“Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.”
Of course, there are different kinds of idleness – some not so beneficial or a “true good.”
We may feel pressured to stay busy and keep producing, but is there some value for developing creativity in being idle for periods of time?
In his article Why We Like to Keep Busy, John Grohol (founder & CEO of Psych Central) refers to studies in which “researchers discovered that we can be happy doing nothing at all and remaining idle.
“But given even the slimmest of reasons to be busy doing something, and most people will opt for doing something over nothing. The researchers also found that people were happier when they were busy, even if they were forced into busyness.”
One of the stages of creative thinking and productivity is incubation: You think about a problem or project, gather ideas related to it, then take a break – maybe a shower, a walk or something that takes longer, and don’t consciously work on the project, but allow the ideas you’ve gathered to percolate.
Maybe our busyness interferes with that.
For a better description, hear an audio clip by neuropsychologist by Rex Jung on why incubation is something we can cultivate to enhance our creative potential, in my article The Creativity Conference with David Burkus.
“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble.” – Agatha Christie
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In her article Why Do Creatives Love Nature So Much? Science, Psychology, and Nostalgia, Hanna Olsen notes, “We already know that time off is great for rejuvenating creativity — though just leaving the office (but taking your work email with you) doesn’t really count. Instead, for optimal rebooting, your brain needs to idle for a while.”
She quotes Lawton Ursery, writing for Forbes: “Idleness isn’t a luxury, but rather a necessity in order to be at your peak. It’s backed by neuroscience. Idleness truly makes your brain function better.”
Olsen continues: “And, of course, where better to idle than in the quiet serenity of a beautiful hike in the woods?
“Nature might also be a prime destination for creative folks because of the primal pleasures it offers, like the smells, sounds, and sights that greet your senses when you, say, don’t have a phone in your hand.
“When you hit the trail, you can expect at least one sensory boost; color theory expert Tobi Fairley explains that the color green has been linked to more creative thinking.”
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive.
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Lawton Ursery, quoted earlier, writes in his Forbes magazine article Your Brain Unplugged: Proof That Spacing Out Makes You More Effective:
“We’re taught that taking on more is better—it makes us more valuable. The reality is that doing too many things makes us less efficient.”
He notes that Andrew Smart, whom he interviewed, “argues that our ‘culture of effectiveness’ is not only ineffective, but it can be harmful to your well-being. Andrew says that in order to be more creative and more engaged, we need to unplug.”
Smart refers to research by neurologist Marcus Raichle, who “found that when subjects performed specific tasks, activity in certain brain regions, like the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex, and the precuneus, was suppressed.
“This was an odd conclusion, so Raichle decided to test further subjects but didn’t give them a specific task to complete.”
Ursery explains, “The result was that the exact same regions that deactivated during concentration become super active when not focused on a specific task—this means increased blood flow in your brain—this means a healthier, happier, more creative brain.
“In neuroscience, this network of brain regions that become so active during idleness is referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN) or the Resting State Network (RSN).”
Andrew Smart is author of Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing.
[Painting: Idleness by John William Godward, Oil on canvas 1900 – from the Art Renewal Center.]
Our drifting mind
Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman refers in his book to research by neuroscientist Kalina Christoff who thinks we may learn to “accept our drifting mind as a normal, even necessary, part of our mental existence.”
Kaufman also refers to the specific brain network referred to as “task negative,” “resting,” or “default,” which “is heavily involved in the inner stream of consciousness.”
Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute; a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.
[Brain image from article: Do Artists Have Unique Brains?]
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In her article How to Be More Creative: Take Time Off and Work Fewer Hours, Hanna Brooks Olsen notes that designer Stefan Sagmeister “has mandated year-long sabbaticals every seven years” at his firm.
“For a full year, he explains in his TED Talk, his entire shop closes down. They do no client work. Because, Sagmeister says, constantly grinding away at work had made their output less desirable.”
[Follow the link to her article to see video.]
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A final quote:
“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” – Virginia Woolf
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