With an overflowing to-do list and goals to achieve, time spent doing nothing can feel like time wasted. In reality, it can actually help you solve problems, boost your creativity, and help you make better decisions.
“Doing nothing” might be a bit of a misnomer. Your brain never switches off completely. Your body is always doing something. You are sitting or standing. You might be seeing, hearing, smelling, and certainly breathing (if you are reading this). But the processes set in motion when you stop focusing on specific tasks or outcomes can yield some valuable benefits.
We all struggle with the idea of “doing nothing”, which can be an uncomfortable prospect for many valid reasons. However, learning to do it intentionally and positively can boost your performance and well-being.
The Advantages of Doing Nothing
When your mind is at rest, it tends to make loose, fleeting connections between many different thoughts. This is known as daydreaming or mind-wandering.
While it might feel inconsequential, there are several key benefits to letting your brain wander where it wants.
Daydreaming gives you a much-needed opportunity to recover from cognitive effort and to process what you’ve learned. Sustained concentration uses up resources and causes fatigue; by giving the parts of your brain related to task completion a rest (rather than simply switching focus to something else), you may find that they’re more effective when you return to your task.
There’s evidence to suggest that mind-wandering could help reduce the numbing effect that occurs when you’ve been focusing on something for too long. A UC Berkley study found that subjects experiencing more dynamic, nimble types of thinking exhibited an increased level of alpha waves, a type of neural activity associated with relaxation.
There are also links between mind-wandering and creative breakthroughs (how many people claim to get their best ideas after a walk or in the shower?).
Activating the DMN
When you stop focusing on something in particular, brain activity increases in what’s called the default mode network (DMN). Among other functions, the DMN helps you process your past and use that knowledge to make predictions and think through social situations.
Speaking to Forbes, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Moshe Bar described how you make decisions by reliving past situations and simulating what might happen: “So these imagined experiences that a wandering mind presents are a kind of superpower that makes you significantly more versatile and adaptive.”
Engaging the DMN has also been linked to divergent thinking: the creative process of generating many different solutions to a problem.
Why You Struggle to Do Nothing
There are plenty of reasons why you might struggle with the idea of intentionally spending time with unstructured thoughts.
The most obvious obstacle is that it’s hard to overcome the presumption that doing nothing is lazy and unproductive. When you’re strapped for time, it seems wasteful not to use every scrap of it to tick something off your list.
Then there is the staggering number of distractions and diversions available to fill any gaps. It’s so easy and natural to reach for your phone in a quiet moment. This could be driven by pure habit, or it could be a fear of being bored, known as “thaasophobia” (not to be confused with “thalassophobia”, fear of large bodies of water!).
Another deeper fear may also be at play. If you let your thoughts go where they want, they might go somewhere you’d prefer they didn’t. We are predisposed to dwell on negative events and possibilities. When you start to fixate on a particular negative thought or ruminate, it can seriously impact your well-being. Given how easily mind-wandering can result in rumination, it’s very natural to treat it cautiously.
How To Do Nothing – The Right Way
So, how can you let your mind wander in a way that yields benefits? The key is learning how to “do nothing” in a way that’s safe, stimulating, and positive.
To do this, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between rumination (which tends to lead to “spiraling” or a cycle of negative thoughts) and the free movement of thoughts where you skip from one subject to another.
Just because your thoughts are wandering, doesn’t mean you can’t signpost them in a useful direction. Daydreaming about things that interest you can potentially improve your mood, keeping the habit a positive one. Thinking about the future rather than the past can help build a more positive experience. It’s possible that the more fanciful and wild your thoughts, the more inspired you’ll feel afterward.
If you’re assuming you’ll be bored or are scared of thinking about negative things, those trepidations will probably influence your thoughts. If you’re worried about dwelling on negative thoughts, try to relax. You may well like doing nothing a lot more than you think you will. Some people evidently find unstructured thinking significantly more enjoyable than they predicted.
Turning your phone off or leaving it in another room will help to reduce distractions – another important factor in productive nothingness. Academics at the University of Bath believe that we head online to address what’s known as superficial boredom. By trying to ensure we never spend a moment under-stimulated, we keep ourselves from reaching a profound state of inactivity that might prompt us to think more deeply.
Manual tasks without a set goal, like a spontaneous walk or household chores, also seem to prime your brain for this type of thinking. So, wandering feet could be the key to unlocking your wandering mind.
Take Time to Think
Setting your tasks aside and engaging in a period of mind-wandering could help you solve problems, replenish your mental resources, come up with new ideas, and tap into useful insight. To avoid rumination, nudging your thoughts in a positive or forward-thinking direction is crucial.
Intentionally leaving room for thought during quiet moments, rather than trying to fill every second with a stimulating activity, will leave you better able to focus when you need to.