The Art of Doing Nothing

I get some of my best ideas while in the shower. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve met plenty of people who swear to the same thing – that all of their mental breakthroughs occur while standing beneath a stream of warm water. And for further proof that it’s not just me and my acquaintances, this past Christmas I was given AquaNotes – a waterproof pencil and pad, the latter complete with suction cups for easy mounting on wet tiles. (The thing works beautifully, by the way, though in my home it’s mostly been used to play weeklong games of hangman.)

aqua notes

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that so many of us are at our creative, problem-solving best when we’re standing there in the shower. Is it the water? Its warmth and soothing hiss. And the steam, so calming, that pillows all around you. Or is it the isolation of it? No windows to look out of. No distractions, save for a bubbly bar of soap and some bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Or is it maybe the smell of that stuff? The cucumber-aloe body wash. The shampoo scented with lavender.

I’ve come to believe that all of these things play a part in making the shower such a great space for thinking. But most important of all – for me, at least – is the fact that, while in the shower, I’m often just standing there, doing nothing. Yes, I’ll admit it. Once I’m done with my soaping and shampooing, I often just hang out, enjoying the feel of the water, letting my mind roam, hoping another handful of bright ideas come to me – and, of course, wasting water.

But as someone who usually hops out of bed seconds after my eyes pop open – and, after a quick pit-stop at the coffee machine, am then sitting with my books and pads and computer going, going, going – this period of non-activity is extremely valuable. It is perhaps the only time during my day that my mind isn’t directly engaged. I’m not writing, editing, reading, cooking, talking, driving, running, sleeping, cleaning, watching, e-mailing, crosswording, tweeting, eating. I’m just standing there. Doing nothing.

I’m aware, obviously, that I could be doing nothing less wastefully outside of the shower. But take a second to consider just what that would entail. Imaginatively place yourself in your house or your apartment, and think of all the urges and objects and devices you would have to not just ignore, but actively not think about, in order to really and truly spend so much as a couple of seconds doing nothing.

Don’t sit down at your desk and fire off a quick e-mail. Don’t lean over to scoop up the dust bunny in the corner. Don’t put the jar of peanut butter back into the cabinet. Don’t turn on the radio or TV. Don’t organize the pile of shoes in the hall. And definitely DO NOT touch your phone. Go ahead and let your fingers twitch and swipe at a phantom touchscreen, but don’t grab the thing and punch in your passcode and start playing around. Shove your phone and the mind-boggling number of distractions stored within its slim body as far away from your thoughts as you can.

Hard, isn’t it?

Very.

It’s possible that in our fast-paced and technologically intertwined modern lives, it’s harder than ever to do nothing. All of which is not to say that you should hang around in your shower, wasting countless gallons of water, solely for the sake of that next great idea. No, it’s to say that, if doing nothing allows you to come up with great ideas (as it does for me), you should try harder to make it a pastime. You should practice, and get good at it, so you can do nothing practically anytime and anywhere, and then make a healthy habit of doing so.

To be able to sweep away the day’s dizzying accumulation of nagging thoughts, worries, and reminders in order to either (a) just simply be or (b) think directly, without any distraction, about a problem or an idea – that’s a powerful, valuable skill. A comfortable, distraction-less shower is the crutch I usually need to help me hobble into that mental space.

But I’ve been trying not to rely on the shower so much. I’ve been practicing getting into that restorative mental space outside of the shower. I’ll take a seat on the couch beside the cat and dog. I’ll look out the window. Try to notice things, but not dwell on them. To note – and then let those notes flit away. There’s a German shepherd. That’s the neighbor. A blue car. A green one.

And gradually… my mind slips away. It pulls back from the window and, without my even really bidding it to, picks up those things that require steady, sustained thought – the things that can’t be productively thought through or solved with all the hubbub of daily life crowding in around you.

Everyone, I believe, needs these quiet, peaceful retreats, these – to use a phrase of Haruki Murakami’s – “cozy, homemade voids.” (Murakami says he can only access these restorative mental spaces while running long distances and, usually, listening to The Lovin’ Spoonful.)

Read. This. Book.
Read. This. Book.

But this sort of mindfulness is especially necessary for writers to practice. In part this is because so many of the problems presented by story- and novel-writing can only be properly solved (or can only properly solve themselves) when you unfix your mind from them and just let them be. (I wrote more about this paradox, and novelist Martin Amis’s take on it, here.)

There’s something else, though. Something perhaps even more important. The moments when you’re wholly present, sitting there with all your feelers out, a sponge non-judgmentally soaking up the reality happening all around you – it’s within these stretches of stillness that you so often unearth the inspirations and ideas that sustain you throughout a long project. It’s like you’re cutting the cord that normally tethers your imagination to your everyday life, letting it roam, all on its own. And when it returns, it’ll almost always be toting a little bag of treasures.

You should do this outside of your home, too. In a coffee shop. In your yard early in the morning or late at night. On a subway train. At the grocery store. Walking to the bus stop. Pretend you’re carrying a great big net, holding it out and passively gathering the gush of data constantly flowing around you. This will enrich your writing. Days later, a detail, collected unknowingly, will unexpectedly float up to the surface of your consciousness, filling out the scene you’re writing and adding depth and color to your story.

So, go do nothing. Ignore the turbocharged, ultra-caffeinated, multitasking horde of your friends and families and colleagues and peers. Just sit there, stand around or go for a walk and get a whole bunch of nothing done. And even if no one else can see it, at least you’ll know that you are, in fact, doing a whole lot.

4 thoughts on “The Art of Doing Nothing

  1. Oh, wow. Your entry is dead on. I lose too much inspiration when I choose distraction over letting the creativity flow. Thank you for your advice, and I love that Aqua Notes pad. I think I need one, because I let ideas run down the drain in the shower more than I would like to admit. I used to carry around a notebook, just a little top-flip spiralbound. Unfortunately, I lost them so often or forgot to carry a pen or pencil that I stopped carrying them.

    I’ll definitely be returning to this post and your blog. Thanks, Jarrett!

    1. Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Jess! And the Aqua Notes pad is really wonderful. It works great. Though, as I mentioned in the post, most of the work it does is to serve as a venue for drawn-out word games between me and my fiancee…

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Rosanne. And yes — it is a struggle, but can be healthy and beneficial in so many ways. I’m definitely interested in the brain science behind it. Thanks for sharing the link! I’m looking forward to reading it.

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