It’s hard work, doing nothing
It wasn’t too long ago that, when faced with a wait time or a queue to contend with, we’d have nothing better to do than get lost in our own thoughts. Wandering from one visceral space to another, our eyes glazed over as we shuffled forward in line or gazed out a window waiting for Chemistry 101 to finally come to an end (just me?). Maybe we were chastised for spacing out, brought back to planet earth by a well-meaning colleague or adult, or snapping-to all on our own with our next brilliant idea. Think about it… when was the last time you really, truly daydreamed? Stared into space and mentally wandered to far-off lands and distant galaxies… parts unknown?
I have a hard time remembering, to tell you the truth.
Lately, I’ve noticed that instead of daydreaming, when met with downtime my hands instinctively reach for the device that’s practically glued to my hip while my brain switches to ‘stand-by’, effectively deactivating as I scroll through the snapshots of other people’s lives or needlessly refresh my email for the millionth time. Rather than observe the world around me, or let my eyes glaze over while staring at the sky, my brain is all at once turned off while still a-buzz while I’m busily checking off my metal to-do list while looking at my real to-do list while looking at my phone while actually getting nothing productive done at all.
Turns out, without the distractions of modern life, humans are actually champion daydreamers. When left to our own devices without our devices, our propensity to drift into space is unlike any other cognitive function, allowing us to spontaneously wander and direct our thoughts inward. This behavior is not only beneficial to our overall wellbeing (sometimes your brain just needsrest), but studies have shown it to be essential to creativity, productivity, and planning for the future. How many times have you had an epiphany while washing your hair? Or broke through a mental block while on a run? We’re trained to think we must always be busy, be moving, be thinking of the next Big Thing, all with our phones in-hand and email on stand-by, when in reality that amazing idea is likely going hit you when you least expect it. Glazed over in an elevator staring at your shoes. Waiting in line at the DMV.
Disappointed with my own bad habit of reaching for distraction when met with a line or a wait or the desire to just do something else, I’ve been making it a point to distance myself from that technological diversion whenever possible. In the morning, I put the radio on and then place my phone on a high shelf while I go about my routine. Instead of strapping my device to my arm when I go out for a run, I leave the headphones at home and listen to my breath and the sounds of the city. What was once an arduous mental game of are we there yet? only five more songs… has transformed into a meditative time to escape within my own thoughts, or simply enjoy the rare occasion of having no thoughts at all, head in the clouds while my feet pound the pavement.
Of course, there’s always more work to be done. After years of being taught to think spacing out equaled idleness, I’m still reconditioning my brain to acknowledge that allowing myself the time to daydream could be the answer to dealing with writers’ block, discovering fresh ideas, and staying inspired. Surprisingly, it takes work to just do nothing, to leave the phone where it is, to not, immediately upon waking, check all of my social accounts and allow the flood of early morning information to wash away any semblance of creative thought that may still be lingering from my dreams. It takes work to do nothing, but I’m working on it. How about you?