One might assume that Isaac Newton was hard at work in his laboratory when he stumbled upon gravity. Such a monumental discovery surely occurred in a room where he was surrounded by books, diagrams, and mathematical equations.
You’d be wrong of course.
When Isaac Newton saw the apple fall from the tree, he was sitting idle in his garden daydreaming. This wasn’t the only time either. In fact, Isaac Newton, a physicist and mathematician instrumental in helping us to get where we are today, made it a point to sit in his garden regularly and do nothing.
When was the last time you just sat and let your mind wander?
With our crazy to-do lists, digital devices, social networks, and social circles, we’re constantly trying to eek just one more ounce of productivity out of our day. The thought of just sitting down and staring off into space is so foreign it sounds ludicrous.
Isaac Newton was on to something early on. Those hours of sitting in his garden weren’t hurting his productivity. They were sparking original ideas and encouraging creativity. They’re crucial for keeping your mind healthy.
Let’s explore why doing nothing is more beneficial to your health than you would ever imagine.
Your Brain While Doing Nothing
In 2001, Marcus Raichle out of Washington University ran an experiment using an MRI to measure brain activity while his subjects completed various tasks. What he found was surprising. Parts of their brains actually decreased in activity as they completed certain tasks. As Andrew Smart explains in Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:
This was surprising, because it was previously suspected that during cognitive tasks brain activity should only increase, relative to another task or to a “flat baseline”.
Raichle didn’t know it at the time, but he had stumbled upon a new connection within the brain, a connection that actually decreases in activity when you’re working. Referred to as the “resting-state network” or “default mode network”, this part of the brain is active when you aren’t worrying about what you’re going to say at that important meeting or what you’re going to cook for dinner. The default mode network is active when you’re doing…well, nothing.
The default mode network encompasses crucial parts of the brain that you’ve probably heard of like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The individual areas aren’t so important. What’s crucial to know is that the areas involved in the default mode network are all involved in deep thinking, reflection, and introspection.
During idleness, activity across these areas increases. Information flows back and forth at a rapid pace. As you daydream, your heart rate begins to slow and you drift slowly away from the present. Meanwhile, your brain is busy contemplating, analyzing, and synthesizing information. It’s during these moments that you can connect the dots between two seemingly disparate ideas to create a novel concept.
It’s when you’re idle that you can be the most creative. It’s also during this idle time that your brain can participate in deep self-reflection, the kind that helps you figure out who you really are deep inside.
The default mode network doesn’t just come on with the flip of a switch. Like a muscle, it needs to be worked in order to operate in peak fashion. Our culture of being over-worked and under-rested has provided us with little opportunity to train our default mode networks. Bertrand Russell, a famed philosopher and author of In Praise of Idleness writes:
“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
In short, our increasing desire to do more is leaving us with less time to sit and do nothing.
Flexing Your Idle Muscle
Your boss likely wouldn’t be too happy if you told him you were staring at a wall for 15 minutes to fire up your default mode network. Your family also wouldn’t be thrilled to know that dinner will be a bit late this evening so you can have some time for daydreaming and self-reflection.
The truth is it’s hard to find time to be idle, but it’s not impossible. The key is carving out this time like you would anything else.
Try meditation. Lao Tzu was no stranger to meditation. As a Chinese sage, he spent a lot of timing learning to quiet his mind, and he spoke of the importance of a quiet mind often:
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
At first, it will feel terrible. You’ll be unable to switch off your mind, and you’ll be fidgeting instead of sitting still. That’s part of the process. As strange as it sounds, we’re not good at doing nothing. It takes practice.
Block off 5-10 minutes a day to give meditation a try. If you do it regularly, you’ll find that quieting your mind becomes easier and easier.
Schedule time for daydreaming. When was the last time you just sat and let your mind wander without having a secret agenda? Probably quite awhile ago.
Like meditation, daydreaming is often hard. Our to-do list constantly creeps into our mind, we start thinking of everything that needs to get done.
Pick a time during your day and put it on your calendar. Reserve it for daydreaming. Sit outside if you can or wherever else feels comfortable. If you have a limited amount of time, start a timer. Then, just let your mind wander.
Even if you only have two minutes, you can practice this exercise.
Become proactive. Finding time for sharpening your default mode network is difficult largely because our day is spent in a reactive way. Our to-do list is formulated by incoming emails, each one taking precedent over the last. We’re not in control of calling the shots.
Flip your day on its head. Start by listing out all of the things you need to accomplish the night before. If you can, avoid checking email before lunch. Turn your phone on silent. This way, you’ll get a head start on things that are actually important for you to get done. You’ll suddenly realize that you do in fact have time for 5-10 minutes of sitting idly.
Change your mindset. It’s very hard to imagine that actually doing nothing can be just as productive as spending an extra hour at work. We’ve been conditioned to think that working harder equals more results. That’s simply not true.
Our current model of the 40-hour workweek wasn’t even based on science. There’s a direct correlation between hard work and results up until a point. After that point, working harder doesn’t pay off.
Flip your mindset to acknowledge the importance of rest. It’s crucial for your long-term productivity and mental health.
The power of the default mode network obviously has its limits. Lounging around on your couch all day will not turn you into a genius. Still, sitting idly and daydreaming is a perfect accompaniment to your busy day for a healthier and more creative brain.