“This isn’t getting the work of the world done,” my mother would announce to no one in particular whenever she had sat for more than a few minutes. Whatever the work of the world was—and I never quite figured it out– since my mom had a full-time job, grew roses, looked after my grandmother who lived next door, took Judo classes, cooked Julia Child-style dinners, and co-led my Girl Scout Troop, it certainly meant she couldn’t sit around
If only mom had met Olga Mecking, author of Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021; $11.58 Amazon price).
Niksen isn’t about getting the work of the world done. Indeed, it’s not about any work at all. Instead, niksen is doing nothing, according to Mecking. And no that doesn’t mean vegging out on the couch watching the entire last season of “Homecoming” or reading posts on Facebook.
“It is doing nothing without a purpose,” she says. “I believe we’ve forgotten how to do things just because, not without any larger purpose like becoming healthier. We run or walk because we want to reach a certain number of steps and not because it feels good. The same way, we can do nothing because it feels nice and not because it will offer us certain benefits–even if it might.”
Mecking, the mother of three children, who lives in the Netherlands and works as a translator and freelance writer, says doing nothing comes naturally to her.
“As a child, I loved sitting around in my father’s favorite armchair and just daydreaming,” says Mecking. whose article on niksen in the New York Times garnered 150,000 shares in just a few days after it was published indicating an embrace of the concept. “But since I became a mom, it became really hard to do nothing. But I also realized that I niks around quite a lot even if these are in-between moments like when I’m waiting for my kids to come home or taking the tram on the way to run some errands. So maybe I don’t have many long stretches of time. but I do have many short moments – enough to do nothing.”
Not me. I often find myself repeating my mother’s phrase. Though I continue to wonder what the work of the word really entails, I know that it won’t get done if I’m sitting. I ask Mecking, if I’ll ever be able to shed my past and be able to niks?
“It can be very hard, and I think especially for women, it can be even harder,” says Mecking about the struggle to just do nothing. “Simply because we do more work that’s unpaid and unsatisfying. Men protect their own free time and women protect men’s free time and kids’ free time, but no one protects the free time of women.”
But there’s hope.
“I think it would help us to re-frame doing nothing and to think of it as something valuable,” she says. “For example, if you can tell yourself that if you do nothing now then you can do better work later on, that’s already a big step. If we can learn to value niksen and downtime and taking time off the same way as we value work that would be great. We can try reframing doing nothing and describe it as something that we need, like food or water. Think about it. Our bodies can’t work all day long without a break, no? The same way, our brains can’t either. It is impossible to expect people to be working with their brains all day long, be it at work or at home.”
But whether you can niks or not niks, it’s okay says Mecking.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” she says. “Maybe it won’t work for you. It doesn’t mean that you’re a loser. You have to find a way to relax that works for you, and if that’s doing nothing then awesome, but if that’s going for a run that is great too! But if you want to try niksen, start slow, and take a look at how you spend your time. You might find that you do more nothing that you realize.”