A blog about stuff that happens, mostly in Tooting, London.
Saturday, 26 July 2014
In Praise of Doing Nothing
So here's that article what I wrote about doing nothing. Shame I look so stupid in the photo. In today's Telegraph...
Mindfulness: it's good to be busy doing nothing
Taking several timeouts each day, says Elizabeth McFarlane, helps to get the creative juices flowing and encourages her to be more aware of the moment
Easy does it: Elizabeth McFarlane Photo: Jeff Gilbert
By Elizabeth McFarlane
7:00AM BST 26 Jul 2014
Are you too busy? Stressed? Not enough hours in the day? Not sleeping properly? Constantly rushing from one thing to the next? Then it’s time to sit down and do nothing.
Some people are brilliant at busy, it’s their thing. They pack the day from dawn until dusk with “stuff”. Not just the standard stuff either, like work and family, but extra stuff too, such as volunteering and exercising and cooking and manic socialising.
These people, and I know a lot of them because so many seem to be women, do not appear to stop.
Personally, I’m good at nothing, which is very different from not being good at anything. I am brilliant at sitting down and having a rest. I do it several times a day. I excel at staring out of windows, particularly at birds. I’m a prolific day-dreamer, thinker, plotter and planner. My pièce de résistance is napping.
You might say this makes me a lazy person, but I would disagree. I get a lot done. I work, writing and directing/producing marketing videos. I have three children. I run a home. I am a school governor. I exercise. I even go out in the evening occasionally. It is my contention that I would not be able to do half of these things if I didn’t do quite a lot of nothing in between. In particular, I think I’d struggle to come up with ideas.
I would not, for example, be able to come up with ideas for the videos, nor write my weekly blog, called, appropriately enough, I Don’t Know How She Doesn’t Do It (see what I did there?) Nor, on a more prosaic level, plan the annual family holiday. All these require thinking, and thinking is what I do when I’m doing nothing, mostly.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said: “Most people would rather die than think; many do,” and a recent experiment appears to prove him right, at least up to a point.
Most might not actually prefer to die, but incredibly they would prefer to be in pain rather than have to sit quietly alone in a room with only their own thoughts for company, for only a few minutes.
That recent experiment, led by Professor Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, in which participants were asked to sit alone for up to 15 minutes in an empty room at a laboratory, found that 12 men out of a group of 18 preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit and do nothing.
The researchers concluded that the human brain has evolved to be active so that the majority of people struggle to switch off, even for a short period. “Simply being alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so adverse that it drove many to self-administer an electric shock,” said Professor Wilson.
Jonathan Smallwood, a neuroscientist at the University of York, says: “We’re creating a world where daydreaming isn’t so important. Nowadays, even if you are doing a mundane job, you can be on the phone while you’re doing it.”
This sounds familiar. I multitask using social media as much as the next 21st-century person – tweeting about a programme on television while watching it springs to mind – but I can also do a lot of nothing. If you are one of those manic busy types you might wonder how I manage it, so let me take you on a whistlestop tour – or should that be a sleepy amble? – of my average working day at home.
At 8am, during term time, the boys leave for school. This is my first opportunity to do nothing after the chaos of getting them out the door. After clearing breakfast I sit down with the papers by the window to read. I look up and stare out of the window, usually at birds. This is how I come up with ideas, flights of fancy, lists of things to do, and plans. Often I make notes.
I then do a sweep of the house, tidying, picking up towels, making beds, putting washing in. Sometimes I nip out to meet a friend for a coffee, before finally settling at my desk at about 10am or 11am. This is when I “work”, which usually involves a lot more gazing out of the window while twiddling my hair. I am prone to switch off, at least I think I am switching off but I’m probably not, because, according to psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, daydreaming provides the mental downtime necessary for us to be able to focus again. The mind is refreshing itself, rather like when we sleep.
But there’s more than one theory about the purpose of daydreaming. Sigmund Freud’s work Creative Writers and Daydreaming maintains that it is essential to the creative mind but also a form of unhappiness, while psychoanalyst Hanna Segal suggested that we are turning these unhappy thoughts into something creative.
I had a lot of unhappy thoughts about our horrible old kitchen and sat about daydreaming and planning what our new one, recently completed on a tight budget, would be like, so I think there’s something in Segal’s theory.
But back to my day. After lunch, more resting because I hate moving around after eating. Sometimes I even have a sneaky sleep, especially in winter. After napping I often wake with an idea and dash to my office to write it down, which perhaps lends weight to Bollas’s theory.
In the evening, after cooking and tidying and sorting and reading to children, I slump in front of the television. Sometimes I go out, of course, but I’m not averse to politely declining a social invitation if there are too many things in one week.
I think that all this staying at home and daydreaming helps me to deal with stress, which brings me to mindfulness, the cure-all philosophy du jour.
OK, so mindfulness is not the same as doing nothing. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment using techniques such as meditation, breathing and yoga. The idea is that this can give us an insight into emotions while boosting attention and concentration. In fact, the claims for what it can do are extensive – alleviating stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, physical problems, lowering hypertension, changing addictive behaviours and so on.
I only cottoned on to mindfulness recently but I think I may have been practising it unawares for years. Maybe not the breathing and yoga bit, but the being in the moment bit. Because doing nothing, just sitting and staring out of a window, makes you stop and take stock. It means you are not constantly “doing”, you are just having a moment “to be”.
That’s quite enough work for me for one day. I’m off for a nap.
THE ART OF DOING NOTHING
Be brave and say no to invitations
Bring back Sundays. Try to ring-fence them from work and chores and socialising
Practise sitting and doing nothing, adding a little bit more of it each day
Go bumbling, which means “wandering around without purpose”
Allow yourself time to daydream.
Remember that Freud said this is creative
Choose the right role models – Keats wrote of “evenings steep’d in honied indolence” – see also John Lennon, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman