Press-Republican

June 9, 2013

'Doing nothing' has its value

By PAUL GRASSO, Just Sayin',
Press-Republican

---- — I was in Connecticut last weekend visiting my father as I do every other weekend. While I was there, a college friend living in the United Kingdom called to ask when I might be coming over for a visit. I told him that, in light of my schedule, I didn’t foresee a vacation this summer.

My comment about being busy prompted a response from my friend’s wife, Amanda, who is a behavioral neuroscientist; she studies the biological reasons for human behavior. One of her favorite pastimes is commenting on the biological and non-biological reasons for my behavior. She seems to derive endless enjoyment from it.

Amanda and I had a (long) discussion about a paper she is writing and will present at a conference in the autumn. She told me she got the idea for the paper after re-reading a quotation from her favorite theologian, Winnie the Pooh, who said, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing.”

Her thesis is that it’s common in today’s plugged-in, online, connected to everyone and everything 24/7 world to be “busy.” The common belief is that a person is most productive when they’re “working on something,” trying to solve one complex problem or another. The assumption is that a person accomplishes more when they’re consciously focused on a problem or an issue.

But, she asked, “When does productivity end and ‘busyness’ begin?”

According to Amanda, our brain doesn’t always work best when it’s intensely focused and not allowed to rest. Our brain functions best, and we are our most creative, when the brain has a balance of “active” time and “relaxation” time. Unfortunately, in our culture, we see doing nothing as a waste of time or laziness. She went on to explain the paradox that “doing nothing” is difficult. We become so pre-occupied that our conscious awareness is constantly focusing on those “preoccupations,” thereby preventing us from relaxing and “doing nothing.”

She then went into some mind-numbing explanation about the prefrontal cortex and how it’s the most advanced part of the brain. Among other things, it allows us to analyze and calculate.

The prefrontal cortex needs to be in a state of rest for us to reach that “deeper state” where we can be intuitive and imaginative. Apparently, that’s one of the benefits of meditation — putting the prefrontal cortex to sleep.

She went on to say it’s only when we are relaxing that our subconscious allows our creative juices to flow freely. For example, she believes it’s why people often have “good ideas” while in the shower.

She told me that most of her colleagues, especially her younger colleagues, couldn’t remember when they last spent time without their tablets, or without their cell phones, or without having tiny speakers plugged into their ears, or without sitting in front of a television. In conducting research for her paper, she convinced a group of businesspeople to give up their electronics for 72 hours. When interviewing them about their reactions to being “unplugged,” she said the most common responses were that they felt “guilty” or “unproductive.”

One of the few things Amanda and I have in common is that it often takes us a while to get to the point.

So, here’s one of the points Amanda wants to make in her paper.

As the pace of business continues to speed up, the successful business leaders will be those who carve out time just to think — and to think strategically as opposed to executing tactically, which is what most of us do.

The goal of taking time to think strategically, she said, “is to influence your business environment instead of reacting to it.”

Amanda openly admits that her paper, as it relates to strategic thinking, isn’t groundbreaking. The connection between brain functions and business needs is just an easy example to make her point.

However, I know she will go into a lengthy, excruciatingly detailed, scientific (boring) explanation of why “doing nothing” is important, and why we have such a difficult time allowing our brains the luxury of “doing nothing.”

Our conversation ended with me promising to make time to visit them in Oxford and with Amanda complimenting me on my ability to turn “doing nothing” into an art form.

At least she made it sound like a compliment.

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.