In Praise of Doing Nothing



By Stephen Tang

With the late arrival of streaming video services to Australia (legally, at least), we never got to use the phrase “Netflix and chill” in its plain and ordinary meaning. The success of its transformation into a slightly creepy euphemism probably depended on its original innocence: the joy of passive entertainment and the joy of switching off by switching on.

For a time, “Netflix and chill” succinctly gave fresh expression to a certain kind of pleasure which I fear is on the verge of extinction: doing nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but a restorative retreat to a comfy state of rest.

We’re of course all different in what this looks like. It may be watching an entire season of a show (it’ll take 1 day and 22 hours if you want to catch up on all of Breaking Bad), re-reading a trashy novel, cooking up some comfort food, or planting tomatoes in the spring. It’s not necessarily about alone time either, although as an introvert that’s where I find myself most often.

Idle restoration could also be found in the familiar rhythm of a regular catch-up with old friends, or unrushed and agenda-less time with your partner. Those with higher baseline levels of activity might find their default rhythm in a familiar run or gym routine.

What’s in common is that returning to this state is something that comes so naturally, so effortlessly and so mindlessly. There’s nothing particularly novel, demanding or even memorable about the activity. Indeed, what can be an effortful act of choosing what to do vanishes altogether through habit and familiarity, or by having choices made for you. Time passes with languid ease, and we feel refreshed afterwards.

At a time where mindfulness[1] is everywhere, this idea of mindless rest or semi-passive activity is not seen very favourably. Relaxation and play are increasingly construed as activities which require challenge, commitment and novelty. Our quest for authenticity and experience has denied us access to our most authentic selves, which is often when we are doing very little (or, to use the technical term, when we’re doing SFA).

What’s more, the pleasure of idle “chill” time is curiously incongruent with popular notions of what wellbeing means. We actively resist ourselves from succumbing to the gentle gravitational pull towards this state of rest and idleness. We find increasingly novel ways of distracting ourselves from idleness, declaring it to be a sign of laziness or even as an indicator of poor mental health. I’m of course not suggesting that we be lazy people who waste time and opportunities – but that we might have ventured too far in the other direction.

There’s a wealth of psychological research which looks at who we are as self-regulatory agents. By this, psychologists are pointing out that we’re continuously juggling multiple and often competing goals, identities and behaviours at the same time. This poses ongoing challenges in working out how to plan and prioritise who we are and what we do in ways which are ideal for the present moment but also for our future selves and in all our different relationships. Self-regulation is the willpower that tells you it’s not a good idea to have a late night out drinking when you have a court appearance the next morning. It’s the part of you that (eventually) studies for exams rather than procrastinates, because it’ll be worth it later. It’s also why you don’t invest all your mental energy in one meeting when you have six others later in the day. Self-regulation is about adjusting and changing your actions, feelings and responses now in order to keep you consistent and collected over time.

Self-regulation is important because of the inherent limitations of being human. This isn’t just things like money, or intangible things like time, but also psychological and physiological resources like our energy, attention and emotional capacity. And this is the key point: our self-regulatory strength is like a muscle. Like a muscle, we can train it to be better. We can train ourselves to be more motivated, productive and efficient. However, like a muscle, there’s only so much of our self-regulatory resources we can use before we exhaust and deplete our reserves.

The work of a lawyer has a number of demands which are known to require high levels of self-regulatory exertion. Managing informational overload, trying to exert control over uncertain and changing situations, trying hard to present yourself well in difficult professional circumstances (e.g. trying not to swear at the judge or your client) are all ways in which our limited self-regulation capacities can be drained.  Contrary to a lot of the pop-psych nonsense out there – unrealistically trying to ‘think positive’ can also tax our self-regulatory resources and leave us worse off.  Continuously placing high expectations on our own performance can be particularly depleting, which is a particular risk for achievement-oriented lawyers (that’s all of us).

Merely making a lot of decisions can also be depleting.  One widely-reported study, for example, found that judges experienced decision fatigue (a form of self-regulatory fatigue) after making successive parole decisions. This affected the objectivity and quality of their decisions, as well as the livelihood and liberty of applicants whose future was in the balance. One key finding was that merely having a short coffee or meal break was partially sufficient in restoring their decisional capacity. The other interesting thing was that judges were oblivious to their own decision fatigue: self-regulatory depletion isn’t necessarily about feeling physically tired. In the absence of clear signs and signals, therefore, preventative strategies may be best.

But first, consider some of the other consequences of having an empty self-regulatory tank.  We’re more likely to make bad decisions which are impulsive, selfish and damaging to relationships.  Depletion also brings out our biases and prejudices which we ordinarily keep in check.  Importantly for lawyers, numerous studies show that self-regulatory depletion tends to make us more inclined to act dishonestly or unethically.  Otherwise exemplary legal professionals may make ‘out of character’ mistakes and do highly career-limiting things when they’re depleted and temporarily lack the capacity to think, resist and evaluate all the interests at stake.

Put all this together and the risks of self-regulatory depletion for a lawyer are serious not only in terms of personal wellbeing, but professional and ethical practice.  Yet these risks are not only routinely ignored but perhaps compounded by pressures to do more even more, supposedly in the name of wellbeing.  So what’s the best way to restore self-regulatory capacity?  It’s the same as recovering from a gym session: rest (and have a carbs day while you’re at it).

But don’t wait until it’s too late.  If you’re going to collapse in front of the TV when you’re already depleted, you’re more likely to interpret what you’re doing this in more negative terms (for instance as procrastination, rather than rest).  The result is that you feel guilty [], which makes you even more depleted rather than restored.  So it’s important to allow yourself to ease into your zone of restful nothingness and to do this before you’ve reached an invisible mental exhaustion point.  Reclaim doing nothing early and often.  You’re not only looking after yourself, but even in your PJs you’re also helping yourself to be the adaptable, ethical and professional lawyer you want to be.  Suddenly Season 4 of House of Cards became necessary viewing.


Stephen Tang is a lecturer and psychologist at ANU Legal Workshop.  Stephen is involved with a number of research projects about lawyer and law student wellbeing, the development of professional identity in new lawyers, and the psychology of lawyer behaviour.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and not those of the Australian National University or ANU Legal Workshop.


1. Or at least a certain misconstrued form of mindfulness, see here: The Guardian: “Mindfulness at risk of being ‘turned into a free market commodity’” and Slate: “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less”.