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Americans are known worldwide to be workaholics. We see “doing” and “working hard” as positive behaviors and view increased productivity always as a good thing. People are rewarded for “getting things done” and “making things happen”. Busy is good, and overworked is even better. People who are busy are seen as “movers and shakers” and “rain makers”. They have hustle and drive. In fact, Americans work among the most hours of any advanced country in the world, except for South Korea and Japan, where they actually invented a word for dying at work. (Karoshi means death from overwork.) What’s more, this obsession with “being busy” is on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American works about one month more a year than we did in 1976.
However, constantly being busy may not be the best thing. Learning how to “do nothing” might actually be the most vital skill for thriving in a frenetic, always-connected culture. And being still is not necessarily easy to learn. While some may think that stillness is easy…. After all, how hard can it be to do nothing? Just stop and that’s it. Wrong. Being still is far easier said than done. But, it is a habit that can be developed over time.
The truth is that “doing nothing” is not really seen as doing nothing. What it really means is that a person is “doing nothing useful.” The problem is that “useful” gets defined in ways that don’t always serve a person’s interests and well-being. Working harder to earn more money in order to buy more stuff is useful… to the people selling the stuff. Manufacturers. Retailers. And, it is useful to the people hawking a place to store or put all the stuff. Bigger homes. Storage units. Purses. Backpacks. Jewelry boxes. It may not, however, be useful necessarily for the person doing all that hustling in order to afford to buy the stuff. So idleness is seen as bad and people, especially in the U.S., avoid being seen as idle. Idle is equated with lazy.
Flexing the Stillness Muscle
However, that may be changing. In South Korea, which is considered one of the most hard-working and stressful places on earth, a new initiative was launched that is part performance art, part competition, and part entertainment called the Space Out Competition. Seventy people gather at a park each year to do absolutely nothing. No smartphones are allowed. No texting or taking selfies either. And no one rushing to get anywhere. The contest looks to see who can “do nothing” and stare off into space the longest without losing focus.
WoopsYang, the visual artist who created the now annual event in 2014, said it’s designed to highlight how much people have been overworking their brains and how much they stand to gain by taking a break. Since the first competition, it has evolved into a full-on pageant with a panel of judges and a set of strict rules—no phones, no talking, no checking your watch, no dozing off. Thousands sign up for the 70 contestant slots each year, and there are qualifying rounds to select the best candidates. During the 90-minute-long event, contestants are banned from doing anything other than spacing out. If someone falls asleep, starts laughing, or uses technology, the person is disqualified. Contestants’ heart rates are checked every 15 minutes to ensure that they are in a state of chill; the person with the most stable heart rate wins. There’s a live sportscaster who narrates the event to onlookers. If contestants feel discomfort—say, if someone gets thirsty or needs to use the bathroom—they can hold up one of several cards to make a request.
Research has consistently shown that the brain needs downtime in order to process information and create memories, but also to mitigate the stress and burnout that comes from being constantly connected to both work and social life. South Korea, in particular, has one of the most stressed-out populations in the world. The New York Times once described Seoul as “on the verge of a national nervous breakdown.” Of course, problems associated with stress, anxiety, and overworked brains are not unique to Seoul, so the goal was to expand the competition worldwide. In 2017, the first international Space Out Competition was held in Beijing, which had roughly 80 chilled-out contestants. But that kind of embracing of stillness is limited. In fact, in 2016, the New York Post ran an article about the event titled “There is a Laziness Competition in South Korea.”
Despite the pressure for people to buzz around like bees, leaders are discovering that there may also be value in time for people to be still. That’s because, in stillness, employees find:
1. Clarity – Stillness draws a person into the moment and makes thoughts and ideas clearer than they were before. Taking a simple moment to be still and clear the mind could be the difference between making a decision that will lead down the wrong path and one that will lead down the right one.
2. Better health – The demands of work and life introduce unnecessary stressors. Too much stress can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, weight gain, emotional instability, anxiety and more. Taking a few minutes each day to be still can act as a reset button. It is an opportunity to refresh one’s thinking and being, and thus reinvigorate the body for tasks ahead. It’s an opportunity to shift the focus to more positive and productive thinking.
3. Creativity – When stillness is used to quiet the mind, it provides an ability to tap into creative potential, whether the person believes that it comes from within or from some universal source. Every person can access their creative power, but not everyone makes use of it. By quieting the mind and being still, a person can bathe in a wellspring of creativity… and that kind of creativity can lead to ideas that transform the world.
4. Peacefulness – Peacefulness is an inner sense of calm, and it comes especially in quiet moments of reflection or gratitude. It makes sense then that stillness generates a feeling of peace. And peace of mind, in turn, has a great many other benefits including better ability to concentrate, efficiency in handling daily tasks, a sense of inner strength and power, and increased patience, tolerance and tact. Peacefulness that is derived from stillness also results in freedom from stress, anxieties and worries, a sense of inner happiness and bliss, and an ability to fall asleep easily and sleep soundly. These are all things that in turn contribute to career success. It is amazing how something so simple, like stillness, can have such a profound impact on a person’s well-being and success.
Last but not least, stillness allows you to clear your mind, which then allows the mind to recharge. Thinking becomes refreshed and allows the mind to start asking questions such as “Why are things the way they are?”. Or How can we do this better?” That mental clarity allows inspiration to spark. What more could a professional want?
Stillness is a habit. Habits aren’t formed overnight. It takes time to form a habit. Moreover, research shows the average adult attention span is short, and for those with ADD and ADHD, it is even shorter. If people cannot even focus on important things for more than a few minutes, it is it is understandable that they might have trouble focusing on “nothing” for at least that long. The solution is simple. Like any muscle that is weak, it takes time to build it up and make it strong. To do that means exercising it regularly until it develops. The same is true of being still. To become better at being still, a person must make the time to practice stillness until it becomes second nature.
Now that is something to ponder… when you’re busy doing nothing.
Quote of the Week
“A time for everything: A time to relax and a time to be busy, a time to frolic and a time to labor, a time to receive and a time to give, a time to begin and a time to finish.” Jonathan Lockwood Huie
 June 14, 2016, Jiwon Kim, Vice magazine, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/vdq4y9/doing-nothing-has-become-a-sport-in-south-korea
 The Stillness Project, https://stillnessproject.com/5-surprising-benefits-meditation/
 Tamara Lechner, Five Ways to Improve Creativity Through Meditation, The Chopra Center, https://chopra.com/articles/5-ways-to-improve-creativity-through-meditation
© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.