I heard Neil Gaiman talking about his writing process in a recent interview. He said that he only has one rule when he sits down to write.
He can either write or do nothing.
He says even if he doesn’t feel like writing, eventually, he gets bored enough that writing becomes appealing.
This struck me as an extremely effective rule for one big reason. The brain is most creative when it has nothing to do. When the Executive Attention Network is at rest, the Imagination Network can activate and begin to work on new ideas.
The problem with our fast-paced society is that we never let our brains rest. It is astounding to me how addicted we are to our phones and devices and how allergic we have become to doing nothing. God forbid we have to stand in line for more than a minute without pulling out our phones and distracting ourselves. We can’t even have a conversation and simply wonder about something rather than immediately googling the answer to whatever question may come up. Anytime we get stuck, bored, sad, frustrated, or begin to feel any other unpleasant emotion, we are compelled to distract ourselves from the discomfort.
I began to notice the effects this behavior was having on my memory several years ago. I noticed that as I listened to one podcast to the next and the next, I wasn’t actually retaining any of the information I was receiving. And as I endlessly scrolled through one social media app to the next, nothing was satiating whatever hunger I was trying to fill. Yet the silence that came after a podcast ended seemed unbearable as did the emptiness that came at the end of scrolling.
The constant stream of information was numbing and draining. It made my mind feel busy and overwhelmed which kept me from being able to focus on what I really wanted to get done. Not only that but it was inducing low-grade anxiety that further depleted my creativity, productivity, and motivation. I was failing miserably at Neil Gaiman’s rule to write or do nothing. It seemed neither option was viable.
How The Brain Works
Determined not to let my brain turn to mush, I decided to take an online class to help me learn better. The class was called Learning How to Learn taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, and it provided an overview of how the brain learns and gave techniques and methods for developing the most effective learning skills.
One of the things I learned in this course was the way the brain works best is to have periods of focused learning followed by periods of diffused learning.
Focused mode is the mode the brain uses when solving familiar problems. The connections in the brain happen in a tight pattern where the connections are strong and close together. When the solution lies in a distant part of the brain where the connections haven’t been made yet, the focused mode is no longer helpful. The diagram below illustrates this with the black path.
So how does the brain get the red path to find the black path?
This is where the diffuse mode of thinking comes in to play. According to this article on brainscape.com,
Diffuse thinking happens when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random. The diffuse mode of thinking does not happen in any one area of the brain, but rather all over. In fact, that is the beauty of diffuse thinking: your brain has the opportunity to connect the dots and link neural processes.
In other words, diffuse mode thinking happens when you’re doing nothing. So while I filled every empty moment with podcast chatter, audiobooks, or social media scrolling, I was robbing my brain of the much-needed downtime to enter into diffuse mode learning. The more I learned about the importance of idle time, the more I understood why I was having trouble.
The Science Behind Idle Time
There has been interesting research confirming the idea that our brains need idle time to be more creative. The New York Times cites research done by Sandy Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, in the recent article The Case for Doing Nothing.
Ms. Mann’s research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.
“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” Ms. Mann said. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”
Ms. Mann’s research illuminates the problem with the constant stimulation being fed to our brains for nearly every waking moment. But just knowing that doing nothing is helpful for learning and creating isn’t enough to get people to do it. I still struggled with the urge to distract myself despite this new information I had uncovered.
Then I came across another fascinating study done by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia. Participants were asked to put away distractions and sit with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. The Atlantic reports on one of the 11 experiments in this study that surprised the researchers the most.
In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.)
So not only are we distracting our brains from doing nothing, but we seem to have a masochistic abhorrence to it. Wilson’s explanation as to why people find it so hard to do nothing, boils down to what he calls the “scanner hypothesis”.
Mammals have evolved to monitor their environments for dangers and opportunities, and so focusing completely internally for several minutes is unnatural.
Wilson admitted they don’t have strong evidence to support the hypothesis and mentioned that they were also testing if practice would make the task easier. The Atlantic article reports that,
They did find a small correlation between meditation experience and ability to entertain oneself, and they suggest that control over one’s thoughts may be one appeal of meditation.
The Practice of Doing Nothing
If I use myself in my own N of 1 study, I can confirm that having a meditation practice has greatly helped my ability to do nothing and has decreased my urge to distract myself at all times. Rather than filling my commute time with constant podcasts or audiobooks, I now practice enjoying the silence for at least part of the drive. When I get to the end of a book or podcast, I take time to ponder over the information I just heard. I don’t immediately jump to the next thing on my playlist. I focus on my breath or the sounds of the environment and allow my mind to drift or wander about as it pleases.
Meditation has made me aware of those impulses and urges to distract myself with social media, podcasts, and the like. With the awareness in the foreground, I have the ability to choose whether I succumb to the impulses or make a different choice. Over time, I have found more peace and freedom in choosing nothingness over distraction. That doesn’t mean I don’t still crave a good Netflix binge, but I know my brain is better served by some intentional rest. This has been confirmed with improved attention span, fewer creative blocks, and greater productivity in my work.
Another practical and useful strategy I have used in practicing doing nothing has been to turn off all notifications on my phone. I don’t get email or social media notifications on my phone. That very small change shifted my distractibility dramatically. After a while, I forgot about checking social media all the time and I found peace in not being tethered to it.
In short, having a daily meditation practice combined with turning off my phone notifications has made it easier to do nothing. And doing nothing has helped me write more, find more creativity, and retain more useful information.
When I think about Neil Gaiman’s rule, I understand why his writing is so brilliantly imaginative and captivating. He has mastered the art of doing nothing and has given his brain time to dwell in diffuse mode thinking.
Next time you are struggling with a creative problem, whether it’s writing or some other challenging task, try out Mr. Gaiman’s rule: Write or do nothing.
Let me know how it works out.