The Art of Sitting and Doing Nothing
We must combat the impulse to be productive every minute of every day.
Remember the days when you’d go to a restaurant and while you waited to meet your friend, you’d order a drink, look around and watch other people? Then you’d feel weirdly uncomfortable and awkward because you were alone — yes — without your smartphone, and therefore, had to sit idle. As I reminisce on these pre-phone days, I recall looking around and watching other couples in conversation, studying the meals on the tables, scanning the apparel and shoes on those around me, or even the decor of the restaurant, all while giving the server a polite smile and say, “I’m just waiting for a friend.” At that time, every minute I checked my watch felt eternal because I was alone. Rather than swiping, liking and scrolling on my coveted phone, I was faced to deal with myself. Crazy right? Eventually, I’d accept the discomfort of sitting idle and having to just think, daydream, and as we see it today, “do nothing.”
I also remember when I use to wait for the train from New Jersey to Manhattan and while I waited, I watched people, tossed out “good morning!” to strangers and talked to the familiar faces that were “regular” commuters who like me, waited for the same train on a daily basis. When the crowds subsided, I would fidget with my outfit or lip gloss and just kept checking my watch for 7:14am to come around. At some point, I’d eventually let my mind wander while I admired the sunrise or studied other commuters.
In today’s world of smartphones and hyper-connectivity, (read: when you text your friend before a date with a “be there in 2 minutes” or “parking the car,”), there is no time for awkward silence, nor daydreaming. In fact, I embrace the extra few minutes to fire out one more email, check instagram or squeeze in a quick phone call. Like most people, I find the need to be productive EVERY MINUTE of the day. The same situation applies for when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting for the barista to prepare my latte and heck, even if I sit in the car at a red light too long, I feel productive taking a quick scan at an email or text. My phone has become my security blanket, my partner, my accessory, my prop, and my “I can’t live without you!” I surveyed some of my friends and we all agreed that whenever we have any “dead” time or have to sit idle, we are instantly commandeered by our little rectangular blue-light companion that comforts us and gives us something to do when we need something to do, or makes us at least look like we have something to do. That’s kind of messed up, right? And is this good or bad?
It’s discernably good because we are “getting things done,” however, when I reflect on this, I consider it to be not so good. Why? Because it was during those quiet times of observing and mind wandering, when I did a lot of thinking, when I paid more attention to details and when I use to memorize things I saw or heard such as songs or billboards on the subway, and even people’s names! I would walk down the Manhattan streets and look at birds, make eye contact with people, notice new storefront windows and creatively think about what I wanted to accomplish. Today we see people walk down those same streets, hijacked by their cell phones, and typically head down and headphones in. But what about that awkward silence at the restaurant? Have we forgotten how to feel awkward and just deal with ourselves?
In 1670, French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Psychologist Timothy Wilson backs this up in 11 studies proving that people did not enjoy spending even short periods of time in a room, with nothing to do but think and daydream. The participants preferred listening to music, being on their smartphones and even giving themselves mild electric shocks, as opposed to being left to think.
When I remember those non-iPhone days, I recall things that I never even pay attention to anymore and I feel grateful for having lived a smartphone-less childhood, well into my early 20s. I spent more time thinking inwards, visualizing goals, smiling about past moments and meditating. Sadly, the digital distractions, apps, emails and alerts on my phone now replace this time.
So here’s the challenge — try it; make a date with someone, arrive early and Just. Sit. Idle. Might you feel awkward, uncomfortable, inefficient or fidgety? Absolutely. But within that awkwardness, you may discover the magic of kicking up a conversation with the bartender, or even better, daydreaming and allowing your mind to wander. Studies show that during this brain’s idle stage of thinking is in fact, anything but idle. The brain uses this quiet mode of processing for “self-awareness and reflection, recalling personal memories, imagining the future, feeling emotions about the psychological impact of social situations on other people, and constructing moral judgments.”
Empowered with this knowledge, I will certainly rethink the incessant social check-ins, unnecessary “I’m sitting at the bar” texts, and obsession to be “always busy,” to once again, accomplish true mindfulness and a stronger sense of self. In other words, I may just have to deal with myself, but this time, I’ll enjoy it.