UPDATE: This article was originally posted a few years back – before I wrote my book, Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of Crazy Busy. It’s still very timely so worth a repost. Read on and get a link to one of the Ease Tools mini chapters (Tool #13)
I used to be good at doing nothing. I mean really good. I remember years ago during summer breaks as a young adult I’d hang out on the porch (when I wasn’t working at my summer job) and just relax. No goals, no agenda….just me and some music and my wandering mind. Me and my imagination. Some of my best daydreams happened in those idyllic hours. I don’t seem to do enough of that these days. Ahhh, the art of non-doing….
Wow. I miss those days. Not because of the time I had (well that too) but because I now realize how valuable and important downtime really is.
I’m not referring to hobbies. Those I do plenty. I’m referring to ‘simply doing nothing’. The act of hanging out where there is no agenda, no structure, no goal….nada.
Why is doing nothing so important?
Neuroscience experts say some of our best breakthroughs and thinking comes when we stop consciously thinking and completely disengage from goal-oriented activity.
By intentionally disconnecting from deliberate, goal-focused, conscious thinking, we give our brains a chance to “clear the cache” (that’s my expression for declutter and break from mental patterns) — and instead, engage in a process called ‘integration’. This has something to do with letting the brain access disparate information stored in our memory in a natural way. The unfolding of new connections without effort often leading to insights and creativity that far surpasses that which may come from deliberate problem solving. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should stop thinking or trying to solve our creative problems – just that we should also allow some white space too and deliberately take time to disengage.
A shout-out to leaders: doing nothing is actually a leadership competency. Add that to your to-do list!
Herbert Benson, MD and William Proctor, co-authored a book called The Break-Out Principle, which talks about this concept in great detail. They say taking breaks from thinking about an issue can trigger an inner switch (that they call “the break-out principle” that increases mental function, creativity and productivity.
Hmmm, I’ll take two orders of that please!
Actually come to think of it, while I may not disengage as often as I’d like, I have had many of my moments and share of break-out principles. In fact, just this weekend I was taking a break from my book writing project and forced myself to get out for a ‘do-nothing’ walk in the ravine. Well go figure – I came back with so many new thoughts and ideas.
The problem is this boost of creativity ends up adding to more ‘doing’ for me because of all those shiny new ideas and inspired energy (gotta actualize those ideas!) instead of taking coveted rest, rest, rest. Ahh, but that is another topic.
Well, it is summer and this weekend it’s Canada Day so hopefully many of us are getting out to do lots of nothing. Two more months before the so-called ‘busy season’ (yeah, I know, it’s always the busy season). Let’s make a pact and try to do lots more of this quality nothing.
By the way, I get into more detail on this concept in my upcoming book on managing overload in times of crazy busy.
UPDATE: Indeed my book has been published and you can read more about it here: www.Easerx.com — and you can also read the chapter on how to ‘clear the cache’ — see Tool #13 here.
To your personal and professional wellbeing!
I read the Break Out Principle years ago – and lean on it ALL the time when I want to solve problems! I used to hate doing dishes – and now it’s one of the most insightful times of the day!
Hi Kim,I also read his book many years ago and I also have so many examples of things I do to “stop doing” to have those breakthroughs…it really works! More to come in my book! Tnx for taking the time….to read the article anid comment 🙂
Great article Eileen! Emerging research would support your experience of going for a walk as an ideal break – and a source of getting creative or unstuck. I, too have experienced new ideas, resolution of questions or issues just from going for a walk. Thanks for the reminder.
Although it has a different purpose than clearing your mind, ‘walking meetings’ are starting to take hold as a way to keep ideas moving. Do you have any experience with ‘walking meetings’? I’ve had some positive experiences/insights walking with clients.
Hey Cheryl, you are right! Yes, tons of research…neuroscience based evidence. i write a bit more about this concept in my upcoming book and spoke of it in the webinar I gave with CPA (bogged down ad overwhelmed). Thanks for visiting the blog and come back again!