The Power of Doing Nothing

Most of us do a million things in a day.  Whether at work or at home, not a minute goes by that we aren’t occupying our mind with a laundry list of tasks and worries.  Being “on” all the time can be draining.  This constant state of heightened awareness has become so normal that it seems like second nature.

Doing nothing, on the other hand, is much harder than it seems.  Go ahead and try it.  Spend the next 60 seconds with a clear mind.  No cell phone.  No making to-do lists.  No planning your next meal or reminding yourself the kids have soccer practice tonight.  60 seconds of blank slated silence.  Pretty hard, huh?

ocean view during daylight
The best place to do nothing.

There are plenty of real life examples of the benefits of doing nothing.  Today we are going to talk about a few of my favorites.

Doing Nothing for Patients

“The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease” – Voltaire

Doctors have become the victims of their own success.  We saved a couple million lives and next thing you know people assume that we have a fast cure for all of their ailments.  How often do you see patients for something that will get better on its own?  URIs.  Ankle sprains.  Viral exanthems.  Back pain.  We all have our dog and pony shows we put on for these chief complaints, but the reality is those patients don’t need us.  They simply need the next two weeks of their life to go by.

Other times doing nothing for patients is my passive-aggressive approach to malingerers.  38th ED visit this year for abdominal pain?  You’d be surprised how long I can keep doing nothing for you.  It’s like bull riding, except the bull is a malingering patient.  I suppose bull$h!t riding is more appropriate.  Just troll some basic labs while trying one combination of non-narcotic medications after another.  I suggest de-escalating your series of treatments so that by the end the nurse is just holding a scratch and sniff picture of a Tylenol tablet under the patient’s left nostril.  After a few hours of therapeutic neglect, the patient is miraculously healed and ready to go.

drink girl glass hands
For 14 out of 10 chronic pain, 9 out of 10 ER doctors recommend licking this Tylenol.

Remember that whole “first, do no harm” thing?  It turns out that sometimes doing nothing for patients actually saves lives.  Whether it’s limiting radiographic studies in children, ordering fewer PSAs or chasing fewer CT incidentalomas, doing nothing can reduce morbidity and mortality for our patients.

Doing Nothing for Yourself

I don’t know about you, but I need downtime every day.  My ideal morning involves waking up an hour before anyone else in my house and drinking coffee in complete silence.  I’m my most creative and motivated between the hours of 5AM and 9AM.  I also like to unwind my days with nothing.  My ideal evening involves sunsets of the beach with my family just putzing around and playing in the sand.

photography of body of water
Let the waves wash away the day.

Apparently I’m not the only one who benefits from nothing.  There are plenty of studies out there confirming the benefits:

Health – After years of studies showing the benefit of meditation on physiologic response to stress, blood pressure, insulin resistance, endothelial function and myocardial ischemia the American Heart association put out a scientific statement endorsing the power of doing nothing.  Something as simple as 10 minutes of relaxed breathing with a clear mind just might save your life!

Learning – Everywhere you look you can find studies citing the benefits of downtime on memory and learning.  Both the BBC and Psychology Today recently published articles discussing how just 10-15 minutes of downtime can boost your brain’s ability to solidify new information.

Productivity – Downtime is essential for boosting your productivity at work too.  That’s why Fortune 500 companies often implement regularly scheduled downtime for their employees.  Google encourages employees to spend 20% of their workday on creative side projects.  3M instituted 15% time back in 1948!  Now there are companies like The Energy Project that will help transform your business with the power of downtime.

Doing Nothing With Your Portfolio

Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits of doing nothing has to do with our investments.  As a money nerd, I’ve spent years reading about asset allocation, rebalancing and tax loss harvesting.  I’ve got a detailed investment policy statement that tells me when and how to rebalance and take advantage of market dips.

Imagine my surprise when Fidelity published a study showing that investors who forgot their accounts existed actually performed the best.  Simply investing their money and then doing nothing was the best thing they could have done for their portfolio.  No monthly rebalancing.  No constant checking their net worth on Personal Capital.  They just dumped some money in an account and then let time do the rest.  Kind of makes you wonder why you spend so much time thinking about your investments, doesn’t it?

brown leather wallet using blue steel clap
Just set it and forget it.

Make Something Out of Nothing

I admit it.  I’m not the best person to be taking advice about doing nothing from.  Between a wife, 3 kids, a full-time job, a few side hustles and a blog there are many things that keep me from doing as much nothing as I would like.  That doesn’t mean I don’t see the benefits and strive to incorporate more nothing into my day.

Whether it’s for your patients, your health or your money, a little bit of nothing can go a long way.

What do you think?  How has doing nothing benefitted you?  Do you think the benefits of downtime are overblown?  Share your thoughts and comments below.  


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4 thoughts on “The Power of Doing Nothing

  1. Ah, the blogpost about nothing!

    One of the great benefits of working part time is the regular swaths of time with “nothing” to do.

    I am totally onboard with more nothing for patients, especially when it concerns poorly proven screening tests and regular monitoring of low risk incidental findings and such.


  2. Me time is at a premium especially with a kid in the house. But yeah I agree sometimes doing nothing does wonders for your psyche. It is hard to transition to doing nothing from the typical type A personality most docs have


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