The lack of idle time is a growing concern — just like sleep deprivation
How often do you let your mind wander?
Your brain may be your most precious resource, and you are only using a small portion of its capacity.
We confuse being always on with being productive.
But, busyness doesn’t make you prolific — it just keeps your mind working. You are pushing the engine to the limit, but not getting its full power.
Jonathan Schooler, a professor of brain sciences at the University of California is concerned about this growing syndrome:
“In the same way we can experience a sleep deficit, I think we can experience a mind-wandering deficit.”
Mind-wandering deprivation can be as harmful as lack of sleep. Your brain needs to rest from time to time — that’s how you connect the dots.
Everyone can benefit from idle time, not just creatives.
Great ideas show up unexpectedly. The best solutions occur in a moment of sudden revelation, not when your brain is busy.
Reframe your relationship with boredom
“Time is our most irreplaceable asset.” — Ryan Holiday
You probably find it difficult to do absolutely nothing. Most of us do. Idle time makes us feel guilty — like we are wasting our most irreplaceable asset.
If we feel bored, it’s someone else’s fault. We believe that boredom depends on external stimulation. Something has to entertain us — someone else has to save us from being bored.
A study found that — regardless of income or race — parents believed that if children get bored after school, they should enroll them in extracurricular activities.
In the age of overparenting, we go to the extreme to keep our children busy. Every free moment should be optimized or maximized.
As Pamela Paul wrote in her piece Let Children Get Bored Again, “Parents preparing for a long car ride or airplane trip are like Army officers plotting a complicated land maneuver. Which movies to load onto the iPad? Should we start a new family-friendly podcast? Is this an O.K. time to let the kids play Fortnite until their brains melt into the back seat?”
Our society sees idle time as a waste of time. That’s why we embrace busyness — we escape boredom by running from one activity to another.
Psychologists used to view mind-wandering as useless. But, recent studies are confirming that it is a vital and healthy part of our lives.
Boredom is not a condition but a state of mind.
There’s a difference between being bored and experiencing boredom.
Boredom is a clean slate to be experienced. Being bored, on the other hand, is escapism — you are avoiding yourself and the world around you.
You feel bored because, deep inside yourself, you know you can give more. Boredom is a painful reminder of your unused potential. It’s a disconnection to everything we can offer the world and vice versa.
Boredom is a powerful tool — it invites you to rethink your relationship with the world. Idle time is not dull but an opportunity for appreciation and learning.
That’s why time seems to pass slowly for young kids. As Bob Clagett describes in his book Making Time, time slows down when we face new experiences or visit new places.
The world is a fascinating place — full of new perceptions, experiences, and thoughts. Children are curious and make the best out of idle time.
Boredom is something to experience rather than to run away from it.
Instead of complaining, do something that doesn’t require much brain activity. Go out for a walk or do the dishes. Let your mind wander.
Unexpected things happen when you stop fighting boredom.
Your brain needs idle time
The research on learning is clear — study for a while and then unwind.
The mind can’t hold attention for more than 10 minutes — your short-term memory gets filled quickly. Neuroscientists recommend to let our brain forget something we learned.
Your brain needs to create necessary connections to remember information.
A spaced approach results in better learning. Distributing a fixed amount of teaching hours over a more extended period is more effective than delivering the same content within a shorter time.
Take a break to digest new material — and get back to it later.
As Loren Frank, a professor at the University of California, explains, “The brain needs free time to process new information and turn it into something more permanent.”
Allow the right idea to find its moment.
The deeper reflective states happen when our mind is not busy. Idle time allows us to make meaning out of unrelated facts — we connect the dots and create a coherent narrative.
Columbia scientists have identified how the ‘aha!’ moment works — that flash when you suddenly become aware of an idea, such as discovering the answer to a difficult question.
The study suggests that this process shares the same underlying brain mechanisms involved in making simpler decisions.
“The vast majority of thoughts circling in our brains happen below the radar of conscious awareness, meaning that even though our brain is processing them, we are not aware,” said Michael Shadlen, a researcher at Columbia University
The most complex thoughts that the human brain can experience — such as love, grief, or guilt — can be boiled down to a series of unconscious decisions.
That’s how our mind engages with the outside world.
Dr. Shadlen found that, when making a challenging decision, the brain doesn’t use all the available information. This is not because it can’t, but because it already has all the information it needs.
How many times, are you focusing on something else and, all of a sudden, you feel that you made up your mind? This occurs when an accumulation of evidence reaches a threshold — that’s when the ‘Aha!’ moment occurs.
The researchers scientifically validated that the Eureka effect is an accurate reflection of the brain reaching a decision.
At a certain point, the brain says, “enough is enough.”
Go slow to go fast
“Dress me slowly, I’m in a hurry.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
Our culture is addicted to many things but mainly to speed, anything new, and disruption.
In this rush to accelerate performance and speed, it is easy to lose perspective.
When we move too fast, we often miss what we need to see. Mind-wandering gives us perspective — especially during complex and challenging situations.
Abraham Lincoln’s famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
Speeding up isn’t always the answer.
In fact, McKinsey found that when top teams slow down, they achieve their objectives more quickly. They deal more effectively with increased complexity and challenges — and they use less energy.
When solving complex problems, learn to pace the speed of your work. Realize when you need to slow down. There are moments for deeper understanding and reflection. You can speed up elsewhere.
Roman Emperor Augustus adopted the Latin motto Festina Lente — make haste, slowly. It was a reminder that he had to perform duties with a proper balance of urgency and diligence.
Be fast to implement but don’t precipitate your decisions.
There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but always enough time to do it over.
Special forces like Navy SEAL are trained to slow down in dangerous situations. They practice each movement and task over and over — until they get it right. Mistakes can be expensive and jeopardize the mission.
Our brain is wise — mind-wandering reminds us that time is not fixed but flexible.
Bob Clagett research shows that time slows down when we are involved in accidents or crises — those situations demand quick thinking but to act with caution.
Slow down to go fast.
Let your mind wander
Many people find it difficult or stressful to do absolutely nothing. We are used to be in control. Mind-wandering feels like a waste of our most irreplaceable asset — our time.
Learn to let go. Trust your brain. All the body functions work perfectly without your intervention — even when you sleep.
Get out of the way. Allow your mind to do what it does best.
Go for a walk. Make room for idle time. Don’t force “Aha!” moments — your brain will tell you when enough is enough.
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