What Does It Mean to Do Nothing? Can We Try It Together?

How little activity do you need to be doing for it to count as nothing?
Photo by Pim Chu.

I am currently obsessed with the notion of doing nothing.

There is a dance show in Vancouver this week called I Miss Doing Nothing and since I got to interview one of the dancers for an article about the show I can't stop thinking about doing nothing.

I want to do nothing. But what actually counts as doing nothing?

I went backpacking last weekend. That is doing something, some would say a pretty aggressive something. After all, we carried tents and camp stoves and spare socks up a mountain, set up camp, cook food and hang it in a tree (because of bears), all before climbing back down. It was certainly a lot of work.

But we also spent a lot of time in suspended, nothing-like activities: the repetetive motion of walking along a trail that never seems to end; sitting and looking at the mountains; literally watching multiple pots of water boil. There is a lot of stillness, or mindless repetition, in backpacking that feels kind of like doing nothing.

We climbed a mountain, which is sort of an accomplishment, but also kind of meaningless. We didn't keep track of the time (except how long we hiked for because you need to know when you're getting close). We have nothing to show for it except photos and memories. Did that count as doing nothing? Or was it too much effort to be nothing?

I remember an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry asks Elaine what she did last night, and she says, "nothing." He replies, "I know nothing, but what did you actually do?", to which she replies that she was sitting and staring at a wall all evening. Literally doing nothing.

But even then, if you wanted to be difficult about it, you could say that she was doing something: sitting, looking, breathing, blinking, swallowing. Being a not-dead creature means that you are technically always doing something. So doing nothing is probably not about total inactivity.

Possible definitions of doing nothing:

Something that...

...relies on little or no active brain engagement.

...nobody else is relying on you for, or maybe doesn't even impact other people at all.

...has no time pressure associated with it.

...allows you to disappear for a little while.

...has no goal attached to it or quality standard to meet.

...is generally obligation-free.

Perhaps it's like a diagnostic manual and you need at least three of those conditions to be doing nothing? Or is one vital to have an activity count as nothing?

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