A member of my team at meQuilibrium recently shared a story about her mother, who moved in with her family this summer. Every morning, her mother comes into the kitchen, makes a cup of coffee, and sits on the screened porch looking over the garden and backyard. Then she just sits there for a solid fifteen minutes, sipping her coffee and looking at the garden and backyard.
For my colleague, a typically busy working mother, it was so unusual to see someone being idle that she felt shocked. Not surprisingly, her first reaction was negative. Was something wrong with her mother? Was she lazy? Was she bored? But over time, my colleague saw that this ritual had value. It allowed her mother to wake up gently, listen to the birds at the feeder, and enjoy the morning sun. It was the leisure that powered the rest of the day’s activities.
Brigid Schulte, journalist and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, has a phrase that perfectly captures this idea: leisure is the new productivity. What she means is that you can’t be in highly focused mode all the time; you have to alternate between intense effort and idle time. More than that, your brain requires regular bouts of diffuse, unfocused activity to do the best, most creative work.
While there is ample scientific research to support Schulte’s point, I’m sure you’ve seen it play out in everyday life. Run 13 hard miles every day, you’re going to wreck your knees. Push yourself to be productive at work and home all the time, you will hit your red-alert stress levels and burn out—and it won’t be pretty.
Instead, your daily rhythms need to oscillate, as Schulte puts it, between focused attention and old-fashioned woolgathering (an old term for dreamy, aimless thought). Here are three ways to help you embrace rejuvenating idleness.
Check your beliefs about leisure.
I believe people when they tell me their lives are unmanageably busy. But I also have seen that what people believe about leisure and relaxation has a far greater impact on their well-being than a packed calendar alone.
Pay attention to your reaction the next time the possibility of leisure time comes up—or even the words “leisure” or “idleness.” If you notice a negative or judgmental feeling or thought, put it through the Trap It, Map It, Zap It wringer to get at what’s going on under the surface. You may find that you need to address old, unconscious beliefs (we call them Iceberg Beliefs) about work and rest that have been silently dictating your actions.
Limit your options.
In a culture with 24/7 connectivity, sometimes you need to cut yourself off from the lava flow of constant information and the pressure to do, make, perform, contribute. A long walk without your phone, for instance, is one way to encourage a leisurely mind. Or go someplace utterly new to you—maybe a local Little League game or a free concert in the park—with the one rule that you won’t take a selfie, shoot off an email, or plan the week’s lunches.
Your only job is to tune in and out of the event unfolding in front of you. Daydreamy idle time isn’t about consuming or producing anything. It’s about seeing what comes up, and you can only do that if you lighten your load of distractions.
Structure some unstructured time
Unfocused thinking is a skill, and you may need to give your brain time to remember how to do it. Like the mother on the porch, find a simple, daily activity that has no concrete outcome. A sequence of gentle yoga poses can serve this purpose, or having tea time every day at 3:30.
Of course, if you’re always idle you won’t get anything done, but burnout is a far greater problem than excessive leisure for Americans, who put in longer hours than almost any other country. So go on, stare out the window. It’ll do your brain and your work good.