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Want to do better? Try doing nothing.

When was the last time you purposefully set aside whatever you were meant to be doing, in order to do nothing at all? Can’t quite recall? I’m not surprised. With Twitter feeds close at hand and media outlets generating headlines 24/7, why would anybody waste time on a commute or in the dentist’s chair just sitting and thinking?

Inactivity–whether mental or physical– So much so that being chronically busy–once a condition only the working class would cop to–is a status symbol among today’s professionals. Around the water cooler and across social media we lament our jam-packed schedules and lack of free time. Humble-brag translation: I’m totally overwhelmed and busy all the time because of how valuable I am.

No time for creative time

The cultural emphasis on being busy means many of us feel too guilty to set aside time for a walk or quiet cup of tea. In fact, we’re now conditioned to do just the opposite. We strive to multitask, seeking ways to improve our time management, organization, efficiency, and productivity. Our nightstands groan under the weight of books intended to help us maximize our waking hours, our smartphones are dotted with apps to keep us on task and on schedule, and what little downtime we manage to eke out of a day is spent grocery shopping or visiting the DMV.

The cultural emphasis on being busy means many of us feel too guilty to set aside time for a walk or quiet cup of tea. In fact, we’re now conditioned to do just the opposite.

The impact of today’s latest technological innovations, and our feverish attempts to keep up, are felt in myriad ways. One of the most ironic may be the impact on our creativity. Experts agree that new experiences and atypical interactions spark new ideas. Not so much.

On some level, we know this: we’ve all had those lightbulb moments while tossing a frisbee or lying in the sand. These breakthroughs come when we get the chance to take a step back and view a challenge from a new perspective. But that’s hard to do when you’re scrambling from one fire to the next, constantly reacting to a situation or taking in new information. Keeping all those balls up in the air requires a certain degree of competence to be sure… but what if I told you you’d be more productive if you stopped once a day, put the balls down, and stared out the window instead?

Give the brain what the brain wants

Writer David Leonhardt sums up the downside of our harried existence: “If you spend all your time collecting new information, you won’t leave enough time to make sense of it.” He advocates what he calls a “Shultz Hour,” so called because of former Secretary of State George Shultz’s habit of taking an hour a week to stare into space. According to Leonhardt, “The science of the mind is clear about this point. Our brains can be in either ‘task-positive’ or ‘task-negative’ mode, but not both at once. Our brain benefits from spending time in each state.”

Dr. Srini Pillay, neuroscientist, and author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, believes we benefit from a balance in our thinking. “Learning to focus and unfocus will make you more effective, productive, and nimble as a thinker and problem solver. Getting into a new and conscious rhythm with them both is the key to the productivity, ingenuity, or general happiness you seek. Indeed, one of the ironic by-products of learning to unfocus is that doing so will sharpen your focus when you need it.”

In an interview Dr. Pillay explains, “Most people’s productive days are focus, focus, focus, and the amount of energy they have just goes down and down and down. By the end of the day, they’re completely fatigued. What we’re finding is that in the brain, focus and unfocused circuits need to work together. People do a decent job at the focus circuits, but they don’t realize that when they become distracted, it’s because they haven’t taken care of the unfocused circuits.”

The crayon connection

For evidence that a new way of thinking about “busy” is starting to take hold, I point you to the preponderance of adult doodling books. Doodling isn’t just about relieving stress, although that can be a piece of it. As Dr. Pillay explains in an article for Entrepreneur, “Throughout the course of the workday, doodling can actually help you overcome common blocks and stresses that derail you from strategic thinking.“ He continues, “By reaching the deeper recesses of your brain through doodling, you get back in touch with the big picture. You reintegrate lost parts of yourself and your deeper thinking, making yourself whole again.” All that from some time with a pack of Crayolas? Sign me up.

“By reaching the deeper recesses of your brain through doodling, you get back in touch with the big picture. You reintegrate lost parts of yourself and your deeper thinking, making yourself whole again.” - Dr. Srini Pillay

It may feel difficult at first to carve out time for daydreaming and doing nothing, To build unfocused time into your day, Pillay and Leonhardt advise discipline and baby steps.

  • Wake up to a traditional alarm clock–not your smartphone–and let your mind wander at the start of each day.

  • Keep your phone out of reach at certain points during the day—while driving, on a commute, during mealtimes or on a walk.

  • Turn off phone and email alerts for a portion of every day and luxuriate in the silence.

  • Schedule an hour of “unfocused” time each week, and block out that time on your calendar. As you become used to it, start doing it every day.

So, kudos to all of you doodlers and dreamers out there—the world is finally catching up to your way of thinking. By varying our current diet of nonstop information and manic activity, and switching to periods of unfocused thinking, we can reset the balance in our brain and tap into greater creativity and productivity. And all it takes is choosing to do nothing much at all.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.

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