The Virtue of Doing Nothing

I need time to stop moving. I need time to stay useless. -- "Stay Useless", Cloud Nothings

My friend Eve passed along an essay in the New York Times called The Art of Distraction in which author and playwright Hanif Kureishi suggests that while focus and concentration certainly have their place, part of living a creative life requires embracing distraction, impulse, whim.

What I might have said to my son’s friend is that it is incontrovertible that sometimes things get done better when you’re doing something else. If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you. Seeing that a sentence has to have a particular shape can’t be forced; you have to wait for your own judgment to inform you, and it usually does, in time. Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious. Indeed, some distractions are more than useful; they might be more like realizations and can be as informative and multilayered as dreams. They might be where the excitement is.

The author then goes on to talk about "Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing" that make distraction less and less possible, and that's all very interesting stuff that you will probably find rewarding to pursue. But what I want to think about right now is just that first part (I suppose I'm not very focused...). It reminded me of another NYT essay I read ages ago by Thomas Pynchon called Nearer, my Couch, to Thee about the deadly sin of Sloth:

But Sloth's offspring, though bad -- to paraphrase the Shangri-Las -- are not always evil, for example what Aquinas terms Uneasiness of the Mind, or "rushing after various things without rhyme or reason," which, "if it pertains to the imaginative power... is called curiosity." It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work, sometimes even their best, solving formal problems, getting advice from Beyond, having hypnagogic adventures that with luck can be recovered later on. Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do. We sell our dreams.

Okay, yes, this essay then goes on to talk about a lot of other things, including lots of now charmingly dated references to VCRs and you should definitely check out the rest. But again, this idea of distraction as essential to the process of creation strikes a cord in me.

Maybe it's because I have spent so much time trying to become "distraction free". It's one of those basic tenants of getting on the productivity bandwagon that you learn about on sites like Getting Things Done, 43Folders, and Lifehacker. And even those who don't hold truck with "Distraction Free", still basically advocate for the "Just do it!" mentality. Rarely does someone say, "Hey, you should let yourself get distracted sometimes." But I think sometimes that's exactly what you need to do.

Of course you have to have some sort of organization to your life. As a single parent with two full time jobs, I can attest to the importance of cultivating efficiency. And you will have to pry my iPhone todo list app from my cold dead hands.

But there is something really appealing to me about embracing the unproductive aspects of creativity. I know many of the snags I hit in writing resolve themselves when I'm not writing. When I'm washing dishes, or waiting for the kettle to boil, or taking a shower, or staring out the window listening to music. Yes, I stare out the window a lot. I always have. It began in 1st grade. The teachers yelled at me then, and continued to do so for my entire student career.

Now, there is a difference between doing nothing and frittering away hours on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Pinterest, or any of those places. That, in my opinion is not doing nothing. That's dicking around.

No, what I'm talking about is when I'm staring out at nothing, lost in the swirling worlds of my mind's eye. In those moments, I am working. Dreaming. Wuwei. Action without effort. Doing nothing.