Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: The unbearable lightness… of doing nothing

If we remove false needs, goals and expectations and purposes, we strip away the need to do much of what we do. We can then be left with an emptiness that can be filled only with what’s necessary, with what’s natural, with what’s beautiful.” Leo Babauta, The Effortless Life

It is an urban science legend that many of the great discoveries made by geniuses such as Einstein, Archimedes, and Newton were made while they were allowing their minds to wander. The stories say that Archimedes was taking a bath, Einstein was taking a walk in a lightning storm, and Newton was sitting under an apple tree. Today, scientists and thinkers alike agree that daydreaming and wandering is key to solving complex questions. Yet with technology — and the incessant entertainment it brings — there are less and less opportunities for us to “do nothing”.

Our harried lifestyles and our electronic devices have all but robbed us of those mundane but powerful moments of watching the roll and crash of ocean waves, the birth of a thunderstorm, the mesmerizing flicker of a flame or the dance of wild birds enjoying a seed feeder.

Doing nothing is not really doing nothing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The natural world is so full of glory and reason, many of us don’t realize just how stimulating it is - because we don’t allow ourselves to embrace it. The lightness is unbearable.

Will Willimon, in his TIME magazine article, The Importance of Daydreaming, says that the wandering mind is in fact our brain’s default mode. Left to its own device, the brain wants to go to the beach when not working on calculus or playing Angry Birds.

One neurological study demonstrated how half of our thoughts are daydreams. Sometimes we are so intimidated by the magnitude of a problem that we dare not consciously think about it. But then, when we’re half asleep or bored, our minds wander toward intimidating mental challenges. And it’s then that we unthinkingly do our best thinking.

A wandering mind seeks its incubator in which it makes those “Aha!” moments. Why? because there’s no controlling censor to whisper, “That’s ridiculous.” Willimon says that not even a good graduate-school education compares to the value of a walk in the woods, an indulgent bath, or whiling away in a garden. Einstein once said that “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. Our society honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Note to self: both Play-Doh and Silly Putty were discovered by mistake.

Why is it hard to do nothing

In the article, Why Is It So Hard for Us to Do Nothing?, Alison Gopnik shares a University of Virginia study which revealed how unsettled the participants became when asked to do nothing for 15 minutes. Most students reported a lack of concentration, half said they disliked the experience. And many said they would submit to electric shocks just to distract them from having to sit and think.

The fact is, when we do nothing, many parts of the brain that support complex thinking light up like Christmas trees. Gopnik says daydreaming is a particularly powerful kind of thinking — and we humans, unlike any other animal, have evolved the ability to live in our own thoughts, detached from the demands of immediate actions and experiences.

Less time in the office but working more

Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness, in his CNN article The Surprising Benefits of Doing Nothing, says doing nothing is an old principle: we need at times to step away from our lives in order to put them in perspective. Especially if we want to be productive.

Yet it takes 25 minutes to recover from a phone call or an e-mail, and the average person receives these interruptions every 11 minutes. Which means that we’re never caught up; we’re always out of breath, running behind.

Teaching kids stillness

In the NY Times article, What’s Your Teenager Doing This Summer? In Defense of ‘Nothing’, former Stanford University dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims reflects on the kids whose applications have passed through her portal. Those who have spent their summers in full time internship and summer courses, completing SAT and college essay writing preps, or even honing their talent in a sports or music program. She says while these accomplishments are admirable, the kids are missing the opportunity to kick around do nothing.

As others, she says doing “nothing” isn’t nothing. It’s doing family stuff as well as whatever they feel like: biking, building models, drawing, talking to Grandma, reading a book, mowing lawns, sitting down with a guitar, learning how to drive, going for a swim, daydreaming in the hammock, lying on the grass staring up at the clouds. This natural stuff of life — enables young people to get acquainted with themselves, which is essential to their well-being, and helps them figure out where they’re going in the years ahead.

Lythcott-Haims says that pre-programmed, enriched and “checklisted childhoods” might lead to an impressive résumé and even admission to a highly selective college, but it comes at the expense of self-efficacy — a true, innate sense of self that is undermined when a person has too much of life planned for them.

Beware she says. The mentality that students are only worthwhile if they have some notable, signature personal achievement will eventually creep into children’s bedrooms, infecting them like a virus. It can shape the way they dream.

Selling the art of doing nothingIn The Guardian article Five Reasons Why We Should All Learn How to Do Nothing, Oliver Burkeman says that from the Buddha to John Keats — “doing” can has been viewed as a kind of compulsion, an addiction we fail to acknowledge because society praises us for it. Yet learning how to do nothing might be the most vital skill for children and adults alike who must survive in this frenetic, overwhelmed, always-connected culture. Burkeman proposes that

1. “Doing nothing” isn’t really doing nothing

Even if you are relishing the pleasure of stillness, you are still doing something. Most people see doing nothing as doing nothing useful. Yet useful can be defined in ways that don’t always serve us well. Usefulness is intrinsically future-oriented: it pulls you from the present - and keeps you from savoring the moment.

2. Even boredom can boost creativity

Many celebrated authors and artists incorporate long walks in their daily routines. Unconscious processing has no constraints, so when you’ve no end in mind, you’re less likely to exclude new ideas.

3. Too much busyness is counterproductive

We chronically confuse effort with effectiveness: a day spent on trifling tasks feels exhausting and virtuous, so we assume — often wrongly — it must have been useful.

4. The brain depends on downtime

Our mantra has evolved into do more, push harder, push longer. But neuroscientists are increasingly finding that our brains thrive on downtime — not just for recharging, but for strengthening the neural pathways that make the processing of data and long term learning possible.

5. Downtime can recapture your attention

Doing nothing is not easy. It takes willpower. We all want to be productive and get stuff done, so we consume ourselves with being busy. It has become part of our psyche. We feel busy, but are we actually getting anything meaningful done?

How to do nothing

HuffPost writer Cliff Hsia, in his article, The Art of Doing Nothing, says doing nothing calms the soul and creates peace. When you start doing nothing, you start working towards meaning.

Our natural state is to be in constant motion. But in order to make sure our motion is going in the right direction, we first need to be still. We need to remove the noise of our busy lives and let gravity pull us down.

He says to start your day off right, do the most important thing first. Do nothing. Sit still. Breathe. Meditate. Pray. Then open your eyes. You’re now ready to take on the world.

Mark Hyman, MD, in his article Why Doing Nothing Is the Key to Happiness, reminds us that what matters most in life is the quality of our experience, the ability to be awake to what is real and true in our lives, for the difficult and happy times, to be awake to each person we touch, to our own experience, to the moment we are in, to the simple, sweet, and alive gifts of a smile, a touch, a kind deed, the breeze on our skin, or a firefly flickering in the early summer night.

But it is harder than it sounds. In order to pay attention we need to be quiet, to be practiced at stillness, to know the habits of our mind and be skilled at dancing with them, not to be controlled or dominated by them.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.