The Surprising Path to Accomplish More: Doing Nothing

“You can only waste time relative to some context or goal.” While you are reading this blog post, you are wasting time relative to your goal of “getting to the store before you have to pick up your kids. In fact, from some perspective, you are always wasting your time.”

But what if that’s exactly what you should be trying to do? Forget the myth you only use 10% of your brain. You use all of your brain, just not at the same time. Being idle — doing nothing — is not a waste of time according to a new book by Andrew Smart. It is essential to using all of your brain.

In Auto-Pilot — The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, Smart presents the neuroscience behind the randomness in brain function necessary for the creativity unique to our human consciousness. Too little randomness results in seizures, too much in ADHD.

As I read Smart’s doing nothing book while wearing a Jawbone UP strapped (my boyfriend would say handcuffed) to my wrist, measuring my eating, sleeping, and movement in an effort to optimize and improve these parts of my life, while also controlling the variability in these functions, sometimes referred to as Quantified Self or LifeHacking, I couldn’t help feel conflicted. It’s what Evgeny Morozov described as the center of “Taylorism and … Buddhist contemplation. Instead of ‘doing more with more,’ we must ‘do less with less.’ Intriguingly, if Smart’s science is correct, doing less might actually be the best way to accomplish more.”

Bay Area Quantified Self Meetup Discussion Topics

Bay Area Quantified Self Meetup Discussion Topics

So my next stop was a Quantified Self Meetup hosted at a San Francisco tech company focused on data-driven healthcare. Surely this Silicon Valley group was so far on the efficiency, life hacking, Tayloristic engineering extreme they would all want to increase productivity and eliminate variability or what Smart describes as the randomness of doing nothing.

At first this seemed true with self organized topics being suggested such as Productivity Hacks / Cognition Tracking, Intelligence Augmentation, and Quantifying Mental Output.

But as I started talking to those who attended, I understood a different intent, one that in fact searched for downtime. The most popular group was meeting about mood tracking and making correlation’s to increase or improve happiness; while the group I sat in on tried to determine how to quantify the benefits of relaxation. We determined the best way was through measuring variability, specifically heart rate variability — “the variation over time in the period between consecutive heartbeats.” Measure that, as cousins to my Jawbone Up device attempt to do or as Apple’s iWatch will do, and you have a good leading indicator of relaxation and stress.

To Smart’s point, variability is exactly what we are achieving by allowing our brain to do nothing, having unscheduled, unplanned daydreaming. Heart rate variability is core to our physical health and the resulting brain variability is core to our mental health and creativity. Too much Six Sigma corporate efficiency without exercise and silly play time is life and organizational seizure. Too much unscheduled, variability is life and organizational ADHD. The key is how we be mindful of both.

Which takes me to my third and final stop in this story, the grand Yosemite National Park. The feeling of expansiveness hiking through its seemingly never ending trails is like having a window seat on a daytime, cross-country flight. I can never get my head around it all and it’s always different, random, variable. Those are also two places I can disconnect from the always now, instant feedback, data-efficiency driven 140 character world.

But it’s hiking those Sierra Mountains that really drives the life force of heart rate variability, and laying in a meadow staring up at the sky daydreaming that drives new, unexpected neural connections. It’s why TED speaker and author Nilofer Merchant (also a Yosemite fan) professes the virtues of walking meetings. We must balance our structured, online, agenda-driven days with the randomness our brain craves with being on auto-pilot.

Hiking. Walking. Sitting quietly. Doing Nothing.

As I hiked back from May Lake wearing my step-counting Jawbone UP, I found this Redwood with an unusual growth at the base of it’s trunk, a surface cradling it’s wisdom and inviting me to sit and ponder, to daydream, to bask in the creative, (mostly) disconnected, variability of wasting time. This felt like auto-pilot. The days and weeks to follow would see the fruits of my labors doing nothing.