Monday, April 25, 2011

The art of doing nothing ... have we lost it?

When did you last see someone sitting and doing absolutely nothing?

Yesterday as we were driving into the city I noticed the people at bus stops busily typing on their mobile phones.  Not a single person was sitting and doing nothing while they waited. This got me thinking.  When do people let their minds out for a wander these days?  A pure unadulterated wander with no purpose?  I'm thinking the only place this happens is in the shower.  I am totally guilty of this.   My "thinking" time has now been replaced with tweeting and SMS'ing and emailing.  Until they make a shower proof mobile, the shower is the last bastion of nothingness for me.

Doing nothing seems to be a dying art.   This scares me, a lot.  What if people like Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci didn't have thinking time?  Do you think they would have been as clever as they were?   Would they have sat and imagined the things they did if they were constantly typing on their iPhone or watching television?  What would our world be like today if these amazingly clever people were constantly plugged into something other than their imagination?

I grew up in the country.  We had two television stations, one black and white television, no telephone, no computer ... often there were endless days of doing nothing.   I recall many a day doing nothing but lying on my bed and thinking.  I would think about endless things.  How big will my boobs grow?  Who I was going to marry?  What would I be when I grew up?  Who my real mother was?  Would look more attractive with braces?  How would I make the boy up the road notice me?  Why aren't my boobs growing faster?  When will I have my first kiss?

Some days I would climb a tree with nothing but a book.  I would read and then I would just sit.  I'd look around and imagine things.  I'd imagine what it would be like to live in a different family.  I would imagine that perhaps I was the daughter of a princess.  I would imagine what life would be like if I was richer, more beautiful, more popular.  Other times I would just sit there and think of nothing while watching everything going on around the neighbourhood.

I have two teenage boys.  They are always connected to something.  An iPhone, a computer, an iPod or the telephone.  There is always a television or a radio on.  They never sit in the bliss of absolute nothingness.  They would not find this blissful.  They would find it disconcerting.  They would be anxious.  They would be looking for something to quickly connect to.  It makes me sad.  It makes me wonder what they could be if they had time to use their imaginations.

When they were younger they had plenty of time to use their imaginations.  They played with toys and played games with each other outside that involved thinking and improvising.  That seems like a long time ago now.  From the time they were ten this new digital age had arrived and all of a sudden they never had to improvise again.  They became plugged in.  I feel like I've let them down somewhat.  I should have been stricter with their online time.  I should have encouraged more book reading.  I shouldn't have let them have a television in their bedroom.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Do you ever stop and wonder where is this digital age taking us?  What will become of books?  Will the new generation have an imagination?  Will there be the wonderful storytellers of this generation and previous generations?  Will there be a Jane Austen of the 21st Century?   Will someone from Generation Z have an imagination big enough to write wonderful books?  Will there be whimsy?  Will there ever be another Enid Blyton?

What do you think?



  1. I'm the first to put my hand up and say I'm hopeless at doing nothing. It requires real physical and mental effort on my part to switch off. By that though I mean doing nothing at all. Not reading, not writing, not tweeting, not being on my laptop. But I think the thing I take from what you've written is to be careful what I'm modelling to my kids as well. Less screen time and more real contact time.

  2. Oh Annie, I so agree! my time to do nothing but think is usually about 0300 until about 0500 when I finally go back to sleep until the alarm at 0600... :-(
    I gave a book to one of my BFF's on the weekend she said she doesn't read books! Only uses her Kindle (electronic book)
    My boys similar age to yours & yes they are always plugged into something. One thing I will give them though, is they both like to read.

  3. The beach and sunbathing is often a time I realise that I am hopeless at doing nothing. It takes me ages to relax into that groove.

    Early mornings in bed are my thinking time. Not enough...


  4. I'd totally spend more time just thinking if I were allowed to in this house. Despite how tired I am very late at night, when the house is quiet I simply cannot go to bed as my brain comes alive with thought. It's as though it had been patiently waiting all day for our quality time! I do lose patience trying to steer kids back toward traditional pursuits though, it can be exhausting trying to convince them sometimes.

    In great news for you though, it would appear your boobs finally answered you with a more than satisfactory response! ;)

  5. What a great post. Today I am rained in, and I've been struggling with a day of 'nothingness'. When I don't have 'nothing time' I complain, when I do get it, I struggle to embrace it, concerned I could be missing out on something. I'm off to do some healthy 'pondering'...*sigh*.

  6. You know what I think? That this is EXACTLY why I don't have a mobile.
    It's not a new thought- I identified it when I wrote that piece for The Age early last year on being immobile- but it is still 100% true for me. I don't have a mobile so that occasionally I just sit. For one, I knwo I need to, but for another i knwo that that;s EXACTLY when the ideas come and the problems are solved. Two years ago I was commissioned tow rite a piece for Griffith Review on the neural basis for creativity. There is alink on my wensite to the piece if anyone's interested in 3000 words on the topic, but the bottom line is that creativity comes out of an idle brain, not a focussed one- a brain that is sleeping, dreaming, day dreaming, meditating or hypnotised- even one that is running or doing any other basic over-learned phyiscal task where the body is engaged but the brain isn't (except for at the most primitive reflexive level). That's when the prefrontal cortex takes over- that's where the unique connections are made. I'm really mindful of that as a writer- that if I want to stay fresh and open and creative I need to switch off occasionally and see what happens. It's not easy to do, but it HAS to be done.

  7. Oops- sorry for typos. Very unfocussed brain! ;) (Also rushing to get to an ANZAC day BBQ)

  8. Doing nothing is my speciality :) Actually... no... I'm on Twitter and listening to 80s and 90s music too often to do nothing at all. I'm a very plugged-in teen most of the time. Change that to 'doing nothing productive is my speciality' ;)
    Don't worry, there are plenty of very precocious children out there... I think there was a twelve year old who has had her poems published, so I guess Generation Z is safe... it's the generation after that I'm worried about though ;-P (Am I still counted as Gen Y?)
    Also, Jane Austen is too awesome to be compared to :D

  9. I'm an idler. But I don't confuse being unplugged and 'doing nothing' as being more virtious or intrisinctly better than being online. Or as a requirement for being creative.

    A teenager today with an iPad ($500) and the GarageBand app ($5) has more recording power than the Beatles had - ever. Another $5 gets the iMovie that combined with their iPhone or camera phone let's them make a TV show and be able to broadcast it to the world.

    Creative people, instead of being thwarted by circumstance now can simple pour their thoughts, real time, into the world. If anything, more books are going to be written, more songs sung tha today.

    Diversions have always existed - is there much difference between comic books, paperbacks or endless 80's TV and Angry Birds? I don't think so. It is simply your preference (and mine) to paperbacks over Kindles.

    This generation is the first generation to be creatively unlimited. It's going to be fucking awesome.

  10. It's so true, we are always so 'busy' that I think even watching other people being 'busy' makes us think we have to be busying ourselves as well.
    I have found that the one place for me and my thinking time now is at the gym. Whilst everyone is hooked up to the cardio theatre watching TV or listening to their iPod, I simply hop on a machine, get moving and think, think, think, about all kinds of things.
    I come out an hour later feeling so refreshed as I've given my brain some space to just be, without me forcing it in a particular direction.
    I love it when you blog Annie, you always give us something to really think about it. xx

  11. I hadn't thought about it like this before. You are so right! My favourite thing to do when I was growing up was sitting on a fence post...thinking and watching. I hope it is not lost, it is so important.

  12. I'm great at doing nothing. I'll sit somewhere with a book to read, but often enough it's just lying in my lap or beside me while I'm gazing at trees or closing my eyes and letting the mind go free.

  13. i do "nothing" several times a day.

    i work in the community as a carer for the aged and so spend alot of my day driving around and across town - i use this time to just relax, to wind the window down and let the wind blow through my hair while letting the radio wash it's music over me while i just let my mind drift - it's wonderful, amazing and recharges me throughout the day.


  14. Right now I am desperate to do nothing - I read Kylie's comment above and it reminded me of what I know but have not implemented enough lately - a bit of nothing every now and again is the only way to make time for more "something". We (read "I") get so busy that there's no space for new ideas. I loved the book The Winter of Our Disconnect because it truly demonstrated that if we remove busy-ness and technology, there's space for so much more. I'm pretty good at making sure there's space for my kids to be creative - but I need to do more of this for myself.

  15. I'm hopeless at doing nothing, absolutley hopeless. I sometimes think I should take up smoking again because smoking was me doing nothing. But then, I was smoking... hmmmmm... no, I'm hopeless! x

  16. Wonderful post Annie. I wrote about a similar topic recently about how I used to use my imagination growing up

    I love to sit and just think although I don't get enough time to do it these days, and I think this is the main problem most of us have. We need to make the time to do nothing.
    I was only just thinking yesterday how as a teenager I used to love just listening to a CD in my bedroom, the whole CD not just flipping through songs on an iPod. Those days are gone though.
    Life is always changing, perhaps that gen Y's doing nothing is facebooking or tweeting?
    And I also think there is something said for taking a moment and rethinking how we spend our time. There is a lot to be said for disconnecting and simplifying life. I am hoping to explore this more...very soon :)
    Great post as always Annie. xx

  17. You're dead right. A great post and very thought-provoking. We fill our life so full of crap that we often don't leave time for 'white space'.

  18. Thanks so much for this. I love doing absolutely nothing and rarely have the opportunity to do so. It's a tragedy, because all your most creative ideas can emerge when you stop to smell the roses. I for one, am scheduling in the "nothing" times into my calendar, it's the only way we can achieve the opportunity to do nothing. We live in a ridiculous world of impossible deadlines and too may people are going under because they cannot withstand the strain of this fast paced world.

  19. When I read this, my first thought is... my husband... He is a very disciplined meditator, up most mornings by 5am and he sits for 30 mins. It's good to live with that sort of stillness, hope it gets to me by osmosis. I do it a bit, not very regularly, but it's great time, I can really observe what thoughts come in, greet them and then try to send them on their way.

    When I was a little girl we used to go sailing for our holidays and there was so much nothingness involved in that, so much space and thinking time and I miss it.

    At a time in life when I am hard up against the fact of my own overbusiness and am trying to dismantle some unnecessaries, so a good post for me to read.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me x

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