Don’t Just Do Something. Sit there!

It might seem counter-intuitive, but I have found that really sinking into downtime can boost productivity.

Scientists have backed this up.  In an October 15th (2013) Scientific American Article, “Why the Brain Needs More Downtime,” research is cited, explaining that rather than “down,” as in not working, the brain is actually engaged in other processes that restore crucial functions. True and deep resting periods allow the brain to process what it’s taken in, boosts creativity, and encourages a very important inward focus, which, after fielding so much external data, is necessary and healthy.

There are some people who are fans of fifteen minute naps.  More power to you, if you can shut down the thinking factory so quickly.  For many people, finding downtime is not so easy.  Here are some of my favorites.

1)    Turn off your device!  After seeing people texting while driving, or in a doctor’s examining room, or at a courtside seat at basketball game, it seems almost too obvious to say that their relationship with their favorite electronic device is too intimate.    

Several years ago, a good friend observed a no-device evening once a week.  He didn’t use his computer or turn on his TV one evening each week.  The only electricity consuming objects that could be found humming in his apartment were light bulbs.

Before data came up suggesting that everyone needed serious downtime, he understood the need in his life.  He was an IT trainer and spent a lot of time learning technology so he could teach people.  One evening each week, he stayed at home and read a novel or did something totally low-tech and intuitive (not information driven). He found this very important in keeping up his pace the other days of the week.

2)    Walk without a destination.  Sometimes when I want to clear my mind, I will take a walk  — without having a destination in mind.  That’s important; not having a destination.  I may plan on an amount of time, but I won’t associate this time with running an errand.  To zone out more completely, I will often conduct a walking meditation.  This practice can make my mind feel very elastic. I will count the objects I see on my route.  I will focus on an image, maybe a car tire, or the cornerstone of a building, a flower or an abandoned shoe, and I will assign that image a number in sequence then move on to the next number and next object.  By constantly re-focusing on new objects and counting them, I don’t dwell on anything for long, and I don’t let language get in the way of just seeing something as it is. I find walking meditations easier than sitting meditations because I am less likely to judge how well I am doing at quieting my mind.

3)    Whittling.  Okay, they won’t let you carry a sharp knife and pieces of pine into your school or office.  Do you remember movies depicting some old man with simple wisdom leaning again the doorframe of his shanty whittling? He was usually the one that came up with the great idea.  I am not suggesting you have to whittle, but I am recommending you do something with your hands that’s repetitive.  Crochet, knit, fold paper – Origami style, bead.  Doing things with your hands can definitely cut into time spent over-engaged with your mind. 

4)    Play with a child  (assuming they’re not showing you an app they use). Sometimes playing with a child has a great way of getting you into the present moment.  They naturally make up games to amuse themselves or are ready to imagine different circumstances, all great strategies for taking time away from being in your head.  Play along.  Just by submitting to someone else’s rules and giving up control for a while is a great way to give yourself a rest.  It can seem less threatening to agree to a child’s rules for a game (okay the castle is over here and the ogre is behind the refrigerator) than it is to adapt to a peer’s suggestion, even one made hypothetically.

5)     Notice something you’re grateful for in the present moment.  I keep a regular gratitude practice.  It doesn’t revolve around ending my day with a short list of five things I was happy that happened that day.  It is based on understanding categories of things that make my life easier, or more beautiful, happier or more meaningful and practicing seeing those things in the moment.  One of my categories is beauty. Beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder and can encompass an appreciation for things working well as well as things that look nice.  I can create a little downtime that’s especially renewing when I look for something beautiful to me in the NOW.  That could be the pattern of a snowflake, the ergonomic design of my wireless mouse, or how I made it to the platform exactly when my train pulled up. This exercise requires me to slow things down in my head and really ask myself what I can be aware of in the present moment.

Steering away from a problem-solving frame of mind, or turning my energy towards a physical activity, or slowing down in order to savor things that are special to me refreshes me. Downtime makes me more productive.

Sometimes it’s good to remember the directive: Don’t just do something. Sit there!

Written on 2/25/2014 by Deborah Hawkins. Deborah Hawkins blogs on gratitude and mindfulness at http://nosmallthing.net and offers workshops, Transform Your Life with an Attitude of Gratitude Writing and Reflection Practice. 

Photo Credit: Living Fitness

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One Response to Don’t Just Do Something. Sit there!

  1. Hope Malcom Maltz April 18, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    I'm utterly taken with your destination-less walk. Thanks!!

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