Learning How To Do Nothing

I don’t remember the crash.

I was riding my bike in a race at West Point, the United States Military Academy. The peloton of over 80 riders was moving fast, over 60km/h, on a gradual downhill section. It was a wonderfully sunny day, one of the first since a New England winter that had sucked the vitality out of landscapes and people, and everyone was riding hard but still able to enjoy the springlike roads and scenery. I was right in the middle of the pack of riders, sheltered from the wind, and as the speeds picked up on the downhill I had that magical feeling that comes from riding in a group at high speeds—the smooth sound of aerodynamic bodies and bikes slicing through the wind, the clicking of expensive freehubs rotating as sheltered riders pedalled softly. The riders around me all had the same feeling, and we couldn’t help but exchange grins despite being competitors.

A slight unexpected movement amongst the riders ahead of me. Then I’m on my back on the concrete, my legs tangled at inhuman angles with my bike, one foot still clipped into a pedal, and I’m doing mental checks to determine the damage to my body. Pain everywhere, blood down my left arm and leg, an intense, sharp jabbing pain in my tailbone, difficulty moving my right leg. I didn’t know it at the time—it must have been the adrenaline—but the tailbone wasn’t my main concern. The medics, when they reached me after checking on some of the other riders who had broken bones, noticed immediately that my helmet was shattered. I still don’t know if I had passed out or for how long, but the pain and dizziness in my head hit me a few hours later while I waited to be seen in a nearby hospital.

Concussion. Which, my doctor tells me, science still knows relatively little about. I was prescribed ’cognitive rest’, which essentially involves this: do nothing to stress your brain, in the same way you wouldn’t work out after pulling a muscle. No reading, no intense conversations, no laptop, and as little phone as possible. Maintain this regimen until you feel better.

The first couple of days after my crash were confusing and irritating, and I cannot emphasise the difficulty I had in avoiding the magnet-like pull of my phone to my hand. But with time came ease of thought and a clarity of mind that I have not felt before. There just seemed to be so much time. From the moment I woke up and proceeded  to not spend the next ten minutes checking emails and Facebook, life was slower and more internal. Each hour lasted longer, and evenings stretched on. It was an unbelievable change from the busyness and rushing and stress and the feeling that there was never enough time in a day that I’d had throughout the previous week, month, years.

I kept wondering what to do with my eyes. Over breakfast I stared into my coffee, stared into my bowl, stared blankly at the table, and felt absurd for not doing anything. I couldn’t pretend to read a newspaper and couldn’t pull out my phone, which is our automatic act whenever faced with being alone with nothing else to do. I feared what people would think of me sitting alone and just staring, doing nothing at all other than thinking.

Our society is one that seeks productivity and disdains anything that isn’t, so much so that the feeling of what I call leisure guilt is one most of us are familiar with. Leisure guilt is that niggling in the mind during activities we find pleasurable but which don’t involve a laptop. I get it when I’m out cycling or when I go for a walk, when I spend a little too long with friends over dinner talking politics, and when I’m reading a book unrelated to schoolwork. I’ve even had leisure guilt when spending too long on class readings I’m enjoying, because I should be moving on more quickly to other tasks. Leisure guilt says this isn’t going to help you achieve anything, get back to work.

If we feel leisure guilt even when reading or discussing politics with friends it’s no surprise we feel it when doing precisely nothing. Doing nothing these days usually involves lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram; it needs to be distinguished from properly doing nothing nothing. The latter can even seem impossible. Who these days sits on a park bench with their hands on their knees and stares into space? Where would you even look? Wouldn’t people think you’re strange? And if you do try it, the urge to pull out your phone can become all too great to resist.

Another word for doing nothing is ‘daydreaming’, which is often used as an insult. It implies unproductiveness, impracticality, a head in the clouds. No one wants to be called a daydreamer, that person alone on the park bench staring awkwardly into space. Yet with my concussion, unable to be productive and do things, I could really only do exactly that—sit on a bench in the sun at Yale’s Cross Campus and daydream, letting my mind wander as it pleased.

Daydreaming is the antithesis of productivity. Productivity is to be sought and daydreaming avoided, society says. Where daydreaming at its best still leads to nothing tangible, productivity gives us the pleasure of ticking off to-dos, sending emails, reading pages, writing words and crunching numbers. Productivity leads to results we can see, and makes us feel good about ourselves. With limited time each day and a culture of busy, who would consciously take time to daydream, to do nothing?

But what crashing my bicycle taught me is that we undervalue doing nothing—and even if we realise its value, it is a process to learn how to do it.

The truth is that without daydreaming our productive time may be spent on activities that weren’t worth pursuing in the first place. To focus solely on productivity, without ever giving ourselves space and time to daydream, is like starting to cook a meal before knowing what you want to eat or even having a recipe. It is to ask yourself a more specific question before asking yourself the larger question that determines which specific questions to ask. You don’t go to the supermarket before asking yourself whether you even need anything, and you don’t start cooking before knowing what you’re making. And yet when it comes to productivity, we frequently fill our days with tasks before giving ourselves the space to ask whether those tasks are ones we ultimately want or need to be doing in the first place.

Life sweeps our bicycles out from under us. Had I not had time to do nothing, I would have learned nothing from my crash. Yet having had this time, I maintain that daydreaming’s most important function is in giving us the mental space to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and our lives. Productivity is merely time spent, never to be recovered, unless it is done with a purpose that is well understood. We must give ourselves the time and space to form the blueprints of our lives, and to do that we must realise the absurdity of our leisure guilt.