Why Doing Nothing Matters

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a productivity coach told you that, today, you will achieve more by doing less?  What if an innovation expert told you that the best way to have a good idea, is to sit back and do nothing?  Would you believe it if your favorite guru proposed one simple rule you could adopt right now for living a great life: stop trying so hard!

In fact all these pronouncements are true. You are at your best not when you pack every moment of the day with more to do, but when you are willing to engage in intentional and indulgent periods of downtime. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s lazy to linger over a coffee while watching the parade of people passing the café; that gazing out the window day-dreaming is a waste of time; or even that hanging out your washing while a report sits unfinished on your laptop is procrastination. In fact these might just be the most important moments in your day.

There is a deep pool of discerning insight, surprising creativity and profound wisdom that resides inside each of us, but it will rest there untapped, unseen and unheard, unless you reclaim the right to be idle from time to time. It’s only when you untether your mind from the constant push and pull of daily tasks that another layer of depth bubbles to the surface. It’s why so many people experience “aha” moments in random places like the shower, looking out the window of the train, walking in nature, and while on holidays. A total transformation takes place in your brain when you slow down, look up, let go and fall silent.

Isaac sat in his garden, as he did most afternoons, and enjoyed watchingenjoying the changing colors of the sky. Birds flew past as they foraged for their last meal of the day, and the wind tickled the leaves of a laden apple tree. As he sat peacefully, his body was relaxed, his heart beat was slow and steady, and his attention wandered gently across the vista below, captured by nothing in particular. In that moment, an apple fell from the tree. In Isaac’s open and receptive state, the movement of the apple was recorded as more than just a trivial act of nature. Somewhere deep in the recesses of his brain a cascade of ideas, theories and notions that had been brewing for many years, but had remained jumbled like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, suddenly found their missing piece: the theory of gravity.

If, rather than relaxing and doing nothing in particular, Sir Isaac Newton had been sitting in his garden dwelling on problems, running through his to-do list for the next day, or reviewing his unfinished papers trying desperately to unravel his long-sought solution, the falling apple would not have made its mark. At best he may have thought to himself “It’s time to harvest those apples”, or he might have mindlessly picked it up and eaten it, or he may not have seen it all. He probably would have walked away from his garden that afternoon, shoulders heavy, head hung low, and continued the hard slog of “trying” to find the answer. In fact, if Newton was that sort of guy, he never would have visited his garden!

What a shame that those who shape the modern work environment judge downtime to be “dead time”, as if nothing of value occurs when you disconnect from plans, tasks, deadlines and expectations. While there’s nothing wrong with hard work, dedication and effort, it’s a mistake to believe they are the only ingredients required to “produce the goods”. The greatest leaps forward, not just throughout history, but for every one of us in our regular lives, rely on our willingness to stop and hear the whisper-quiet voice of our own deep knowledge and wisdom. Unless you value liberal doses of doing nothing, you’re not giving your full potential the chance to emerge.

Busy-ness is a barrier to self reflection, a hindrance to novel solutions, and a smokescreen to clarity.  We all want to do more of the things that matter, and less of the things that don’t. But doing more and more and more, just because it’s there to be done, is not just a recipe for stress and exhaustion, it’s also a pathway to mediocrity.  In a state of busy-ness, you cannot access your best ideas, or distinguish between meaningful and meaningless tasks, or notice the subtle voice of intuition rising from the deep. In a state of busy-ness, your brain moves fast, skimming the tops of the waves, and grabbing a bite of everything in its path in a futile attempt to consume it all. At this speed your brain cannot digest what it takes in, let alone convert it into productive outcomes or useful ideas. Not only will you make mistakes and miss vital information when you’re in a state of constant action, you’ll lose all sense of discernment and do a lot of stuff that ends up being a waste of your precious energy.

Your brain is never quiet. Electrical activity crackles between neurons constantly, whether you’re awake, asleep, planning, listening, day dreaming or worrying. Lucky for us we now live in a world where scientists have been able to map the different patterns of our brain activity against the various things we do in our lives. And one of the most fascinating discoveries is the pattern of activity that reveals itself when you do nothing in particular.

While you might think more goes on in there when you are busy, in fact the opposite is true. When you’re engaged in goal-directed tasks or attention-demanding thoughts, very specific regions of your brain light up. This synchronized lightning storm is known as the Task Positive Network, and it reflects the concentration of energy flowing through regions of your brain associated with conscious mental processes like listening, planning, analyzing, problem solving and decision making.

But when you sit back, look up and relax, that network quietens down and a different one comes to life. This is the Task Negative Network and compared to the normal lightning storm that accompanies your day to day tasks, this network is more like New Year’s Eve fireworks! With your attention no longer directed to something in particular, the electrical activity in your brain is free to flicker and flow broadly and deeply, activating regions often kept silent when you are busy, and connecting neurons that don’t get the chance to share their information when you’ve got something else to do. No wonder the ideas and insights you have in Task Negative mode can be unexpected, novel and uniquely personal.

We’ll never know what aspect of the falling apple unearthed Newton’s final piece of the gravity puzzle. But we do know that it’s essential to get out of the way if you want the deepest parts of your brain to join the party.

Extract taken from Do Less Be More: ban busy and make space for what matters.