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Will Americans Take To Niksen, The Dutch Concept Of Doing Absolutely Nothing?

The Dutch are so comfortable doing nothing, they have a term for it. Could we benefit from adopting it?

Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with taking it easy: We’re overworked and burned out. We’re loath to take our vacation days. We have abysmal work-life boundaries and valorize being busy.

That’s exactly why we need a little niksen in our lives. Niksen is the Dutch term for carving out time to do absolutely nothing every so often. When you niks, you allow yourself to just be: no interrogating your thoughts, no worries about deadlines or bottom lines.

Like hygge and lagom before it, the concept is having a moment: The New York Times wrote it up. Time magazine, too. Clearly, the buzz is strong with this one, but Dutch folks we spoke to described niksen as more of a state of mind than a lifestyle trend.

“The word ‘niksen’ literally means to do nothing, to be idle, to mooch about and fiddle around,” said Carolien Hamming, managing director of CSR Centrum, a coaching center in the Netherlands that helps clients manage stress and recover from burnout.

All that really matters, Hamming said, is that “you don’t act with purpose, neither physically nor mentally, and you let your thoughts all go freely.”

Americans could benefit from embracing niksen, Dutch people said.
Americans could benefit from embracing niksen, Dutch people said.

Lying in the grass at the park? That’s niksen. Idly sitting on a bench, letting your thoughts meander? That’s niksen, too. Staring out the window on the subway on the way into work? Definitely niksen.

“You don’t practice niksen; it just happens,” Hamming explained. “The only thing I have to do is to clean my agenda for a couple of minutes or hours, and see what happens.”

We know what you’re thinking: “I niksen all the time, especially on the weekends!” Maybe, but giving something a name makes it stickier, easier to embrace. And culturally, think of all the negative connotations and words we have for people who regularly idle: Couch potato. Slacker. Lazy ass. The Dutch have a better word: Niksen!

“Niksen is not so much a lifestyle trend, but a verb we use,” said Bas Bruijninckx, an e-commerce director at a global apparel company who lives in Rotterdam. “It’s been around forever. If you ask someone what they were doing in the Netherlands, the genuine reply could be: ‘Oh, ik zat te Niksen.’”

“Stressed as they may be, too, there’s less shame associated with just being idle in the Netherlands.”

How do you get in the niksen headspace? Erika van der Bent, a freelance product designer based in Scheveningen, said to envision a lion: Lions are absolute masters at niksen. They relax when they need to relax and move when they need to move. (Usually, to pounce on some poor zebra who’s trying to niksen himself.)

“When I practice niksen, it’s in a similar way,” van der Bent said. “If I wake up and I want to just chill, then I will. I won’t beat myself up for it. I will listen and be in tune with my mind and body. Then when I feel a sense of urgency or boredom or start to feel bad about doing nothing then I’m off to the next thing that I think my body or mind might need.”

Dutch people aren’t niks-ing whole days away, of course. They do niksen mostly for a few minutes, and sometimes for a couple of hours. And there’s a negative connotation for niksen in the Netherlands, too, said Ellen de Visser, the Dutch director of a translation company.

“People who are seen as lazy can receive comments like ‘Heb je vandaag weer zitten niksen?’ which basically means, ‘Have you been doing nothing again all day long?’” she said.

“In the Netherlands, we care about being productive all the time and achieving life goals,” she added. “Students, for example, are sadly expected to finish their studies within three years, study abroad, do internships and lead local university clubs in order to make their CV ready for their dream job.”

Even the Dutch aren’t immune to excessive work hours and its negative health effects; burnout is an increasing problem among the working population, as is work-related illness. In a highly plugged in, highly stressed out world, there’s an urgent need for smart strategies to stay healthy. Niksen could help.

One 2012 study found that idleness ― and the daydreaming that inevitably follows ― makes people better at problem-solving and coming up with novel, creative ideas. Not taking breaks can also lead to “decision fatigue,” where your reasoning ability and decisions are hampered after making too many decisions through the day. Study after study also shows that taking breaks actually boosts creativity and productivity, not hinders it.

Put down your phone and niksen a little.
Put down your phone and niksen a little.

Hamming has her doubts as to whether niksen will catch on in America, though. “The idea of always being busy is deeply settled in your culture,” she said. “I think it’s mainly because many Americans believe in meritocracy: You earn what you deserve, so you have to work very hard. If you fail, it’s your fault.”

Stressed as Dutch folks may be, there’s less shame associated with just being idle in the Netherlands, Hamming said.

“The Dutch make it a positive thing by saying ‘lekker niksen,’ which roughly translates to ‘deliciously nothing,’” she said. For instance, someone might ask you what your plans are for the weekend and you might say, “I’m beat so I’m doing deliciously nothing on Saturday.”

“Some people will find out that ‘lekker niksen’ now and then helps them stay balanced, but others won’t feel that way,” Hamming said.

She arrives at a good point: What if you’re niksen-wary or can’t shake the feeling that it’s a waste of precious time? And what’s stopping you from growing completely bored or falling asleep while getting your niks on?

“Well, it is kind of boring, but that’s part of the deal,” Hamming told us. “It can be weird and irritating, too. But when you get used to it, it can also be liberating and relaxing.”

Niksen isn’t something you can just plunge into and intuitively understand. The busier you’ve been, the harder it is to unwind, Hamming said.

“That’s why it’s important to do it on a regular basis, every day,” she said. “When you’ve no experience with it, and you’re quite restless, you should start with a couple of minutes every day, and slowly extend to a few times every day, or 10 minutes a day.”

Soon enough, you might find yourself scheduling a couple of hours a week for doing nothing, completely guilt-free. As Hamming quaintly summed it up, “It’s important to recognize that you’re a human be-ing, not a human do-ing.”

And after all this, if you still feel uneasy lazing around, just remember: It’s not being lazy if you call it niksen.