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As an overachiever, I’ve been way more successful at everything since I started doing nothing.
I’m cringing right now thinking about all the second-hand stress I caused my coworkers and family members over the years as I worked so hard racing to the top of my field. My natural speed is 200 mph and I used to expect people around me — including my family — to keep up. I have three sons and when they were small, I would literally CLAP! MY! HANDS! behind them to get them to move faster (although now I’m ashamed to admit this).
I worked in fashion, and I would say yes to anything anyone asked of me. I even managed to get it all done — but that doesn’t mean I did it all well. And it definitely doesn’t mean I did it happily or that it was healthy for me. In addition to making those around me feel the need to hide in the closet listening to spa music on their iPods, I was super stressed out myself.
The good news is that I made it, career-wise. I worked for 20 years at top fashion magazines, including Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and Glamour, and was a regular on TV shows such as Today, Good Morning America, The View, Oprah and CBS’ The Early Show, talking about what to wear. The bad news is that I was rarely present to enjoy it — I was often stressed and distracted, thinking about what was coming next or what I had forgotten to do.
It was my mother-in-law who, in 2012, told me I needed to slow down. “Suze, stop and breathe in and out five times,” she said. It was a day in which I was working on the other side of the country from my family, ricocheting off the walls as I filmed nine different commercials for various clients. I was trying to long-distance balance my children’s lives and make sure everyone had what they needed at the same time. My mother-in-law is a psychotherapist, and clearly I was stressing her out as well. So I took the five deep breaths. After I did, she touched my arm to steady me and said quietly, “Once in a while, try to simply do nothing.”
The concept was foreign to me. I was not only trying to do too much, but I needed to be perfect at everything and for everyone. I was a mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee, TV personality — the list went on. Doing “nothing” felt like a waste of time or at the very least impossible given, well, all there was to do. Who was I if I wasn’t doing something? I thought — or would have if I’d slowed down to think about it.
But there it was — with those five conscious breaths, I felt myself transform physically and mentally from stressed to calm in less than three minutes.
I was shocked! I literally collapsed on the couch and felt the weight of the world lift off my body and wondered, How can something so easy have such a powerful effect? I grabbed my mother-in-law and surprised her with a hug. I proclaimed that I was going to do this every day.
And here’s the thing: Those initial five breaths didn’t just change my life. Over the next nine years, I’m proud to say that they changed millions of lives. They were the beginning of my search for a way to live more calmly, and turned into the inspiration to launch Unplug, the world’s first drop-in meditation studio.
The idea came about because as I looked into learning how to breathe (clearly I had no idea about this basic life skill!), I saw that the only option available to me at the time were meditation lessons that involved sitting for hours. That felt like way too much. So I created a version with 30-45 minute sessions, which I knew other people like me must need. Once I got into it more, I learned that I preferred to meditate when it was right for me, which is why we created the National Lung Association? And yet most people don’t take the time to notice even one of those breaths? That’s a shame, because just slowing down your breath and observing the world around you has been scientifically proven to be more effective in alleviating anxiety than some prescription medications.
Stress is optional and doing nothing is a perfect antidote.
To be honest, at first I found meditation long, boring, inconvenient and tedious — not to mention that I questioned the authenticity of some of the teachers. Still, my mother-in-law encouraged me, so I ended up taking every class imaginable. I’d sit there, and instead of “doing nothing” and just being with my breath, I’d quietly make notes to myself on how these sessions would be better if only…
But the more I did it, the more I started to realize that all the things I found annoying about doing nothing started to vanish one by one. In fact, the best but least-talked-about benefit of meditation is that the little things stop being annoying. I started slowly, teaching myself to breathe for a few minutes, and then to just be and do nothing except breathe for longer and longer times. Since I started meditating, have come to a double conclusion: Stress is optional and doing nothing is a perfect antidote.
When I first opened my studio, I would meditate in the room with all of our clients. I thought I was a “bad meditator” because I could not shut my brain down. I would spend entire sessions in planning mode (did I need to order more meditation cushions? What were we going to have for dinner?) not even realizing where my brain went.
It took me a long time to understand that thinking without intending to is actually part of doing nothing. A new study found that we have around 6,200 thoughts a day, but we also have a choice: We can hang out with our thoughts, or redirect our minds to our breath to what’s going on here and now. In doing nothing and just noticing what I was thinking instead of interacting with it, I realized I’d much rather be present in our large, sunny space on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles then chew on that workout I didn’t do, envision the ten cookies I wanted to eat, or dread the bills I had to pay.
And you know what? I discovered my thoughts were trying to bully me. I’m not one to be bullied by anyone else, and there I was, bullying myself, and creating all this extra stress. Doing nothing helped with that as well: When I took the time to sit in stillness and silence, I was able to notice all the negative things my brain was telling me, which gave me the chance to change the conversation. Imagine noticing a thought like, “I’m not a good enough mother” and replacing it with “There are so many ways in which I’m a great mother.” Or thinking “every entrepreneur is so much more successful than me and I suck” and replacing that with “Wow, you really pulled this off! You are doing great!”
There are so many distractions. We aren’t set up to do nothing, to just be. When I first sat down to meditate, I could hear every siren, every person whispering to her friend on the cushion next to her, and every single heavy breather! I had a strong urge to run around the room, trying to shush everyone.
But as I practiced, I slowly I started to just notice and accept the noises and my own thoughts, and consciously came back to my breath. It felt so much better that the feeling that I had to fix everything. This was a wonderful realization for me, because we are always going to have noises and distractions and annoying people around us! We can never stop them, but we can calm the swirl inside of us, and that exactly what started happening for me.
Way too many people believe doing nothing is selfish or, even worse, they feel guilty about taking time for it. I have seen thousands of examples of this inside the studio and from the letters I get from our Unplug app subscribers.
I tell them they should talk to people who knew me before I started meditating and they’d know how unselfish it is. Second-hand stress is real. I have been on both the giving and receiving end of it and while it took me a while to figure it out, I now get that it doesn’t help with anything other than making you and those around you feel bad. Nowadays when I act stressed and rushed, my sons or my assistant will simply say, “Did you meditate?” which prompts me to take a breath and slow down. Everyone is better off when I do nothing for 10 or 20 minutes each day.
Second-hand stress is real.
Taking the time to do nothing helps your loved ones in long-term ways as well. Unrelenting stress has been proven to raise cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress hormone), and chronic stress can lead to heart disease and other related illnesses. That’s bad for you, of course, but it is also bad (and stressful!) for the people who love you.
Ironically, now that I practice doing nothing, I accomplish more on a daily basis than ever before. That’s because even when you’re not literally sitting or lying down and breathing, the space to do “nothing” seeps out into your daily life. Getting in the habit of “doing nothing” allows you the time to choose how you will respond to a situation, rather than reacting with a rapid emotional response. In other words, when you are fully present in the now, you become more aware of yourself and others. Instead of rushing my children day in and day out they are now the ones rushing me away from lingering — “present mom” notices a lot more, which apparently can get annoying!
Doing nothing doesn’t need to be a big deal — don’t think of it as meditating, which can sound hard at first. It’s simply breathing, and this how-to is my gift to you and your loved ones (the ones who, like mine, will thank you for finding your peace).
Doing this for just a few minutes each day, or as often as you can, will start to feel like your present to yourself. If that feels weird or uncomfortable, as it does for many women who feel responsible for everything, just remember, all you’re doing is, well, nothing.
Good Housekeeping readers can get a month free on the UnPlug app by using the code GOODHOUSEKEEPING30.