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An Ode to Nothing

At 3.30pm each day, my son loves nothing more than bursting through the front door, hurling his shoes down the hallway, ripping off his coat and leaving the frenzied pandemonium of pre-school behind him. His first port of call is his extensive collection of Winnie the Pooh figures. After embracing the quiet of home and checking on the well-being of Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore, he slumps onto the sofa, fully disconnecting from the hundred-mile-an-hour chaos of a noisy classroom. Home is his solace. A chance to experience a slower pace. With unwavering predictability, he makes the following demand:

“Winnie the Pooh on TV daddy!”

Pooh is his passion. Less so mine. The film plays on a loop, conversations between the characters etching themselves onto my own brain through osmosis. After attempting to tune-out the bulk of the interactions, one exchange between Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear captured my attention. It’s been running riot in my subconscious for weeks:

Christopher Robin : Pooh, what's your favourite thing in the whole world?

Winnie the Pooh : My favourite thing is me coming to visit you, and then you ask, "How about a smackeral of honey?"

Christopher Robin : I like that, too. But what I like best is just doing nothing.

Winnie the Pooh : How do you do just nothing?

Christopher Robin : Well, when grown-ups ask, "What are you going to do?" and you say, "Nothing," and then you go out and do it.

Winnie the Pooh : I like that. Let's do it all the time.

There is a jarring disconnect between Christopher Robin’s favourite activity and the expectations we tend to have of ourselves. Everyday, the cult of busy is hammered into us, even when we’re least expecting it. Turn on the news and we will hear platitudes from politicians promising ‘not to rest until we achieve our aims’, or deal-makers ‘pushing on through the night until we reach a resolution’.

On a smaller, domestic level, the incessant productivity gremlin sits on our shoulder, whispering in our ear, urging us to find a more useful way to spend our time. Why ‘do nothing’ when we could be switching electricity suppliers, changing the bed covers, batch-cooking, phoning family members...working late into the night?

After all, isn’t something always better than nothing?

The profound exchange from the Hundred Acre Wood gang isn’t an isolated case. It turns out literature is wise. It points us towards the things that would help us dramatically should we only be willing to listen. In the beautiful book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, Charlie Mackesy makes a similar observation:

“Doing nothing with friends is never doing nothing, is it?” asked the boy. “No,” said the mole.

Doing nothing. It’s the ultimate.

Yet in a world that champions long-hours, boundless energy and constant motion, it’s in danger of being viewed as the ultimate sin.

However, we should probably attempt to quantify the benefits of doing nothing. So let’s get a little scientific...

From an early age, many of us are programmed to believe that rest is for slackers. Time spent ‘not doing’ is time wasted. Building intermittent breaks into the workday is not only counter-intuitive, it’s also counter-cultural in the vast majority of businesses. But breaks, periods of calm, daydreaming and zoning-out are actually potent workplace weapons. We might not think it, but Christopher Robin was advocating deploying a greater range of cognitive resources than the average worker tends to muster. Studies of the brain show us that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. Your unconscious mind has more neuronal bandwidth available, which allows it to move around more information and sift through more potential solutions than your conscious centres of thinking.

By finding the time to give your conscious brain time to rest, you are unleashing more of its cognitive capacity. “Stand down conscious brain - you had your turn and you failed me. It’s time for my subconscious to have a crack at sorting through my problems!”

Our subconscious is a powerful tool, one we neglect and under-utilise. The best ideas come in the shower, before bed, driving. This version of ‘doing nothing’ isn’t actually reducing the time you’re thinking about work. Rather, you are diversifying the type of brain power you use.

That’s why at 4and20million, we prefer to think of breaks as strategic pit-stops. Pause. Renew. Go again. Much more poetically, Plato suggested a metaphor for the mind: our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But in order for the birds to settle, Plato understood that we need periods of purpose-free calm.

The day to day directs us towards the things that would damage us. Science shows that we’re more productive if we give ourselves periods of downtime between our bursts of hard work. Yet we continue to wage an unwinnable war with our minds. We make ourselves less smart by not embracing periods of aimlessness, yet if we did, we’d be better able to harness the power of our brains.

So if you won’t take it from us, take it from science, from Plato, from Mackesy and from Christopher Robin himself.

This year, resolve to achieve more. By occasionally doing nothing.


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