conducting a lengthy military campaign throughout Western Asia and Egypt. Diogenes of Sinope (l. c. 404–323 BCE and also known as the Diogenes the Cynic) was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy who was best known for holding a lantern (or candle) to the faces of the citizens of Athens claiming he was searching for an honest man.

While Alexander the great was one of history’s greatest military minds who had established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen (and had eventually conquered the entire Greek world as well as North Africa and the Middle East and died at the age of just 32 in 323 B.C.), Diogenes was a strangely and idle man. Diogenes believed that no man needed much, and so he did not live in a house but slept in a barrel, which he rolled about from place to place. He spent his days sitting in the sun and saying wise things to those who were around him.

According to some popular versions of the story, Alexander as a student of ancient philosopher and scientist Aristotle, had a great respect for wise men like Diogenes, so he decided to meet the philosopher for himself. He traveled to Corinth, where Diogenes was living at the time. He found Diogenes outside the town lying on the ground by his barrel. He was enjoying the sun. When he saw the king he sat up and looked at Alexander. Alexander greeted him (instead of Alexander being greeted by Diogenes) and said:

‘“Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about you. Is there anything I can do for you?" Based on the accounts of Plutarch, the two men exchanged only a few words.

“Yes,” said Diogenes, “you can step aside a little so as not to keep the sunshine from me.”

The king was very much surprised. But this answer did not make him angry. He turned to his officers with the following words:

“Say what you like, but if I were not Alexander, I should like to be Diogenes.”’

However, Alexander could have said (or meant) that “If I had no inflated ego, I would have become Diogenes.”

But as Diogenes, being an ascetic philosopher, had great insights and thus maintained that all the artificial growths of society were incompatible with happiness and that morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature, it is very difficult for an ordinary mortal, especially one living in this age of rat race to reject the insidious pressure of society and face the risk of looking unproductive.

Thus it would be wise to know that contrary to common perceptions it is being too busy that can be counter productive and not the vice versa.

And although, some studies show that keeping busy helps with various conditions such as depression, anxiety, and recovery from addiction, but other studies indicate that being overly busy and exhausted may lead to an increase in stress and/or decreased self-esteem. This may trigger more serious mental health problems.

For overly busy mind, Rachelle Williams, a Vedic educator, has used the analogy of a washing machine that is crammed with too many clothes. Thus as she puts it, “not much actual washing takes place because there is not enough space to move and churn. This same concept applies to life in general; you can use a little more space to help connect to the pulse of life and enjoy the pleasures it has to offer, no matter how small.”

Research indicates that an individual’s perceived level of busyness (Alexander the great epitomizing the highest level as he would mostly remain busy fighting the battles and conquering and founding dozens of cities) may be heavily connected to their self-worth, as well as how others view their status. Thus individuals who are (overly) busy at work, are overworked, and have a real lack of leisure time are perceived as higher status. In this context, the idea of spending time relaxing and doing nothing (like Diogenes) is uncomfortable.

But the important point is that doing nothing is not just the absence of some activity, but a skill or an art that needs regular practice to recharge your mind, body, and soul. It has also been acknowledged by some psychologists that our brains are at their most innovative when they are resting. Thus it is not useless to make time for quiet reflection.

Example of Newton also supports the above notion. Isaac Newton was sitting quiet and alone under the apple tree (in the autumn of 1665, after his alma mater Trinity College at Cambridge had been closed for two years due to great plague and he had returned to his paternal home at Woolsthorpe) thinking about the Universe instead of pretending to be busy or doing something useful to feed his family when an apple fell on his head, and he suddenly thought of the Universal Law of Gravitation.

Moreover, according to psychologists, daydreaming is also a useful tool to access memories, emotions, and random bits of stored knowledge that can enable you to have a new perspective on a problem or link two previously disjointed thoughts to come up with an original idea.

However, being busy and having hectic schedule has become a new normal in today’s societies where taking part in a rat race and thus prioritizing hyper-productivity makes the notion of doing nothing seem unproductive, inefficient, unacceptable and even absurd of ridiculous. If there is time left unfilled during the day, there is an urge to fill it with something such as using our smartphones and other devices instead of daydreaming, meditation or just relaxing. As a result mental health problems are on the rise, especially in big cities where, in addition to active busyness, there is a passive busyness like being stuck in endless traffic jams and long queues at supermarkets etc. This leads to the problems such as depression, anxiety for a prolonged period of time and schizophrenia, That is why more and more people are turning towards Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga to find the relief from everyday pressures of life.

But, again in the words of Rachelle Williams, Initially, trying to sit down and relax can be overwhelming — like opening the floodgates. Your nervous system may have been over-stimulated for so long that it might have a hard time recalibrating and adjusting to this newfound lack of activity.

Some years ago, both the US Department of Homeland Security and the UK Department of Transport issued instructions that Passengers flying from certain areas of North Africa and the Middle East can no longer carry electronics larger than a smartphone on flights. However, Royal Jordanian airlines stole the show by offering travellers “12 things to do on a 12-hour flight with no tablet or laptop.” Number 11 was “analyse the meaning of life.”

According to Nielsen ( an American information, data and market measurement firm), Americans spend 10.5 hours a day consuming media. And UK residents are close behind at almost 10 hours a day, according to eMarketer. (Credit: Getty Images)

In the end I would like to share a very interesting story with my readers that will epitomize the whole idea of doing nothing or importance of relaxation:

“One day a fisherman was lying on a beautiful beach, with his fishing pole propped up in the sand and his solitary line cast out into the sparkling blue surf. He was enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and the prospect of catching a fish.

image credit: https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=story+of+a+fisherman+and+th+businessman+images

About that time, a businessman came walking down the beach, trying to relieve some of the stress of his workday. He noticed the fisherman sitting on the beach and decided to find out why this fisherman was fishing instead of working harder to make a living for himself and his family. “You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman.

“You should be working rather than lying on the beach!”

The fisherman looked up at the businessman, smiled and replied, “And what will my reward be?”

“Well, you can get bigger nets and catch more fish!” was the businessman’s answer. “And then what will my reward be?” asked the fisherman, still smiling. The businessman replied, “You will make money and you’ll be able to buy a boat, which will then result in larger catches of fish!”

“And then what will my reward be?” asked the fisherman again.

The businessman was beginning to get a little irritated with the fisherman’s questions. “You can buy a bigger boat, and hire some people to work for you!” he said.

“And then what will my reward be?” repeated the fisherman.

The businessman was getting angry. “Don’t you understand? You can build up a fleet of fishing boats, sail all over the world, and let all your employees catch fish for you!”

Once again the fisherman asked, “And then what will my reward be?”

The businessman was red with rage and shouted at the fisherman, “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you will never have to work for your living again! You can spend all the rest of your days sitting on this beach, looking at the sunset. You won’t have a care in the world!”

The fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

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References:

i) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sparkles-Wisdom-glow-your-heart-ebook/dp/B0B3JTMGY2

ii) https://www.worldhistory.org/Diogenes_of_Sinope/

iii) https://de.du.lv/angluvaloda/ang1/node21.html

iv) https://www.britannica.com/question/Who-were-Aristotles-teachers-and-students

v) https://chopra.com/articles/the-importance-of-doing-nothing-art-of-relaxation

vi) https://www.verywellmind.com/how-the-glorification-of-busyness-impacts-our-well-being-4175360

vii) https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170414-why-idle-moments-are-crucial-for-creativity

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Aizaz Baqir

I am a freelance writer and translator based in Multan, Pakistan having interests in reading, writing, travelling and social services.