Despite the current worries about the new Covid variant, let’s hope we can continue to enjoy a fuller range of the activities and social engagements.
But whether our diaries remain full, or we have to return to a more limited way of living for a while, we need to recognise the importance and value of NOT being busy every second of the day.
It’s hard to think this way when we feel we have so much to catch up on! We enjoy being fully engaged and active, and society sees being busy as a point of pride and prioritises productivity over reflection, but it turns out that doing nothing is a significant part of our well-being puzzle.
Amanda Lamp at Washington State University refers to ‘doing nothing’ as ‘waking rest’ and suggests it needs to sit right up there with exercise, nutrition and sleep. She defines waking rest as “a period of quiet, reflective thought that allows the brain time to consider and process whatever arises spontaneously."
So … what does doing nothing look like? What does it feel like?
Doing nothing is not scrolling through Instagram, watching Strictly, listening to a podcast, reading a book or playing on the iPad. These activities can be great fun, and can add value, but they require cognitive engagement and a reasonable level of deliberate focus and concentration.
Doing nothing is simply sitting, maybe lying, possibly walking, and allowing your mind to float and wander. Doing nothing is pottering, day-dreaming, mulling things over, contemplating ….
And many of us don’t find being alone with our thoughts much fun at all!
When I discussed doing nothing with one of my sons this weekend, he was horrified. ‘I would rather stick pins in my arm!’ he said, which is sort of funny because a large study found a huge percentage of young people (especially young men!) preferred to administer a mild electric shock to themselves than sit with their own thoughts for a few minutes.
To be fair, it’s not just adolescent men …. Have you ever picked up your phone for some distraction in the supermarket queue or waiting for a train? When was the last time you went for a walk alone, without a voice in your ear through headphones?
And what happens to us when we do nothing?
It turns out a lot of things happen when we’re not consciously engaged.
Doing nothing – that is, being awake and alert, but not engaged in a task nor having guilty, negative thoughts - activates the Default Mode Network (DMN) in our brain. And a thriving DMN is a critical part of a healthy brain.
The DMN was identified by Marcus Raichle about 20 years ago, while he was looking for something else, and it’s where we come up with ideas about ourselves, about our world, about our relationships …. It’s where we make sense of, and learn to understand, things. It’s the source of our creativity!
“It’s only when we let our minds wander that we make unexpected connections between things that we do not realise were connected.”
Daniel Levitin, ‘The Organised Mind’
It’s your DMN working when you are standing in the shower or raking up leaves, and you suddenly ‘get’ something or see a new way to approach a problem or handle something that has been worrying you. It was while sitting under an apple tree, with a fully whirring DMN, that Newton discovered gravity. Archimedes had his ‘eureka’ moment about buoyancy while in the bath.
It seems that about 70% of our brain energy is associated with our DMN. The current hypothesis is that a healthy and strong DMN enables other areas of our brain (the ones responsible for gathering, storing and sorting information, processing ideas and putting things into perspective) to work more efficiently.
“People with an efficient DMN have higher cognitive ability including memory, flexibility and comprehension, and have better mental health.” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, USC
And connections in the DMN are few and far between in children. Studies are showing that childhood is a critical period for the development of this key brain network.
Here’s what we can do:
Wasting time is not a waste of time ….
Choosing to chill out, or taking the chance to chill out, can bring as much joy and do as much good as setting ourselves a stretch challenge and achieving it, or indulging in a pastime or activity we love.
Many of us feel guilty when we don’t use every spare moment to do complete another task on our To Do list, or get our kids doing something productive.
And, of course, our kids follow where we lead. They pick up a sense that doing nothing is something to avoid, and even to feel ashamed about. Is this really what we want them to learn?
The next time you find a few spare minutes, check in with yourself – how does it feel, where does your mind go? What will you say to that little voice in your head urging you to get busy?
Now that we’re moving away from believing that feeling that every moment needs to be productive - rather than reflective or contemplative - we need to change our response to our children’s complaints of ‘I’m bored’.
Kids are supposed to get bored from time to time, and that’s OK. But today kids are getting bored – and feeling very uncomfortable about not being busy – really quickly.
50 years ago, it took a full day of doing nothing much for a child to describe themselves as ‘bored’. Today, kids claim to be bored within about 30 seconds of inactivity.
When they say ‘I’m bored’, don’t panic and rush to fill the gap. Being bored as a child doesn’t mean they’re not going to turn out to be a highly productive, successful, content and fulfilled adult!
Why not respond with positivity and perhaps a little empathy?
Because being able to handle just the right amount of doing nothing probably increases their chances of being a productive, successful, content and fulfilled adult!
Lots of kids are fascinated by neuroscience, so talk with them about their DMN so you both have a useful frame of reference.
‘OK, that’s interesting …. Sounds like your brain needs a little re-boot time. It can feel quite odd doing nothing when we’re used to being busy, busy, busy. I’m sure you’ll think of something to do when your brain has had a rest and is ready to go again!’
No matter how tempting it is to fill your child’s schedule with activities to keep them busy (and out of trouble!) and regardless of how much they enjoy their activities, keep space for a little bit of nothing a few times each week.
We know how important downtime is within a revision schedule. There’s absolutely no point in persevering with yet another test paper or more flashcards when you can no longer absorb the information.
But what is considered a ‘normal’ attention span for your child?
It’s really helpful to know what a ‘normal’ attention span might be so you can recognise and accept when your child reasonably needs a break, and also when your child’s ability to focus might need addressing.
Childhood development experts conclude that a reasonable attention span is about 2-3 minutes per year of their age.
And what about being alone?
Introverted kids naturally creep off to find some time alone, away from bothersome siblings, and naturally relish the peace of solitude. More extroverted kids don’t find being alone comfortable. So … take small steps to help them feel a little bit calmer about spending time by themselves. Maybe start by sitting with them, but not engaging directly, and help them identify some quiet activities such as listening to music, doodling and colouring, maybe jigsaw puzzles or Lego …..
Our DMN is refreshed every time we exhale (and whenever we blink!) so a few minutes of peaceful breathing each day helps on multiple levels. It doesn’t matter what breathing technique you choose. Why not make a few minutes of healthy exhalation part of the bedtime routine? For younger children, check out Chris Willard’s Alphabreaths book or get a hoberman sphere for Christmas!
Mindfulness activates our resting state, including our DMN. There are lots of good apps and activities such as Headspace, Chill Panda and Cosmic Yoga to help children develop mindful habits.
Homes are usually pretty noisy places, so reducing background noise (such as radio or TV) reduces stimulation and allows a little more space to be contemplative.
You’re probably not surprised by now to hear that spending a few minutes gazing in wonder at nature boosts your DMN – whether it’s a sunrise, waterfall, a cloud, a rainbow, a snowflake or a leaf, stand and stare and let a sense of awe wash over you! When you’re stuck inside, you get nearly the same effect gazing at a picture of a waterfall or rainbow!
Of course, it’s all about balance.
Doing too much of nothing is no better for us than doing too much of everything. And there’s nothing wrong with having periods of busyness with activities we enjoy!
But a little bit of nothing, on a regular basis, is the antidote our kids need to cope with the build-up of stimuli and boost the other areas of their brain.
Learning to feel comfortable with yourself and your thoughts is one of the most important life skills we can teach them. If they don’t try it now, it is much harder to learn in later life.
“Science is starting to show the value of spending time in silence, in nature, and in not engaging in constant external stimulation. We need time doing ‘nothing’ to be our best selves: well-rounded and creative human beings. The ‘doing’ side of our nature needs a ‘being’ side to be in balance.” Dr. Susan Smalley, Professor Emeritus and founder of Mindful Awareness Research Centre at UCLA