At a party last week an acquaintance and I were chatting about my recent trip to The Netherlands. He asked me if I was familiar with the Dutch concept of niksen. “Niksen?” I asked. “Nope. I’ve never heard of it.” Similar to the Danish concept of hygge, but distinctly different, and not exactly the same as practicing mindfulness, niksen means doing nothing or, more specifically, doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music.
My friend sent me an article to further illuminate the notion (https://woollymag.com/culture/the-new-dutch-trend-thats-better-than-hygge.html) and I immediately recognized myself within the description of Dutch people as productivity and goal-oriented.
“Niksen,” notes author Olga Mecking, “is also being promoted as a twist on mindfulness, a practice that’s supposed to make us happier, healthier, and more resilient, and for which there seems to be an endless supply of praise. But the central tenet of mindfulness — staying in the moment — strikes me as a daunting task. I’m just not sure every moment is worth being present for. But, as I see it, moments of nothing are almost always worthwhile. It’s during these moments, for instance, that I come up with my best story ideas.”
Ironically, I happen to be reading Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi right now at the suggestion of my book-loving partner, and the concepts are very similar. Though I struggled with Zomorodi’s use of the word “boredom” initially, I have come to understand the way this particular word best conveys a sense of the uncomfortable moment we wish to escape by distracting ourselves with technology, particularly social media. She advocates for the profound need of the mind to wander, to make its own creative associations. “When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas,” Zomorodi writes. “Creativity — no matter how you define or apply it — needs a push, and boredom, which allows new and different connections to form in our brain, is a most effective muse. It’s what the futurist Rita King calls ‘the tedium of creativity.’”
Unknowingly, I began practicing niksen several years ago when I decided to start each morning by sitting quietly at my kitchen counter for ten or fifteen minutes, sipping coffee and watching the birds at our feeder, legs propped up on the ledge below the picture window. My cats, it turns out, are naturally adept at niksen , taking turns availing themselves of my lap (though they have a tendency to fall asleep and I’m not entirely sure that counts).
Zomorodi ran the Bored and Brilliant challenge on her podcast “Note to Self” back in 2015. (You can listen here: https://www.wnyc.org/series/bored-and-brilliant). Below you will find her seven-step program, which might offer a way to bring a little niksen into your life.
Challenge One: Observe Yourself (track your digital habits and notice what you discover)
Challenge Two: Keep Your Devices Out of Reach While in Motion (phone stays out of sight while in transit of all kinds—even walking)
Challenge Three: Photo-Free Day (no picture taking whatsoever)
Challenge Four: Delete That App (trash an app you can live without)
Challenge Five: Take a Fakecation (be in the office but out of touch)
Challenge Six: Observe Something Else (reclaim the art of noticing)
Challenge Seven: The Bored and Brilliant Challenge (use your proverbial ‘powers of boredom’ to set goals)