The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

| 6/9/2014 4:47:00 PM


What are we missing out on when we use our smart phones to pass idle time?

Recently, while eating lunch by myself at a local diner, I realized something that genuinely bothered me: I’m losing the ability to sit and do nothing. Where I used to be able to sit contently and simply daydream or observe my surroundings, I now feel anxious, restless, and awkward if I’m sitting alone with nothing specific for my hands or brain to do.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Looking around at the other solo diners that day, I noticed a common denominator: the smart phone. With sandwiches in one hand and thumbs scrolling through Facebook in the other, we all seemed incapable of disconnecting from our phones, even for a 15-minute lunch. That’s when it dawned on me that it’s entirely possible the most damaging effect of technology’s integration into our daily lives is that it’s replacing something many people have never thought was worth doing—sitting still and simply letting your mind wander.

As soon as I figured out what was going on, I put my phone away. But that’s when the awkwardness set in. If you want to feel out of place in a public setting these days, just start staring off into space or watching people as they walk by. Do it long enough and someone is liable to walk up and ask you if you’re feeling OK. That’s because we’re so accustomed to seeing people tethered to their smart phones—it’s the new normal. If you’re not killing time with your face fused to a screen, then you’re the weird one in the room.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice how technological connectivity is making it easier to disconnect from ourselves and each other in myriad ways. Late last year, comedian Louis C.K. shared his hatred for cell phones on Conan, and observed how we use technology these days to distract us from thinking about the depressing aspects of life. As he points out, taking on those thoughts head on is the only way to defuse them of their explosive potential.

6/19/2014 7:34:50 AM

I remember a time when someone who were asked "What are you doing ?" the answer was "nothing", because to say one was just thinking was viewed with wonder and sometimes suspicion. I am 78 years old and may I say that the situation has changed in only one respect. The distraction. It has taken me years to cast off society and peer driven behaviors. I frequently do nothing while I enjoy the sight and sounds of nature. This morning brought three deer to my yard and seeing them, I ceased the morning coffee making, leaned on my kitchen sink and " did nothing" for several long minutes,watched the deer at their breakfast and ruminated on the pleasure of the morning. A most useful observation on modern society, and its foibles. But guess what ? It ain,t all that new. Writing this has awakened me to the need to do nothing, so I shall go and do that with no danger ofbeing asked "What are you doing" ? But if it should happen that iaI am questioned, I will say with satisfaction "NOTHING".

6/16/2014 8:27:34 AM

I've always struggled with doing nothing in certain situations, like sitting in a restaurant by myself. I usually bring something to read or something to write with. The smart phone handily provides both. I heartily agree with you that the mindlessness of the smart phone use is disturbing, using it while dining with others is particularly offensive. Also, I like to think what I read or wrote was of more value than scrolling through Facebook or spam emails. What are we going to do about it?

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