In Praise of the Idle Mind

Research reveals the value of daydreaming in a productivity-obsessed culture.

Posted Nov 28, 2019

Wes Hicks. Unsplash.
Source: Wes Hicks. Unsplash.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then indolence is its father. 

In 1910, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a boy who was charged with opening a valve on a steam engine-powered water pump every so often to release the built-up steam. His whole job consisted of staring at these whirring pieces of metal all day. Needless to say, the kid got incredibly bored. One day, the supervisor walked in and the boy was nowhere to be found. Yet the pump ran just as it should. The “lazy” boy had contrived a mechanized release for the pump and won his freedom from monotony. Thus, the first iteration of the automatic steam engine was born.

Now, this story may be apocryphal but the boy’s behavior reflects a deeper truth. When we are feeling “lazy” and disinclined to do something, we often search for an easier way to do the undesirable task at hand. We try to streamline the process and save time and effort. We wind up making the task more efficient. In other words, laziness can drive innovation.

In recent years psychologists and business leaders have wisened up to this insight. It’s shifting our perspective of what “laziness” really means, and whether strategic idleness or our inclination toward ease may actually be powerful tools and great assets. Bill Gates is even reported to have said, “I always choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” 

Research shows our brains are wired for laziness. For our simian ancestors, energy was a precious resource. We had to conserve energy in order to compete for food, flee from predators, and fight. Learning to calculate the caloric costs and benefits of our actions was critical to our survival and expending energy on anything other than short-term gains was risky. So we learned to play it safe and take the path of least resistance.

Now that survival is a non-issue, it seems natural that we would opt for indolence but this is not the case. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans work more hours per week, sleep less, and the average productivity per worker has increased 400% since 1950. Several influences in a productivity-centric culture teach people from a young age that their worth depends on how industrious they are, so they work harder to produce more. 

This workaholic culture is reinforced by the fact that, until 10 years ago, many studies in psychology emphasized high executive functioning and goal achievement as essential traits for success and happiness. Meanwhile, daydreaming and mind-wandering were correlated with unhappiness. But current research in psychology and neuroscience points to a new understanding of the value of a wandering mind. Maybe in this age of overwork, our health and happiness may require making room for more artful idleness.

First, let’s take a look at why idleness has been so stigmatized. 

Idle Minds are the Devil’s Workshop.

For centuries, many Christian theologians derided laziness (or sloth) as a sin. Idleness was declared a moral failing and its cure lay in hard work. However, there’s another reason we fear our own idle mind like the devil and its roots are psychological. Many people who do not occupy themselves with activity find their minds leading to unpleasant or devilish thoughts – regrets, fears, and doubts. As we’ll see, though, the very neurological network responsible for that devil’s workshop is the very place that might store imagination’s bounty. 

But here’s a true paradox: The harder we work, the less productive we are and the more likely we are to feel lazy in an unhealthy way. In a survey by Adobe, 80 percent of people said they felt pressured to be productive, not creative, at work — even though approximately that same number felt creativity to be important to them. A recent study also revealed that many Millennials often feel compelled to fake working hard. The Industrial Revolution has transmuted into the Digital Workism Epidemic.

“When demand in our lives intensifies, we tend to hunker down and push harder,” says Tony Schwartz, head of the productivity consulting firm The Energy Project. “The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing.” What’s more, this forced, sustained focus strategically leads to selective attention, which can hinder your ability to generate fresh solutions and ideas.

Too caught up in the end result, we overlook the quality of our experience while working and living, and thus deprive our lives of meaning. Amidst this epidemic of overwork, how can we make our work more meaningful and our lives more fulfilling? 

Perhaps we could do with a healthy dose of indolence and deliberate daydreaming as an antidote to our efficiency fatigue.

The Challenge of Our Age

Studies show that taking breaks and allowing your mind to wander can help your brain retain information, re-focus, gain fresh perspective, and make new connections between ideas. One study out of the University of British Columbia shows that mind wandering, typically associated with laziness and even unhappiness, increases brain activity in the DMN, which deals with complex problem-solving. 

Another study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, reports that workers are generally more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when they are confronted with a flurry of unpredictable demands. Just think of the eureka moments that occur while we’re engaged in the most mundane of tasks, be it showering, commuting, or doing the dishes. 

Here’s the core problem: When the time finally comes to put our feet up, we don’t know-how. We have little training in idleness. Take away a kid’s toys and smartphone (because the average American child gets their first smartphone at 11) then tell them to entertain themselves, and they’ll be at a loss. But ask yourself: would you fare much better? 

So maybe this week, notice when you have “downtime” and white space in your calendar. Instead of filling the space with more work or more digital distractions, step back, recline, and be – in the words of poet Mary Oliver – “idle and blessed.”