Can’t Get Creative Juices Flowing? Try Doing Nothing!

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In our busy culture, doing nothing carries the stigma of laziness.  Although the statement “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” is not found verbatim in the Bible, it has its roots in Scripture. The apostle Paul notes that those who waste their time in idleness or in a non-productive manner are easily led into sin (2 Thessalonians 3:11). By not using their time productively, he claims, these people are tempted to meddle in other people’s business and stand in the way of their progress. “They get into the habit of being idle and not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to” (1 Timothy 5:13). These idlers and busybodies waste time that could be used to help others In essence, their lack of activity leads them into sin.

It is no wonder that with these admonitions many people today will do anything rather than nothing.  In a 2014 study by University of Virginia and Harvard, psychologists had participants sit in an empty room and asked them to remain idle for 15 minutes.  They were given the choice of giving themselves an electric shock during that time.  Nearly 43% of participants chose the shock over simply sitting with their thoughts.

Andrew Deutscher, from The Energy Project, a consulting firm specializing in worker engagement and productivity, says that if you’re always doing something, it’s easy to ignore important areas of your life that may be asking for attention such as troubled relationships or unclear goals and priorities.  The Energy Project’s research found that the more hours people work, beyond 40, and the more continuously they work, the worse they feel and the less engaged they become.  Employees who take time out during the day report close to a 50% greater capacity to think creatively and a 46% higher level of health and well-being. “Doing nothing gives your brain a chance to work out things that are not urgent, otherwise we’re just skimming the surface of our lives,” says Deutscher.

Idleness stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which brings about healthful outcomes – reduced heart rate, good digestion, and better mood.  On an emotional level, empty time is good medicine.

Have you ever had a sudden inspiration, the proverbial “Aha” experience? These “insight moments” tend to happen when you’re not actively working on a problem—they come to you when you least expect them.  When you are exercising, gardening, or taking a shower, ideas come at these surprising times because of a process that neuroscientists and psychologists call incubation.  When you take time off from all work, it frees up your conscious mind and allows your subconscious mind to “incubate” on the problem.  It has long been known that incubation contributes to creativity. This is also why play is so closely related to creativity.  When you are playing, your mind is open and wandering more freely.

There is a difference between truly quieting the mind and enjoying leisure time.  If you take a trip with friends, watch TV, or ready a book your brain is busy.  This is totally different than sitting quietly and allowing your mind to wander.  The key is being aware of your intention when going into empty time.  When you are conscious about your choice to let you mind and body rest, you are far more likely to reap benefits, says Deutscher.  When you take real downtime, he explains, you replenish your glucose and oxygen levels and you feel more rested, clear-headed, and self-confident.

To create more down time in your days you may want to consider weeding out time stealers such as incessantly checking your email, social feeds, or playing games on your phone.  When you’re waiting for anything, let your mind drift for those few minutes. 

Anne Marie Hartford is the executive director of Family. Please send your comments to

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