Why being idle can make your creative juices flow
The last time I had nothing to do was in 1988
I was single, childless, and working as an EFL teacher in Istanbul. I had a room in a shared apartment. A cleaner looked after the shared spaces, so all I had to do was keep my (tiny) room tidy.
On Saturdays and Sundays I worked from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This was hard because we tended to party on Friday and Saturday nights along with everybody else. But it meant Sunday afternoons punctuated the week with a welcome pause, a time to visit the street market and pick up fruit and vegetables, go for a walk in one of the rare parks, or reply to letters.
'Any letters for me today?'
It’s hard to remember how it was when mail came (or didn’t) and you replied to it and then you waited for some more. If there wasn’t any, then you talked to someone or read your book or went out. I’m not suggesting it was better than it is now (I was often homesick!), but it was certainly different and meant one had periods of free time.
Nowadays, like most people, I always have something to do. Either I need to attend to my various ‘to do’ lists or if I find myself out and about with time to spare, I’ll look at my phone to read emails, follow up links, or search for information.
Spend some time noticing
But there’s also a benefit to spending time simply noticing and letting the world come to you. Sight is our dominant sense but we tend to see what we’re expecting to see, so for a change, pay attention to everything ‘in the frame’. It is fun to do this when you’re sitting on a bus in the city centre because people don’t know you’re watching them.
Harvard art history professor Jennifer Roberts gets her students to go to a museum or gallery and spend three hours looking at the work they plan to study. She says, ‘This lesson about art, vision, and time goes far beyond art history. It serves as a master lesson in the value of critical attention, patient investigation, and scepticism about immediate surface appearances.’ You can read her full article in Harvard Magazine.
Play with your senses
It is thought we have around 33 different senses, most of those associated with movement and knowledge of what our body is doing.
Try listening to all the sounds around you and within you, including scarcely perceptible ones. We don't register what we're used to. I remember noticing the absence of planes in the sky during the Great Ash Cloud of 2010, although I'd never previously thought of them as noisy.
What can you smell? If there’s nothing obvious, let your nose take a journey along your bare arm. It's more interesting than you might imagine.
Take a spoonful of chutney and pay attention to the different flavours that appear as you chew. (This is supposed to be a good way of dealing with a craving for something sweet.)
Place your hand on the various objects on your desk, noticing the textures and temperatures. (I've just done this and realised I need to do some cleaning!)
Lie down in Active Rest, paying attention to the outlines and pressures beneath you, the movement of your breathing, and the awareness of which part of you is where.
The default mode network
It is rare for us to have nothing to do, so we need to create space for ‘idling’. Research using fMRI scanners has shown that there are high levels of coordinated activity in certain areas of the brain (a collection of brain regions called ‘the default mode network’ - DMN) even when it is not carrying out any specific tasks. Neuroscientists don’t know exactly what is going on, but speculate the brain is making sense of what it has experienced and that this is linked to creativity.
Recently I was walking along the road, not thinking about anything in particular, merely noticing the rhythmic action of my feet. Suddenly an interesting idea popped into my head, promptly followed by another! They were both connected to projects I had been considering earlier in the day.
Don't miss what you're not looking for!
It is worrying that research proposals with an obvious commercial benefit tend to be seen as more valuable than those without. How can you discover new things if you’re looking for what you already know? In Bruce Fertman’s book Teaching by Hand, Learning by Heart he quotes from one of Tony Hillerman’s detective novels:
‘Two Navajo Tribal Police, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are walking around an old trailer where a murder has just taken place. “What are you looking for?” Jim Chee asks. “Nothing,” Leaphorn answers. “If I’m looking for what I’m looking for, I might miss what I’m not looking for.”
I love that. Next time you have a coffee break, make sure it’s a real break. Enjoy the fragrance of the coffee, the warmth of the cup, and really notice the taste. Don’t look for anything in particular and wait for the ideas to flow!