The Surprising Playfulness of the Un-busy Mind

As a child, I used to spend large amounts of time doing nothing. It fed my imagination, fueled my dreams, and most importantly it taught me how to be aware of myself. I grew up in a small town in a little house in the middle of 20 acres. Away from the house and in the tall grass sat a group of large, concrete culverts just waiting to be burried. In summer, I’d lay on top of these culverts and watch the clouds and imagine. I would imagine endless things about what I might want to become and how I wanted my life to be. When the sun became relentless and hot, I’d curl up inside one of these culverts where the concrete was cool and the breeze would blow through the opening. Sometimes I’d read. Sometimes I’d day dream. Sometimes I’d just think and follow wherever my mind would lead. I miss those days. I miss how much I learned simply by doing nothing.

Starting my career in the business world, I was surrounded by methodical and anlytical thinkers. Being somewhat methodical and analytical myself, I found this appealing. There was so much to learn from them. They were all hopping on this brave new bandwagon of time management. After all, who wouldn’t want to manage and wrangle time? There was, of course, a seminar (on cassette tape) and a system. Ah, the system. It came in a big box complete with a handy binder and a myriad of pages, tabs, and even satellite pages. There were lists and habits and values and goals! The incorporated to-do list not only had space for you to write down all the things you thought you should be doing, but it also had a place to prioritize all of these things. If that wasn’t enough, you were even able to rank the priorities! I was going to get so much done! Little did I know, in that moment of opening that expensive box, I empowered “The List,” a highly organized little slip of paper that would bludgeon me for the better part of my life. It would whisper to me that I wasn’t doing enough. It would remeind me that I had not done enough. It would tell me I had mis-prioritized. It would slowly and systematically label me a failure. But I was busy — working from the list. In being busy I appeared successful. There was a certain comfort slowly suffocating under so many self-imposed tasks.

Parenting added an entirely new dimension to being busy. The lists from my young adulthood had morphed into layered lists that had tasks for me as a professional and tasks for my roles as husband and father. It was like three dimensional chess. Any task completed in one dimension left room for more to be done in another. The lists began to build even before my children were born. There were baby books to be filled out (still not finished, by the way,) accounts to be created, rooms to be decorated and keepsake boxes to order. The books on parenting told me I must do these things! There were lists on how to feed, how to diaper, how to console, how to rock to sleep, how to sleep! I kept telling myself I could do all of these things methodically and analytically. The balls began to drop. First in one dimension, then the other. The lists loomed like shadows across every day. All I could do any more was think in a linear fashion of moving from task A to task B. Then one day — I laid in the floor and did absolutely nothing with my children.

It was as if a long forgotten world had opened up. In one minute I was a mountain to be climbed and the next my hair and my eyelids were being tugged just to see how they worked. I suddenly saw the world through their eyes. It looked a lot like an empty field on a summer’s day. My connection with the world, long contorted by lists and shoulds, suddenly stretched out like a cat on a culvert. The way the world felt was suddenly alien and familiar all in the same moment. I could breathe. I could think. In that present moment, the world became much more clear, anxiety subsided and joy rushed over me. It didn’t matter what tasks had come before or what tasks needed to come after. That moment of doing nothing was perfect.

We have become far too busy. We have lost the ability to see the world with a child-like wonder. Sure, as adults we have to get things done, but there is a balance. We have to make room for nothing. We have to take the time to let our minds wander, take the time to ponder the quiet, and take the time to just be alone with ourselves. That time is when we innovate. It’s when we imagine. It’s when we create. I try to give my children some moment of absolute boredom every day. Nothing planned. Nothing expected. They’ll learn what to do with it and hopefully prioritize it as they get older.

Busy people check things off lists. They get lots of things done. But in the end, they are unfamiliar with themselves and the people who matter. It is in that sweet and wide open nothingness that we can find, define, and create our own success. Take some time, lay on your back, watch the sky. Do nothing. I dare you.



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