Why Idleness Paves the Way for Your Success (Yes, Really!)

Even though we try to fill up every moment, modern life is punctuated by lulls. Take advantage of opportunities to turn your brain off, whether it's during your commute, at the gym, or while waiting for a tardy lunch date.
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Female teenager student sleeping in classroom.View my lightbox:
Female teenager student sleeping in classroom.View my lightbox:

The summer of 2014 is winding down. And odds are, you're probably gearing up for something: sending your kids off to school, going to school yourself, or stepping things up at work. For most of us, fall is the time to get our heads back in the game.

It's odd that Labor Day unofficially marks the beginning of fall. When the holiday was first celebrated in 1882, the U.S. labor movement envisioned it as a day of leisure for working men and women. Indeed, the promise of leisure is deeply rooted in American consciousness. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously envisioned a world where "all can develop the life of the spirit, of reflection, of religion, of the arts, of the full realization of the good things of the world." Doesn't that sound great?!

So what's standing in the way of making this wonderful vision a reality? Well, is it turns out, we are!

As a (somewhat surprising) general rule, humans enjoy busyness more than idleness. One study found that we dislike being alone with our thoughts for even short periods of time -- the study's participants hated it so much that they preferred giving themselves mild electric shocks instead!**


In real life, the same rules apply. Instead of letting our brains rest, we occupy them with minutiae like email, texts, Facebook, TV, and appointments. It's hard to just sit there and exist anymore. Here's a pretty telling data point: More than 38 million Americans have shopped on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. Yes, really.

Now, you might be thinking, What's so bad about that? Just leave me and my smartphone alone! You know I have your best interest at heart. It turns out that this incessant desire to be busy is hurting us in many ways.

Neuroscientists used to believe that the brain was essentially inactive when we were doing nothing. But recent research has revealed that idleness actually supercharges our brains. According to researcher Andrew Smart, idleness means "a healthier, happier, more creative brain." In many ways, it's like sleep: easy to skip, but vital to our health and success.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it pretty bluntly: "all of humanity's problems stem from man's ability to sit quietly in a room alone." How much sitting around are you doing lately? Have you let yourself stare off into space at work? Leave the office and take an afternoon stroll? Lie in bed for a few minutes after you wake up instead of jumping up to check your email?

This just as true for me. In recent months, I've been on the road constantly, zigzagging the country to share my Bankable Leadership message. It's a blessing, and sometimes I don't notice how all-consuming it can be.

Then, I took a break to visit my baby sister in Oregon. She graduated from Yale this spring (I'm not bragging; I'm proud!) and is working for the U.S. Forest Service. She and her coworkers literally live in a cabin in the woods. No TV, no internet, no distractions.


As we sat by the river behind her cabin in the Deschutes National Forest, I asked, "So, what do you do around here for fun?" She looked at me and said, "Well, pretty much this. And I've never felt less stressed in my life." Meanwhile, I'd been going into mild convulsions from not being able to check my email. Talk about a contrast. And a reality check. My brain needed a serious break.

Many of mankind's great discoveries were born out of idle moments. Take Kary Mullis, the chemist who invented the technology for genetic tests. His "Eureka" moment didn't happen in his lab; it happened one evening while he was driving up the northern California coast.

If we think that we can be creative, sharp, or happy while our brains are in constant overdrive, we're a bit delusional.

Three Tips to Give Your Brain a Break

I hope I've convinced you that a little idleness is just what the doctor ordered. And while most of us can't move to a U.S. Forest Service cabin, anyone can make the time and space for this important activity.

  1. Seize everyday opportunities. Even though we try to fill up every moment, modern life is punctuated by lulls. Take advantage of opportunities to turn your brain off, whether it's during your commute, at the gym, or while waiting for a tardy lunch date.

  • Schedule idleness. Especially if you're a Type-A person like me, it might be helpful to block out time to be idle. You might decide to put away your smartphone by 7 p.m., or that you'll give yourself five minutes to lie in bed before you start your day. Consider what makes the most sense for you and make a commitment to do it.
  • Run away. Finally, if you just can't resist the temptations around you, iyou might consider running away for a few days. Sign up for that yoga retreat. Go camping in an area with no cell service. This might not be a long-term solution, but by all means, do what you need to do!
  • Let me conclude by making myself clear: In my advice to make time for idleness, I'm not giving you license to quit your job and never check your email again. Of course you have to have a balance. Samuel Butler once explained that "to do great work, one must be very idle as well as very industrious." Now that's a strategy that this Type A workaholic can really get behind.

    **This is tangential to my point, above, but still kind of interesting: apparently, men were less comfortable being alone with their thoughts -- 67 percent of men chose shocks compared to 25 percent of women!

    I'd love to hear your wisdom: How do let your brain be idle in your busy life?