How to Be More Productive Doing Nothing

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The Lost Art of Nothingness

By Bill Farrand, MA, LCPC

While as children most of us can probably remember spending a great deal of our time daydreaming, as adults this may be a state that we avoid allowing ourselves– perhaps the occasional moment in the shower, or that sudden realization that we need to pay a bit more attention while we are behind the wheel. These are moments that we may startle ourselves out of, lest we waste water, become late in our rush to get to work, or worse, cause an accident.

We push ourselves to pay attention in order to remain in control.  Amazing new technologies allow us to get more done in less time, help us with multi-tasking and theoretically give us more time; but more time for what?  If you are like most people, the time you get goes right back into trying to accomplish more.

This is an unfortunate irony. The more technology allows us to do, the more we feel driven to do even more. Just a few generations ago, our time outside of regular work was likely filled with tasks such as writing checks and balancing a checkbook, cooking meals from scratch, and hand-washing our delicates. So, why does all this time we are getting through modern technology seem to slip away leaving us wanting more of it?

While it is true that the demands of life may be far greater than they were back then, some research suggests that we may have lost our ability just to do nothing, resulting in this state of constant frenzy to get more done. To understand this concept, consider the results of 11 recent studies where subjects were asked to remain alone in a room with their thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes.

When given the opportunity to do something else mundane, most people chose to do so over simply sitting with their thoughts. In one study 67 % of men and 25% of women actually chose to administer themselves painful electrical shocks over simply sitting and thinking, even when previously they had indicated that they would pay money not to continue to be shocked. One subject shocked himself nearly 200 times in 15 minutes.

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As shocking (no pun intended) as that may sound, it would seem to indicate that as a culture we have become unable to be still and just exist with our own thoughts.

If we aren’t busy we feel as if something is wrong and we should be doing something, so we seek some type of stimulation or distraction through yet even more technology.

art of doing nothing

While we ride the train, we no longer allow ourselves to stare out of the window and be with our thoughts– we feel compelled to check our SnapChat feeds to see how others are distracting themselves.

Think of yourself and when the last time was that you were waiting in line at the market that you were not checking your smartphone or texting. Of course the solution to that is simply to order online using Siri, while you shower. Problem solved? Not really…

Human beings need time to be still in order to refuel our tanks. The technology that has made our lives so much easier has created a state that neuroscience is calling “cognitive overload”.

This state of constant feelings of being overwhelmed impairs our ability to think clearly, be creative and innovative, to organize effectively and make good decisions, and regulate our own emotions.

In other words, it impacts nearly everything we do, including sleep. And it gets worse: In order to fully feel happiness and all the other positive feelings we are capable of, we actually have to give ourselves time to be aware of them.

So the side effect of our efforts to avoid the anxiety of feeling as if we are doing nothing– by clutching that iPad for one last round of Angry Birds while catching up on Season Five of Game of Thrones so that we can make a relevant comment about it on Facebook—  is that we are actually diminishing our capacity to feel all feelings, both good and bad.

In order to be as productive and efficient as we may want and to be happy, we as individuals and as a culture need to become comfortable with being still. When you feel like you need more time, try giving yourself some more quiet time. Spend a few minutes a day with the earbuds out, the phone off, and increase your ability to tolerate just a few minutes a day of being still.

You may find you can increase that a bit each day and the rewards should soon become apparent. Many therapists are using Mindfulness Based Therapies (MBT) which can help us to be still, as part of treatment of symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and more (see our MBT related posts).

To learn more about how to make stillness a part of your life, check out The One Moment Master: Stillness for People on the Go, by Martin Boroson. You can click on the book cover above to be transport to Amazon to pick up a copy.

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