What is 'niksen', the Dutch concept of doing nothing? And how does it work exactly?

Not into meditation or mindfulness? Borrow this technique from the Dutch: doing nothing — but with a purpose. I tried it and it was harder than I thought it would be.
Pensive woman sitting on arm chair in loft looking through window
Niksen enables us to take a step back from whatever we're doing to just let everything be as it is without being an active participant in it.Westend61 / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

Recently, I read about “niksen”, the Dutch concept of doing nothing, and thought, “Ah yes, I know this practice well. I do it everyday.”

As I dug deeper into the meaning of niksen, by speaking both with therapists and with Olga Mecking, the Netherlands-based journalist who has written about niksen for The New York Times, I’ve come to understand that actually, no: I do not practice niksen at all, not by a long shot. And I should — perhaps we all should.

Doing nothing on purpose, but without purpose

“With niksen, which most closely translates as ‘nothing-ing’ in Dutch, you have to be intentional about doing nothing,” Mecking tells NBC News BETTER. “You’re taking the time to sit there and not do anything on purpose. You could be gazing out a window, but you’re not observing your thoughts or letting them go or doing anything like that. You’re just being.”

Mindlessly watching TV, lounging in the bath, scrolling through social media — all of these activities are what I’ve considered “doing nothing” because they’re ways I relax, recharge, or in the case of the social media scrolling, actively waste time; but they all entail action of some sort — and if my mind spaces out or drifts off, it’s accidental rather than intentional. In no way am I simply “just being” when I’m shaving my armpits or laughing at Fleabag.

With niksen, which most closely translates as ‘nothing-ing’ in Dutch, you have to be intentional about doing nothing.

Olga Mecking

Katie Krimer, a licensed social worker in New York City, highlights the distinctive, slightly tongue-twistery role intention plays in niksen. “You’re intentionally doing nothing but with no intentions. You’re making a point of sitting down to do nothing, but then you just allow your mind to wander.”

Megan Cannon, LCSW and owner of Back to Balance Counseling, LLC, adds that niksen “is a time without devices, without a screen, without immediate gratification. You're just able to be.”

Niksen is great for people who find meditation frustrating

Both Krimer and Cannon are new to niksen but are avidly on board with the anti-mindfulness mindfulness trend, if you will.

Cannon is excited to introduce niksen to her clients coping with anxiety who haven’t had much success with meditation or other mindfulness practices.

“I suggest mindfulness activities to reduce symptoms of anxiety, where the goal is to just focus on breath and push out thoughts — and for about 50 percent of the people I work with it works, but the other 50 percent of [my patients] flounder with it,” says Cannon. “Everyone is so busy and so stressed, and it's not always realistic to sit there and effectively hit your thoughts away with a mental tennis racket.”

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‘We’re human beings, not human doings’

Though niksen is not a mindfulness practice in the traditional sense, it is, as Krimer detects, “in tune” with mindfulness.

“If we really strip mindfulness down to ‘letting be’ which is an attitudinal foundation of mindfulness, niksen overlaps with that,” says Krimer. “Niksen emphasizes that we’re human beings, not human doings, which is what mindfulness does.”

Niksen enables us to take a step back from whatever we’re doing to just let everything be as it is without being an active participant in it. Ideally, practicing niksen and allowing your brain to wander “can enhance creativity,” says Krimer. “It frees up space we use to ruminate so that all that energy that is utilized to focus on doing something can be freed out. We can get room to be more productive and perhaps do [our work] with a calmer, less judgmental approach.”

Even doing nothing is work

Learning that all I have to do is nothing and I stand to boost my productivity had me sold on niksen, so after researching this piece, I put my computer and other devices in another room, sat on the couch and attempted to do nothing.

Dear reader, how I struggled! I was sitting in the living room, on a perfectly comfortable chair and became fixated by a ball of dog hair in the corner. “I should vacuum,” I thought. “I should take this time and clean.”

Then I began rehashing the details of a recent fallout with a friend. I kept thinking about how defensive I’d been in my last text to her. I wanted to re-read the text at that moment. I also wanted to text another friend to see what she thought about the whole situation. I was actually starting to feel more anxious about all the things I could be doing but wasn’t, because I was just sitting there doing niksen. I did not feel calm, I felt unsettled.

Then I had the baffling thought, “Am I ‘doing nothing’ wrong?”

Niksen takes some getting used to and nature can help

Niksen may sound easy, but if you haven’t allowed yourself to just be, without instructions or guidance or a goal, it certainly takes some getting used to.

“In our culture we are extremely unsuccessful as just being. We do not understand this concept because even if we know how to slow down, we can get agitated when we do it,” says Krimer. “But the more you [practice], the more you’ll be able to realize that you don’t need your phone, and that the world won’t come crashing down because you’re not doing anything in that moment,” she says.

“We’ve been trained to feel that if we’re letting go of doing that we’re being lazy or unproductive but it’s always the opposite, so we have to retrain the belief that doing nothing implies laziness or deficiency. We need to push through the initial discomfort. You’re not risking binging on doing nothing, and so what if you are? So what if you do nothing for an hour? We all deserve more niksen,” Krimer explains.

Niksen is a time without devices, without a screen, without immediate gratification. You're just able to be.

Megan Cannon, LCSW

Another challenge of the deceptively simple niksen is that there aren’t any steps involved. “That there’s no algorithm for how to do it can be paradoxical for people,” says Krimer.

You just have to try it and keep trying it so that in time, you naturally relax into it. If you do want some framework around the practice (I certainly do), Cannon recommends jotting down thoughts on how you feel after doing niksen over a period of a few weeks or so.

If you’re not sure where to begin, “start by staring out a window,” says Cannon. “You don’t have to stay thinking about what you see, but it can be helpful to have a starting point. Begin by simply looking at a tree and then just let the thoughts go where they will.”

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