Go on – be lazy!
It’s not something we often hear and we’re unlikely to ever tell our kids and partners to do it. After all, these days we’re in the business of being busy all the time, especially now that we are back at work and school has started again.
There’s work and gym and chores and gardening and books and films and friends and crosswords and spouses and kids and parents . . . Every spare moment is filled with something to keep us occupied. But the good news is you don’t have to cram every day with as much activity as you possibly can – in fact, scientists say it’s really important to be lazy. It’s good for your general health and is how you can come up with genius ideas, solve complex problems and have bursts of inspiration, they say.
“We live in a world where we’re afraid of being idle for fear of being deemed lazy,” writes Andrew Smart in his new book, Autopilot: The Art & Science Of Doing Nothing. “Not only that – busyness is considered a status symbol. If every waking minute is accounted for by something, you’re somehow important.” Our lives are all about being busy because it’s become widely accepted that doing more means we’re more productive, more popular and more efficient.
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But Smart’s book turns this idea on its head. Being idle isn’t a luxury or a vice (the devil finds work for idle hands and all that) but a necessity if you want to function at your peak, he says. And this isn’t just his opinion. Research has shown being idle increases your effectiveness, creativity and “aha” moments while also making you healthier.
It’s “backward” to think being busy makes you important, Smart says. “Chronic busyness leads to stress that can lead to cardiovascular diseases and other health problems.” Another recently published book comes to the same conclusion. The Upside Of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good Self ” – Drives Success And Fulfilment, by cognitive scientists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, also looks at our need to “unplug”.
“When our minds wander they tend to be pulled to the consideration of unresolved issues or to the planning of future goals,” Kashdan says. “And it’s during this spacedout state that creative insight happens.” We can’t do it consciously, he adds. Just think of that eureka moment in the shower or on the bus on the way home – those ideas come when they’re not forced.
“Mind-wandering” happens when we’re doing something mundane and unchallenging, says Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. It’s when you just let your brain be – and we should be doing more of it!
The science of zoning out
Neuroscience has shown that our brains are actually more active when not focused on a specific task. A study by American neurologist Marcus Raichle using neuro-imaging technology found that the same areas of the brain that became deactivated during periods of concentration became particularly active when study participants weren’t focused on a specific task.
“A great deal of meaningful activity is occurring in the brain when a person is sitting back and doing nothing at all,” Raichle says. The increased blood flow in the brain when in idle mode results in a healthier, happier, more creative brain, he concludes. The network of brain regions that become active when the brain is idle is called the default mode network or resting state network.
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“It turns out that when your mind is at rest – when you’re daydreaming quietly in a chair, say – dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another,” Raichle says. The energy consumed by this ever-active messaging is about 20 times that used by the brain in task-oriented mode. So basically when you’re zoning out and being idle your brain certainly isn’t.
Why we need to be idle
We need to think about idleness in the same way we think about sleep, Smart says. If you go without sleep for too long you build up a sleep deficit and nobody is at their best when they’re not getting enough shuteye. It’s the same with idleness – you build up a deficit over time.
We all know that feeling when we need to recharge our brain. It doesn’t happen by finding more to do. Quite the opposite – zoning out is what allows our brain to recharge. Another reason zoning out is important is it’s the incubation period for creativity, Kashdan says.
“It’s where ideas you never would have consciously connected seem to come together on their own – suddenly it becomes clear why your best friend seemed distant at dinner last night or what you should buy your dad for his birthday, for example.” Mindfulness has become a buzz-word over the past few years – the idea being you should keep yourself focused on the present moment, conscious only of the here and now.
But Kashdan points out it’s impossible to sustain a state of mindfulness over a long period. You’ll naturally ebb and flow out of it, he says, and this happens for a reason. “With mindfulness you’re so in the present moment with your consciousness there’s no room for ideas to collide,” Kashdan adds.