The Benefits of Idleness

It’s time to move past the stigma attached to laziness, to wool-gathering and staring out the window

Americans have a well-known obsession with productivity. In recent research I am involved in we found that personal productivity is the highest aspiration in the use of work technologies. But perhaps this focus is not necessarily the best for us with regard to other aspects of life and work like well-being and creativity.

I've been reviewing Andrew Smart's Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, in which he makes a strong case for spending more time idle. As he puts it,

Psychological research has shown that humans, especially American humans, tend to dread idleness. However, this research also shows that if people do not have a justification for being busy, on average they would rather be idle. Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth, may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored. Yet as we will see in this book, being idle may be the only real path toward self-knowledge. What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self _and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is liker bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

I know that my most creative moments generally come in a state of half-sleep, usually in the early morning or following an afternoon nap. And there is significant evidence that intentionally deciding to delay making a decision, and letting it simmer on the back burner while we do other things --- like sleep, or other work --- can lead to better decisions (see Being distracted --- multitasking --- can lead to better decisions).


The butterflies only come out to play when all is still and quiet. Any sudden movements and they will scatter. --- Andrew Smart


Smart cites the work of Marcus Raichle, who discovered the 'resting-state network' of the human brain in 2001. This is the network that is active when we aren't focused on anything in particular:

Raichle noticed that when his subjects were lying in an MRI scanner and doing the demanding cognitive tasks of his experiments, there were brain areas whose activity actually decreased. This was surprising, because it was previously suspected that during cognitive tasks brain activity should only increase, relative to another task or to a "flat baseline." This led Raichle to study what the brain was doing in between his experimental tasks. What he discovered was a specific network that increased activity when subjects seemed to disengage from the outside world. When you have to perform some tedious task in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) experiment such as to memorize a list of words, certain areas of your brain become more active and other areas become less active. This does not seem peculiar. However, if you are just lying in the scanner with your eyes closed or staring up at the screen, brain activity does not decrease. The area of activity merely switches places. The area that deactivates during tasks becomes more active during rest. This is the resting-state network.

Most parts of the brain are dedicated to certain sorts of cognition, and are excited by singing, or reading, or doing math. But it appears that the 'aha!' moments of insight and creativity occur most frequently when the RSN is active: that is, when we aren't trying to be creative, but we are letting our minds wander where the autopilot wants to take us.

Note the brain isn't shutting down in RSN time: it is active. Again, Smart says,

Rather, the brain is perpetually and spontaneously active. It is maintaining, interpreting, responding, and predicting.

The brain use more energy when we are on autopilot than when we are doing math, for example.

What is increasingly clear is that our intuitive --- or culturally-imposed --- understanding of the human mind is woefully wrong. We naturally would imagine that concentrating hard on a math problem should take more energy, but it turns out that spacing out is more of an energy hog.


To reclaim what makes us unique we need to recapture the daydreams of childhood, and dedicate time to actively turning our thoughts away from the affairs of the day.

This flies in the face of what has become the orthodoxy of busyness, but we need to accept the heterodox paradox: to be deeply productive these days rests squarely on creativity, not brute focus.


Looked at from a physics perspective, more energy should lead to more of something else, and it seems that all that energy makes the brain temporarily more organized: different brain centers are communicating, exchanging information, and erecting a dialogue about our self and the world.

I'll leave out Smart's description of the various centers and what they add to the soup that is being made as we daydream, but as Smart says,

In a nutshell, when you are being lazy, a huge and widespread network in your brain forms and starts sending information back and forth between these regions. The butterflies only come out to play when all is still and quiet. Any sudden movements and they will scatter.

And when we are working on a spreadsheet, checking our task list, or even sitting in a brainstorming meeting, that network is asleep.

Those with Alzheimer's disease or schizophrenia appear to lack well-modulated autopilots, and that explains the nature of their impediments.

So it's time to move past the stigma attached to laziness, to wool-gathering and staring out the window. To reclaim what makes us unique we need to recapture the daydreams of childhood, and dedicate time to actively turning our thoughts away from the affairs of the day.

This flies in the face of what has become the orthodoxy of busyness, but we need to accept the heterodox paradox: to be deeply productive these days rests squarely on creativity, not brute focus. So, take that walk, take that nap, turn on the autopilot.