The surprising richness of empty time

The pressure is on us all to constantly work smarter and faster – but doing nothing from time to time can nurture our imagination, and may be the best thing we can do for our mental health. So slack off this winter and discover the hidden riches of empty time.

Do you cram each day with back-to-back activities, or habitually multitask but find you haven’t achieved what you needed to at day’s end? Have you ever returned to your desk with an urgent to-do list only to discover your emails have multiplied at speed while you were away?

We all go through periods of intense busyness, but when the pace remains relentless it can leave us feeling a little desperate. It’s easy to get stuck in the rut of trying to do too much, says French academic Manfred F R Kets de Vries. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts in our networked society, and with the balance between activity and inactivity seriously out of sync, we’re at risk of information overload.

“Balance is crucially important,” says de Vries. “There’s a time to work and a time to play. If we don’t know how to calibrate the balance between action and reflection, we may become a casualty of psychological burnout.”

De Vries is a distinguished professor of leadership development and organisational change at INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau, France. In the paper ‘Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom’, de Vries suggests we can be so busy making a living that we forget to make a life.

The decision to make a change is often not an easy one. New Zealand magazine editor Victoria Wells decided to seek greater work/life balance after seven years at the helm of the award-winning food magazine Dish.

“I’d returned to full-time work eight months after the birth of my son George,” she says. “A year on, George was happily settled in daycare but after not being with him during the days, I really missed him when there was call for me to work evenings and weekends. I came to realise how much my life had changed since having him. Before, the extra hours that occasionally go with the role and the constant busyness were just part of the job, but increasingly I felt like I was split two ways and not happy with what I was able to give to either half. It was starting to impact my health.”

The compulsion to be busy starts early. How often did our parents or teachers suggest we sit still and do nothing? And do our bosses ever say the same? Doing nothing has never really been acceptable, says de Vries.

We’re usually told to work harder, be diligent and stay focused. We associate doing nothing with irresponsibility, being on the wrong track or, even worse, wasting our life. There’s pressure in the workplace and wider society to collaborate, speak up, step forward, lean in – do practically anything to be noticed. Little is said, other than negatively, about doing nothing.

We’re usually told to work harder, be diligent and stay focused. We associate doing nothing with irresponsibility, being on the wrong track or, even worse, wasting our life. There’s pressure in the workplace and wider society to collaborate, speak up, step forward, lean in – do practically anything to be noticed. Little is said, other than negatively, about doing nothing.

The pace of life

Only two decades ago there were no smartphones and tablets, and few computers. Not so long before that most communication was done by post. There was no such thing as instant replay or instant response, no interruptions from emails or conference calls. Multitasking was rare.

“Life was conducted with a leisurely rhythm, with the luxury of periods of uninterrupted time in which to reflect and think,” says de Vries. “We could even be bored.” Now, busyness defines our lives.

Look around you on the bus, in cafes or walking down the street: many people will be glued to a mobile device. Today’s office workers and executives typically spend a large percentage of time responding to emails, networking, taking and making calls. All this activity takes energy and mental space.

“It’s my observation that many of us are not waving but drowning, and that the incessant flow of our compulsive communication has become a kind of manic defense,” says de Vries. The trouble with manic defence is that what we push out of the door has a tendency to climb back in through the window. Increased anxiety leads to increased activity which, instead of having an anxiety-reducing effect, leads to even more activity and additional, unhealthy behaviour patterns.

One reason we cling to busyness is to ward off disturbing thoughts and feelings. Busyness suppresses the truth of what troubles us. It allows us to push away feelings of helplessness, despair, loneliness and depression. Time is filled rushing from one task to another; leisure time turned into a series of “shoulds” and “have-tos”, things to tick off a list.

The aim, says de Vries, is to distract the conscious mind with a flurry of activity or feelings of euphoria, purposefulness and the illusion of control. “It’s increasingly difficult to find space for quiet time in our high-tech cyber world,” he says. “People don’t like it when someone is apparently doing nothing. It’s considered provocative.”

Can you stand to do nothing, even for a few minutes? Do you get a buzz when you’re really busy, and feel guilty when not occupied with some activity? In a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness can seem scary. Cyberspace is the perfect place to lose ourselves in manic busyness. Mobile technology ensures we’re never out of others’ reach and have a huge selection of entertainment and distraction at hand.

Whereas previous generations might have lit a cigarette, now we’re more likely to fill the day’s pauses by pulling out our phones and mindlessly inhaling information.

Granted, it’s probably better to look at Facebook than to smoke, but busyness of this kind can be just as addictive.

The workplace is another arena where unhealthy busyness can thrive. Unfortunately, in some modern workplaces work addicts are encouraged, supported and rewarded, says de Vries. On a less extreme level such behaviour is useful to organisations, but a culture of work addiction can create workplace tension and chaos.

Behind your busyness

Change can start with asking ourselves why we’re so busy. We’re stressed and perhaps not even sure we’re running in the right direction. Eventually, something has to give. Jane Austen once said, “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.” We might be so busy with nothings that we leave no time for things that are most important, says de Vries, such as listening to music, making love, playing sport, seeing a play or film, leisurely strolls, or simply being present in the moment.

Change involves unplugging. It’s about giving up the habit of shielding ourselves from certain feelings, or of trying to manipulate our experience before acknowledging what that experience is. “I think we live in a button-driven society, everybody is always pressing buttons to get the answers,” says renowned fashion icon and nonagenarian Iris Apfel. “More and more people live without soul, they’re just an empty shell.”

Moments of doing nothing provide opportunities to glimpse the dark side of our nature, a domain of great energy and passion. Many of us fear the consequences of silencing the noises that bombard us. In a series of studies, University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues found that participants from a range of ages didn’t enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but ponder. In one study, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women even chose to inflict electric shocks on themselves rather than sit quietly and think.

Being alone with ourselves can be scary, says de Vries. Distractions stimulate the brain to shoot dopamine into the bloodstream, giving us a rush that can make stopping difficult.

It takes courage to go to the regions of our mind we’re usually so busy avoiding. And yet taking a journey into our own interior is more important for our mental, physical and spiritual health than almost anything else. Creating time for calm, uninterrupted, freely associative thought offers opportunities for insight.

“The secret of truly successful, creative people may well be that they learned very early in life how not to be busy,” de Vries says. “It can be difficult to walk away from a job you love,” admits Victoria. “It’s not a decision I made lightly and I realise it’s not an option for everyone. I’m lucky that my partner was totally supportive of me trying a different way of working that would hopefully be better for our family.”

The benefits of boredom

We wouldn’t typically volunteer to be bored; we usually do whatever we can to avoid it. Activity typically makes us feel better while boredom can be surprisingly hard to tolerate. But it offers interesting rewards.

Boredom generates the feeling that whatever we’re doing is an unrewarding activity. We’re swamped by the urge to engage in something satisfying but are unable to do so. Switching to more interesting activities provides an out, but we miss the chance to develop our inner resources if we can’t learn to deal constructively with such moments.

Anyway, there are times every day – sitting in traffic, waiting in the supermarket queue or attending tedious meetings – when switching activities simply isn’t an option. Boredom is part of many aspects of domestic life and repetitive functional or service jobs. To get through such moments without resentment we need strategies.

A series of recent studies, including one from Pennsylvania State University, found bored participants performed better in creativity tests than those who were relaxed, elated, or distressed. So next time we want to kickstart our creativity, we might first spend some time reading the phone book – as this study had people doing.

It’s frustrating when we’ve been working on a problem only to hit a number of dead ends. Research suggests that rather than forcing a solution, a better strategy is to focus our attention elsewhere or to try doing nothing at all. The term for this is ‘incubation’: the aim to encourage new unconscious thoughts to emerge into consciousness – ideally in the form of sudden insights.

Boredom can trigger expectation and imagination – critical resources that push us to seek the unfamiliar, explains de Vries. With boredom can come reflective thought and, with that, something entirely new. When we let go of a problem, the process of slacking off can help dissolve our mental block.

It’s in the passive, unfocused moment that our “eureka” experiences are most likely to occur. Suddenly the answer appears “out of the blue”, when our thoughts are elsewhere. For instance, Paul McCartney is said to have woken one morning with the tune for Yesterday in his head. As 16th-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari put it, “Men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”

Incubation time isn’t just for the gifted few, says de Vries; it’s for all of us. Companies such as 3M, Pixar and, more locally Air New Zealand, are just some of the many organisations using mindfulness training, disconnected time or other contemplative practices to help employees tackle workplace stress or access their creative potential.

Potentially, we can all use such techniques, in the workplace and in our personal lives.

Eyes on the prize

Although most of us would prefer not to overwhelm our lives with work, we typically push ourselves because we have our eyes on a long-term goal. There’s nothing wrong with having a dream and working towards it, says de Vries, but if we’re going to sacrifice our present wellbeing for a later goal, we need to be sure we’re heading where we really want to go.

Are our aims aligned with what we want from life? Otherwise, all our busyness might lead to a place where we won’t be truly happy.

For Victoria, choosing a new career direction as a freelance journalist has allowed her a much greater degree of flexibility. “Embracing change can be scary –such as giving up the security of job title and salary. But it’s also been really exciting, and I feel happier now,” she says. “I don’t want to look back with regret. George is nearly three now and talking so much, really developing his personality – I love our time together. There are times when he says or does something and I think, “I might have missed that.”

It’s easy to get caught up in a race towards a fantasy tomorrow, says de Vries.

“Dreams may disappoint, and may in any case have more to do with avoiding the present than building the future. Regardless of how things might be once our efforts pay off, life always takes place in the present. We don’t know what the future holds, whether we’ll still be in good health or the people we love will still be around. The opportunity to enjoy what we cherish is in the here and now, so we need to seize the day and engage with them while we can.”

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