In today’s networked society we are at risk of becoming victims of information overload. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts as the temptation to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out that’ is often too great to resist. But working harder is not necessarily working smarter. In fact slacking off and setting aside regular periods of ‘doing nothing’ may be the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.
Our lives have become defined by busyness. Look around you at the train station, in cafes, out on the street, people are glued to their mobile handset or tablet.
I recently asked an executive I once coached how many emails she received a day. “Five hundred,” she told me. “But I don’t read any of them. If I did, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
The challenge, she said wasn’t attaining information but “pushing it away so I don’t suffer from information overload. I need time to think.”
When I was a child growing up in the British West Indies, saying the phrase “I am bored" was often met with “Go outside and play with your brothers” from my mother. Of course, I did what Mom said, and my brothers and together, we got into all sort of mischief. Climbing trees, running around the yard playing "tag" with the family dog, finding other neighbourhood kids and enlisting them into mischief. Eventually, we learned to recruit each other into mischief. It was so much fun!
We explored the woods and streams near our home, unsupervised. We often came home injured; cuts and scrapes, never anything serious. I think exploring the forests and streams helped my younger brother, an environmentalist, discover his love of nature. Being bored pushed me to read more, to want to learn about the world me. And I was left alone to read andponder. I think that’s one reason I fell in love with science and engineer. I didn’t need a STEM program to develop that love. I just had to be curious and have a parent willing to let me be. I needed time to think.
In comparison, I look at my neighbourhood, and I feel saddened by the empty streets. The kids are all safe indoors, playing video games or streaming the Internet. When my kids were younger, we often encouraged them to engage in unstructured play with each other and outside in the backyard, weather permitting. Legos and wooden blocks. When they were older, it became more challenging. I only remember one summer, in the middle school years, when I saw the neighbourhood kids find each other and engage in silly fun. It was the last day of school and the start of summertime. The kids were outside playing with water shooters and the hose with their friends from the neighbourhood. I had to be careful not to get my camera wet, but the kids had a blast.
During the summer, the time of year when kids have “nothing to do” and nowhere to be, the neighbourhood was often devoid of the sounds of kids playing. The kids were packed up and sent away to camp. I felt sorry for my kids, but at least they had each other. We eventually enrolled them in Tae Kwon Do classes, mostly for the experience of being engaged in shared goal with others and so they could develop friendships outside of a classroom setting.
Of course, we made mistakes. We introduced screens and the internet too early. I guess that is one hazard of having a parent who works with information technology.
But it’s not just kids. Adults are suffering from this, as well. I admit that I often feel pressured to perform and produce quickly. That’s dangerous in my profession, and it’s not the way my mind prefers to work. I prefer to ingest information and taking the time to reflect, then act. But it is my fault for being seduced by the USA's productivity culture of constantly wanting to do more. GTD, sleep hacking, etc., all designed to give us more time to do more, but less time to think. Being idle is often seen as wasteful. Sigh.
I miss the daydreaming. I miss the feeling of time spent doing “nothing”. I miss the mischief.
Time for reflection and mischief.
“Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius