Remember the story about how Isaac Newton got interested in the pull of the Earth? As the story goes, Newton was in a garden when he observed the perpendicular descent of an apple from a tree. And for no particular reason, it got him thinking, leading to one of the most important concepts in the history of science: gravity.
You see, Newton wasn’t scratching his head over a theorem in his lab or scribbling feverishly at a mathematical equation when the thought occurred to him. He was merely loafing. And if science is to be believed, not being too busy might be the most important factor in humanity’s ability to think.
Science and other stuff to know
Several studies have been conducted over the years to understand the complex relationship between staying busy, productivity, mind wandering, and creative thinking. For example, a 2015 landmark study published in the Annual Review of Psychology suggested that, although a wandering mind had the potential to lead to errors in the immediate line of work, it was essential for engaging the mind’s creative mode.
In other words, giving your mind time to wander is what turns on its thinking mode. Along these same lines, research published in Plos One in 2014 found that people who multitasked had lower cognitive ability and emotional control functions.
During most of our days, we are engaged in tasks that require us to multitask and demand our attention. However, these tasks rarely require us to think. Put another way, a lot of work many people do each day is clerical in nature, requiring little flair of the brain’s creative juices.
Add to that our present-day fixation with technology and screens, and we have a real problem.
Our gadgets are literally designed to hijack and keep our attention. The result? Anytime we get a chance to reach out to them, we don’t miss that opportunity. Look at restaurants, car parks, beaches, universities, and hospitals. Nine out of ten times, you will find more people looking at their phones than engaging with a peer or just staring off into space.
Our constant need to be attached to our phones — responding to important emails, social media posts, group chats, slack messages from work, and on and on — has eaten up our time and made us “very busy.” In short, based on the findings of these studies, we have become too busy to have the time to think.
Our constant need to be too busy could result from a widely held but faulty belief that hustle portrays a person as successful and a “hard-working” individual. In fact, science tells us otherwise. Constant natural or forced activity keeps us from having time to relax. And it is in relaxation that the mind finds the liberty to think, or more specifically, to be creative.
In an interview with QZ, Emma Seppälä, Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, said that the key to a mental equilibrium is to balance linear thinking (which requires intense focus) with creative thinking (which is borne out of idleness). “Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.”
So while we might take great pride in being too hard-working, too focused, or too busy to give ourselves a breather, that pride is seriously misplaced. If one were truly inclined to be more productive and innovative, one ought to take a break and let the mind wander on its own.
Like Newton, a falling apple could give you an idea too. Think about it.