Travel and the art of doing nothing

Lockdown has made space in all our diaries for some daydreaming. Embrace it, says Chris Carter

Last week, we looked at the Japanese concept of ikigai, which, roughly translated, refers to your focus and drive, keeping busy, and what gets you out of bed in the morning. The Dutch concept of niksen is, on the face of it, the opposite. Literally the Dutch verb for “doing nothing”, niksen is about finding the time to consciously be idle by, for example, gazing out of a window. That “activity” is, according to a new book, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing by Olga Mecking, the quintessence of niksen, because, as Mark Smith puts it in The Times, “it can be performed at a moment’s notice without kit”. The Dutch even talk of lekker niksen, which means something along the lines of “doing nothing deliciously”. So, “stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”, says Smith. “This lockdown the only thing on your leisure-time to-do list should be nothing… and feeling good about it.”

Make your not-to-do list

Doing nothing, of course, is easier said than done – especially in Britain, where being busy with work and spending time on self-improvement are venerated. “In the Netherlands, apparently it’s a common relaxation technique to stop whatever you’re doing and embrace nothing-ing,” says Katie Strick in the Evening Standard. “Here in the UK, the closest most of us get to switching off is scrolling through Instagram with a Calm podcast and calling it meditation. No wonder we’re all burnt out.” So, we must close the laptop, put the phone out of sight, and embrace what Mecking calls “doing something without purpose”. You might even write a not-to-do list and thereby free up your diary for daydreaming. “Perhaps the Dutch are on to something: in this world of productivity and accounting for every second, finding the time to do nothing suddenly feels like the biggest achievement of all,” says Strick.

But what if niksen doesn’t come naturally to you? “Mecking is understanding,” says Anna Maxted in The Daily Telegraph. If you’re not the type who can do absolutely nothing, then draw, listen to music, do a jigsaw, squeeze a stress ball. The last thing Mecking wants is for anyone to feel “terrible about failing” at niksen. “Honestly,” says Mecking, “anything that helps you relax is fine.” All it takes is a few minutes here and there. “Curiously,” adds Maxted, “I find that in the ­current conditions – when life feels tumultuous and exhausting, frenetic with constant change – a dash of niksen is priceless, and pleasingly organic.”

Head to the hills 

Loch Lomond

Autumn is a perfect time to visit Loch Lomond – Glasgow’s most beautiful autumn hideaway © David Scott / Alamy Stock Photo

In terms of travel, most of us are not currently able to do nothing in the spiritual home of purposeful idleness: Amsterdam, with its lovely canals and colourful gabled buildings, will have to wait, as will the fields of flowers and pretty windmills of the rest of the Netherlands. Fortunately, practising niksen at home is as easy as turning a cosy chair towards a window, as Mecking recommends, and gazing out at the leaves on the trees. 

And what better time to start than now? “Autumn’s blaze of glory, all flame-red leaves and burnt-gold foliage, offers an opportunity to marvel at the brilliance of the natural world before hunkering down for winter,” says Alexander Turner in The Guardian. As nature goes into hibernation, more people than ever are visiting wooded areas and arboretums. “The experience of lockdown has changed many people’s relationships with nature and will undoubtedly extend our interaction with the arboreal beyond the traditional leaf-peeping season.” 

That said, the trees in the Howardian Hills, in Yorkshire, are at their “multi-hued best in autumn – the dazzling yellow of ash, chestnut and lime leaves complementing the rich russet and golden tones of beeches and oaks,” says Mike Bagshaw in Countryfile magazine. “There are no big forests here but some sizeable woods and lots of clumps and copses – dark pillows lying on a rumpled patchwork-quilt landscape.” Clent Hills, in Worcestershire, is another “perfect spot to witness autumn colour”, says Sarah Turner in The Observer, as is Loch Lomond – “Glasgow’s most beautiful autumn hideaway”. 

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