Recent studies in neuroscience (from Harvard Professors Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner) show us that when we appear to be doing nothing, a whole network of our brain lights up. While we are engaged in tasks and look busy, this same vibrant network goes dark. That dark network, when awakened, provides us with our deepest learning and reflection as well as powerful imagining of our future.
Claiming time to ourselves—time that is often labeled “unproductive”—and sticking to it can be difficult. Here are a few practices to try as you give yourself the gift of time:
- If you ride public transit or are a passenger in a vehicle on your commute, keep your cell phone in your pocket or bag. Instead stare out the window; give your brain a chance to light up those areas that go dark in the busyness of our lives.
- Instead of grabbing a left over piece of Halloween candy, take a five minute daydream break. Stare out the window or at a piece of art in your office.
- When you hear yourself saying things like, “I need more time to myself,” consider getting specific and dedicating a block of time for yourself in the day. You might say, “I’d like to spend 20 minutes by myself in the morning before everyone gets up.” Or, “I would like twenty minutes for me before I open my office door or respond to others’ requests.
- Be on the lookout for unexpected gifts of time, that can feel like “playing hooky”. Use that time to take a walk around the block; sit on a park bench; look at the trees or watch the pigeons.
- Practice doing nothing. Begin with short periods at first. You can build up to thirty minutes or maybe even an hour with practice. “Doing nothing” is an art, and like all art you need to practice it to reach your highest potential.
My daughter tells me her fourth grade art teacher, Ms. T., begins class with five minutes of “daydreaming time” where the students are invited to simply do nothing. What a radical idea! I think, Ms. T., is on to something. She is encouraging healthy brain habits for these young minds.
We can all benefit from Ms. T’s invitation for daydreaming time. Our idle time can be like a beautiful rose. It’s magnificently just there. And yet, it refreshes and inspires by its simplicity and beauty.
It’s stunning, how simple it really is.