I used to feel productive — or unproductive — all the time. Those were almost the only two things I felt at all. Productive meant good. Unproductive was very bad.
Until the early months of the pandemic. Suddenly, I was sitting still, and I couldn’t do much because I wasn’t supposed to. I was working from home, but when I was done, I just sat there (I’m single and don’t have kids). No matter how many Zoom calls I had with family and friends, there was more time … for nothing. Because of that, all of the real feelings I’d stuffed into boxes for years came flooding out. Grief, loneliness, fear, and weird spikes of happiness. There were new feelings related to the pandemic — like guilt, for having food, work, and shelter.
My therapist said all this new feeling was healthy, and as an advice columnist, I knew she was right.
Nothing was very good for me. Weirdly, it made me better at doing something later.
That’s why when I saw two self-help books — published in the last year — about niksen — the Dutch wellness practice of doing nothing — I grabbed them. I wanted more nothing in my life, but I wanted to do it correctly. We’re supposed to do nothing to be healthy, niksen supporters say. It’s not being lazy, it’s just … being.
Olga Mecking’s “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing” was released in January as a response to her 2019 New York Times article about the practice, which went viral. In the book, Mecking, who was born in Poland and lives in the Netherlands, writes of her article, “It became very clear that I had hit a nerve. The whole world wanted to know about niksen. Media from around the globe were sending me emails and interview requests. Literary agents and publishers were asking to represent me. I was ready to dismiss it as much ado about nothing (literally), but there was something about niksen that seemed to appeal to people everywhere.”
People were doing too much and didn’t know how to stop. Even when they had time away from responsibilities, the act of mindfulness — another wellness concept — felt like doing something.
She writes, “I had people near and far asking me for advice on how to find more niksen time. ‘I don’t know,’ I would say, ‘sit down for five minutes, and just do it!’ That wasn’t very helpful, I’m afraid. Doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. ‘Just do it’ bypasses important questions. Why can’t we do nothing? Why is it so hard?”
Mecking struggles to define what it means to do nothing. Much of her book is about why we do everything but. She delves into wellness trends and the influence of technology. She considers why we’re so busy — including how public policy and government affects what we carry in our brains all day. In a chapter about why Dutch women might be happier, she writes, “Dutch women rarely experience the burdens felt by women in other countries who are required to take care of not just their children but also their aging parents. Most Dutch people will agree that caring for children is the parents’ responsibility but caring for the elderly is a job for the government. State-run homes for the elderly are a fact of life and accessible for all.”
As far as a how-to goes, I got a surprising amount of guidance from another book, Dutch journalist’s Maartje Willems’ March 16 release, “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing: How the Dutch Unwind with Niksen.” It looks more like a coffee table gift book, partly because of the lovely illustrations by Lona Aalders. Some pages are just quotes from famous people. But there are questions to answer and exercises to try. One page offers a pretty illustration, just to look at. I focused on the tiny pictures of bees. A later page suggests switching your phone to airplane mode. Yes, easier said than done.
There’s also a running theme about time (Mecking writes about time, too) — that maybe niksen happens when the clock is irrelevant. It’s not like meditation, something you might schedule to do for 15 minutes or an hour. How can you do nothing if you’re on a clock?
The more I read Mecking’s and Willems’s separate interrogations of how we got so scheduled, and how we can make space, the more I figured out how I achieve “nothing,” and how, for me, it involves some spontaneity. You can’t always plan for it, and that’s sort of the point.
Sure, I might try for some good niksen on a wandering walk around my neighborhood, sometimes noticing a bird. But then birds make me think of my colleague and friend Ty Burr who loves birds, and then I think about how I miss my friends and I should call them (hey, Ty). Then I’m back to the to-do list. It’s no longer nothing.
Mecking argues that Netflix and TV are not nothing. But I disagree.
These books made me realize I’m in a deep state of niksen — real nothing — when I watch “Castle” with my friend Lilly.
Yes, I mean “Castle,” the procedural crime show that ran from 2009 to 2016, the one that’s “Bones” meets “Murder She Wrote.” Lilly and I watch and talk about the show on an app from our two homes. Sometimes we just grunt approval when the detectives solve a crime. It’s not that I’m not thinking about anything while we watch, but I’ll be honest, my head is mostly empty. A crime discovered, a crime solved. Characters evolve, but in no way do they make me think about my own life. I rarely notice the clock. I’m not even watching it to be part of a cultural conversation; the show had its finale years ago.
I would have thought of it as gluttonous behavior, but now, partly because of therapy and these books, I don’t.
The experience just is. It is not productive, but it feels serene. I no longer find it strange that after a night of Castle-niksen, I wake up ready to do. To be a good person in the world. To feel. To be happy.
Meredith Goldstein and Christina Tucker are delving into self-help books once a month. Tell them about self-help books you like – and how you practice niksen – at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.