A Guide to Doing Absolutely Nothing, Guilt-Free

Jon Hawkins

Take a well-deserved break by embracing your Dolce Far Niente.

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America is one of the most overworked nations in the world. Unlike 134 other countries, they don’t have laws restricting the hours someone can work in a week. As a result, up to 85.8 percent of US males reportedly work over 40 hours per week. They work 260 hours more than British workers, and 499 more hours than French workers every year.

US workers have some of the worst employee rights of any developed nation:

  • There is no federal law requiring sick pay.
  • America is the only industrialized country nationwide that lacks legally mandated annual leave.
  • The US is one of few developed nations where a worker can be fired at any time, for any reason, without notice.

When you have 101 things to do, it’s only natural to work at full capacity for every minute of every day. To stay productive and achieve your goals, to prove your worth in a new job, or to make enough money to live off.

We set our sights on a particular goal, and insist on doing everything we can to achieve it. We naturally assume that not working will decrease our likelihood of achieving it. It’s why we often feel guilty about taking breaks, and why between 66% and 82% of workers often skip their lunch breaks on a regular basis.

Of course, this assumption is false. Skipping your breaks to work doesn’t increase your chances of success. The opposite in fact, research undergone by Alan Kohll (Forbes,) shows that insufficient breaks are the leading cause of chronic stress and job burnout.

Studies from Korpela and Kinnunen (2016,) found that regular breaks increase your energy levels, and help you maintain precision and rigor over longer periods of time. In short: you might get less done if you take a break, but the quality and accuracy of what you do will be radically increased.

But not just any time out. Some of us tell ourselves we’re going to relax, but then proceed to think, worry, and stress over our upcoming challenges. Those tasks take immense cognitive effort, and impinge on our ability to relax.

Instead, if you have a lot on your plate right now, the best remedy might be to take a guilt-free break. One away from any thoughts, distractions, and stresses related to work.

Embrace the Dolce Far Niente

The concept of guilt-free relaxation is best articulated by American Journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, in her 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.” She calls her relaxation time “Dolce Far Niente,” Italian for “pleasant idleness.”

It’s the time you should consciously set aside for yourself, on a regular basis, to do nothing — without any guilt or stress. It’s your space to be unproductive, to do nothing. All that’s required is that you be yourself, and do the things that help you wind down.

Of course, depending on who you are will dictate what relaxes you. But what you do during your pleasant idleness is completely up to you. You could take a bath, join a fitness class, or go for a long walk with friends. Whatever it is, remember that the end goal is to unplug from your daily stresses, if only for a short while.

To achieve this, at the start of your week, acknowledge that working to the point of burnout is counterproductive in the long-term. Instead, create a weekly-plan, and consciously set yourself time to relax and embrace your Dolce Far Niente.

Compartmentalize to Unlock Guilt-Free Choices

Setting yourself rigid time out to relax is easier said than done. When we’re worried about something, we can’t help but think about it. It might be harder to keep out thoughts of work from our Dolce Far Niente than we first thought. When those intruding thoughts enter our down-time, it can once again leave us feeling guilty about taking a break.

According to Entrepreneur Ryan Blair, the best way to stop multiple tasks from hindering each other is to compartmentalize your time.

Psychology defines compartmentalization as a method for our minds to deal with multiple conflicting standpoints. When you have multiple important things going on at a time, it allows you to stay focused on one particular task, and temporarily forget about the others.

Blair compares compartmentalization to a house with multiple rooms. Imagine each room represents a task on your to-do list. To compartmentalize a task means walking into its room and closing the doors to all other tasks around you.

In doing so, you can remind yourself that you have your other tasks under control. You shouldn’t feel guilty about prioritizing another task, for it is only temporary — and your focus will return to the other tasks once you leave that (figurative) room.

After all, once that task is completed, you can enter another room and begin focusing on another task.

Therefore, to unlock guilt-free relaxation, compartmentalize your tasks into different rooms. When beginning your Dolce Far Niente, imagine stepping into a space separate from everything else, and closing the doors to your stresses and worries. Remind yourself that you have everything under control, and you’ll return back to those tasks after your time away.

In doing so, you can forget about everything else and relax, if only for a short while.

Rest Balances Your Emotions

The benefits of guilt-free relaxation are second to none. In fact, according to Clinical Psychologist, Michael J Breus Ph.D., they drastically improve memory consolidation and remove unhealthy toxins from our brains.

According to Breus, sleep and relaxation also help us deal with emotional and stressful situations. Research indicates that a lack of REM sleep prevents amygdalae (small nuclei in the brain) from developing and functioning properly. Amygdalae is associated with processing memories tied to emotion, so a lack of it increases our experiences of anxiety, sadness, embarrassment, and fear.

Overall, a lack of rest and sleep stunts the brain's ability to deal with emotional situations. Those with a lack of rest get more hung-up on things, and remain irritated by emotional events for much longer than anyone else.

According to Breus, sleep and rest put things into perspective. After a significant amount of REM sleep, these people were less bothered by events, believing apparently stressful situations had “less emotional significance.”

This research highlights that you might not be in the best frame of mind before your break. You might feel emotionally agitated and stressed, and use those feelings to justify powering through and not taking a break. But these findings highlight that taking a minute to rest will put things into perspective — afterward, you’ll feel less stressed, and realize that most causes of your worries are insignificant.

As the old saying goes, “sleep off” your problems, rather than sacrificing down-time and causing yourself more stress.

Final Thoughts

It’s quite natural to assume that the harder you work for something, the higher the chance of that goal being actualized. Because of that, a lot of us feel guilty when taking breaks, and avoid rest in favor of powering through our work.

As it turns out, this belief is false. Instead, research indicates that taking a break improves your accuracy and rigor. Therefore, to improve the quality of your work, you should take regular breaks.

But how can you take time out without feeling guilty and distracted by the pressure to go back to work?

  1. Embrace your Dolce Far Niente: create your own space to relax and wind down.
  2. Compartmentalize your tasks: when it’s time to rest, imagine closing the doors around you. Your work distractions can’t interfere while the doors to your relaxation room are shut.
  3. Remember that rest balances your emotions: If you’re feeling overly agitated or stressed, rest might put things into perspective — so sleep things off.
“Sometimes, the most productive thing that you can do is to step outside and do nothing… relax and enjoy nature.”
Melanie Charlene

I write about self-improvement, life lessons, philosophy, psychology & business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up for my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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