Stimulate your creativity
Embrace ‘niksen’ while you’re stuck home
Chemistry student Fionn Ferreira, winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair, swears by niksen.
Embracing the vast nothingness of the small and secluded town he used to live in gave him the space needed for his ideas to thrive. He frequently went camping on a tiny island off the Irish coast, alone and with no means of accessing social media. It proved crucial for his creative process and led to his invention of an ingenious method for removing microplastics from water.
‘Whenever I reach a dead end, I drop whatever I’m doing and I start doing something else – or nothing at all’, he says. ‘The conundrum is still in the back of my mind, but I don’t pay conscious attention to it. And more often than not, the solution will pop up without me obsessing over it.’
One of the reasons Fionn chose to study at the University of Groningen was the relatively low-pressure environment, at least compared to many of the other universities he was accepted to. ‘The pressure to perform often stifles creativity. I am my most creative self when I am given enough space to maintain a freshness of mind’, he says.
Bernard Nijstad of the Faculty of Economics and Business, who has researched creativity and decision-making, isn’t surprised by Fionn’s experiences. ‘There is research – albeit not conclusive – that shows that opting to do nothing when your mind is stuck on a problem and can’t proceed is more likely to give you the answer than keeping up the work in vain. And there are a lot of anecdotal accounts of great discoveries being made while doing nothing.’
Whenever you think you might be doing nothing, your mind begs to differ
One of the reasons doing nothing is such a fruitful activity, is that even when you don’t realise it, your mind is actually quite active. ‘Whenever you think you might be doing nothing, your mind begs to differ’, explains neuroscientist Marieke van Vugt. ‘Neuroscientists have observed remarkable brain activity during niksen, interestingly in some of the same parts that fire up during dreaming or imagining.’
Scientists call it mind-wandering. Your thoughts don’t follow the same sequential logic as when trying to do anything in particular, that is, when trying to solve a task. Your mind just goes hither-thither.
And there’s the catch. Students should not expect a creative boost just by completely abandoning their work. ‘Serendipity favours the prepared mind’, Nijstad says. ‘Any benefits from low-activation states such as doing nothing are contingent on careful planning and preparation.’
How to be productive, according to wunderkind Fionn Ferreira:
Work only 20 minutes at a time and then take a break. While on the break, try not to think of the task(s) you are working on. Do something unrelated and observe your mind coming up with the solutions on its own.
That is exactly what Fionn does. He has been thinking of a problem for a considerable amount of time before putting it to the back of his mind, so when he sits on his little island doing nothing, his mind comes up with workable solutions. ‘Otherwise, the thoughts and solutions that do pop up might be unrelated or nonsensical, which kind of defeats the purpose’, says Nijstad.
Boredom has its part to play as well. Nijstad recently reviewed a study that found that boring people before giving them a task to solve will improve their performance. ‘Boredom is unpleasant and invokes in people an urge to do something – anything!’, explains Nijstad. ‘So it’s only natural that they will perform more enthusiastically after you have bored them out of their mind.’
However, fruitful as it may be, not doing anything turns out to be rather hard. Ukrant surveyed one hundred students, asking them whether they ever did nothing and if they felt good about it. 68 percent answered that they did like doing nothing, but hardly got around to it. ‘I love doing nothing’, says International and European Law student Patricia Vargova. ‘There’s just not much time left for it at the end of the day.’
Students report having no more than two to three hours of free time a day and that is even less when they do time-intensive studies like medicine. They usually spend that time watching Netflix, hanging out with friends, and napping. But niksen – not focusing your mind, so not even bingeing a bad tv series, hardly ever happens. And over 60 percent of students report feeling guilty when it does.
I love doing nothing, I just don’t have the time for it
‘Sure, doing nothing is fun. But the trick is to know when to stop’, says media student Mikas Lukosevicius. ‘Eventually, the guilt of not having done anything wins, and I get back to work. It’s a vicious cycle – very counterproductive and unsustainable’, he adds.
But why do students feel so guilty about something that is both necessary for your mental health and may boost your productivity? Nijstad thinks it’s probably because of societal pressure. ‘After all, it would seem evolutionarily intuitive for people to try and conserve as much energy as possible, and not the other way around’, he says.
According to religious scientist Arie Molendijk, the history of the West might have something to do with it. Western society has been heavily influenced by the Protestant Church and by the teachings of Calvinism – the dominant religion in the Netherlands for the better part of its history. ‘Work was central to the teachings of John Calvin’, he explains. ‘He taught his followers to work until they drop and then to work some more. Accumulation of wealth was desirable, but spending it lavishly was not.’
And even though religion in Dutch society isn’t as influential as it used to be, according to some scholars Calvin’s teachings have taken up a life of their own. ‘Independent from institutionalised religion’, says Molendijk. He is cautious, however, in making any generalisations. ‘Many have contested the existence and pervasiveness of these ideas, so it’s by no means a settled debate.’
It takes effort to avoid doing anything
Still, that would explain why so many people find niksen so terribly hard. They learned from their parents, as those parents learned from theirs, that doing nothing is a bad thing. That you have to earn everything you get, by labouring hard and that ‘idleness’ paves the road to certain damnation.
Try getting that out of your system.
On a brighter note, according to Van Vugt there is something else at play, too. ‘There is just too much stuff to do!’ she says. ‘It’s hard to avoid the constant stimulation of everyday life. Your smartphone is an endless source of conveniently packaged entertainment, which at the same time makes you available and reachable at all times. It takes effort to avoid doing anything.’