Is an Idle Mind Really the Devil's Workshop?

Make a "to-be" list to offset your "to-do" list.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash
"Don't just do something, sit there" is the mantra for balance, peace of mind, and productivity.
Source: Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

If someone suggested that an idle mind is a good thing, I imagine you might scratch your head and roll your eyes as you look at your to-do list. If you’re like many people, the old myth, “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop,” still lingers in the back your head.

But research from Harvard and other institutions of higher learning shows that idle moments of mindfulness without imperatives—nothing to rush to, fix or accomplish—actually add to your mental and physical health: greater productivity, better memory, stronger immune system, fewer health problems, greater happiness and longer life.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

“Sit there and do nothing?” you ask. I can imagine you rolling your eyes, glancing at your to-do list, booing and hissing. You’re up to your eyeballs in tasks, deadlines loom, and you can’t find enough hours in the day to get everything done. You want to end the madness, not prolong it. It’s counter-intuitive, but doing nothing actually fuels your productivity.

Doing something is productivity’s gas; doing nothing is productivity’s brakes. We need both gas and brakes to function well. Without the pauses of doing nothing, you’re only using gas without brakes. If you were a car, you’d burn out your engine or crash. But you don’t have to let that happen. The solution? Take time out of the daily grind to quiet your mind—idle moments to meditate, take a power nap or contemplate some aspect of nature. Doing nothing provides a period for important decisions to incubate and cultivates clarity and creativity to put into your career goals and make them a reality.

Dolce Far Niente

The Italians have a name for it: “Dolce far niente”—the sweetness of doing nothing. All that matters is living in the moment, watching time go by. It doesn’t translate in the United States, where tasks and schedules define us. The closest translation we have is “killing time.” But “Dolce far niente” demands more: to intentionally let go and prioritize "being" alongside "doing".

Doing nothing has been compared to the pauses that are integral to a beautiful piece of music. Without the absences of sound, the music would be just noise. One day I watched a man, arms outstretched from his side, balance on an old sea wall. In that moment, with all the time in the world, no hurry to get anywhere, all he cared about was navigating his body against the warm ocean breeze. Unbeknownst to him, his “Dolce far niente” provided brakes that would recharge his productivity later on.

The sweetness of doing nothing gives you moments to chill, live in the present, and savor your life to the fullest. Putting on the brakes and stepping away refills your dwindling reservoir, replenishes your mojo, and provides an incubation period for embryonic ideas to hatch. In those moments that might seem empty and needless, strategies and solutions that have been there all along in some embryonic form are given space to come alive.

Finding Your Sweet Spot

Every time you get caught in the stress of the moment, step back, take a breath and chill in that sweet spot. Achieving balance between the gas (doing) and brakes (being) is a never-ending dance. Especially in our culture where doing is more valued than being, and the adage, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” blinks in your brain like a neon sign—where you’re taught to believe that the more you do, the greater your worth. If you’re like most people, you will continue to struggle to find that sweet spot—the middle way between doing something and doing nothing.

Stress will continue to track you down. Some people (including yourself) will make unreasonable demands. Whether Mercury is in retrograde or not, life won’t always go your way, hardships and obstacles will occur, and family obligations will continue to be a challenge. At times it might even seem like the world is conspiring against you. But it isn’t. You’re simply experiencing life on its own terms, not yours.

Make a To-Be List To Offset Your To-Do List

What if you made a to-be list alongside your to-do list? What would you put on it? Meditating a minimum of 5 minutes a day is at the top of my to-be list. I’m fortunate to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains with dazzling views. On a clear day, I make it a point to be outdoors as much as possible, watch the sunsets, and listen to nature: birds tweeting, insects in the bushes, or frogs croaking. If you were to start your list now, you might jot down "elbowroom to stretch" and "deep breathe between appointments," or "time to walk around the block and clear your head." Or meditate, pray, practice chair yoga at your desk, watch the grass grow, or just contemplate the universe.

Five Minutes of "Sweet Nothings"

The more you practice stilling your mind and centering on the quiet places within you, the more you can access a calm state even in times of upheaval. When you’re peaceful and centered, your heart and respiratory rates slow down. Muscles loosen. Your mind is open and clear, actions are reflective and balanced, and you’re more productive. Just five minutes of “sweet nothings.” You’re mindfully present in each moment where your busy life coexists with idle moments without imperatives, nothing to rush to, fix, or accomplish. After applying the brakes and doing something for nothing, you’re ready to go again. Then watch your resilience, creativity, and productivity soar.

References

Keng, S. L., et al. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychogical Review, 31 (6), 1041-1056. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006

Kersemaekers, W. et al. (2018). A workplace mindfulness Intervention may be associated with improved psychological well-being and productivity. A preliminary field study in a company setting. Frontiers of Psychology, 9: 195. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00195

Shiba, K. et al. (2015). The association between meditation practice and job performance: A cross-sectional Study. PLOS One, 10 (5). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.012828  

Taylor, W. C. (2011) Booster Breaks: An Easy-to-Implement Workplace Policy Designed to Improve Employee Health, Increase Productivity, and Lower Health Care Costs, Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 26:1, 70-84, DOI: 10.1080/15555240.2011.540991