Skip to main content

Strategic Idleness

By Focus5 min read

In a recent survey in the US, 83% of people said they had no time for ‘relaxation or thinking’ at all. In a knowledge economy, what hope can we have as individuals or as corporations if we’re not thinking. More specifically, there’s a type of thinking that is more under threat than any other kind: the thinking that happens when we’re relaxed or idle. Martin Heidegger made the distinction between calculative and meditative thinking. Calculative thinking is focused, activity-driven and outcome-oriented; meditative thinking is more relaxed, internal and expansive. When we’re busy, we employ calculative thinking. When we’re consuming reality TV or YouTube videos of dancing cats, we’re not really thinking at all. Meditative thinking only happens when we are neither producing nor consuming; in other words, when we are idle. My concern is that the twin drives to produce and consume are squeezing idleness out of our lives; and idleness is important because it is the origin of meditative thinking.

So why is meditative thinking under threat? Everyone is busy these days. It’s easy to justify busyness on the basis of all the demands on our time and attention. But there is another possible reason for our incessant activity. Psychologist Christopher Hsee ran a couple of experiments which led him to suggest that a lot of our busyness could be driven by an aversion to idleness; and as long as we have the mildest excuse to be active, we will choose activity over idleness. In fact one study even found that people would rather subject themselves to electric shocks than be left for 6-15 minutes of idleness, or ‘thinking time’!

In everyday life, we don’t need to resort to such shocking tactics; we simply need to reach for our ever-present smartphones. So we blot out our mental ruminations, escaping even the shortest moments of inactivity by plunging into production or consumption. To fight this trend I want to provide the justification for doing nothing; for wandering off into our thoughts. More specifically, I want to show the vital role idleness plays in our strategic thinking: whether that thinking is applied in our lives, careers or businesses. Meditative thinking is deeply strategic.

Idleness and learning Great strategic thinking comes from insight, not data; and idleness fosters this insight. I see too many ambitious people consuming information, blogs and ideas in any spare time they have to learn or make big decisions. But without the idle time to ponder and digest, they don’t really learn or make sense of the input; at best they retain it. We prime ourselves for great strategic thinking not when we take in great content, but when we integrate that with our previous knowledge, beliefs and experiences. In this process, we not only join new ideas with existing ones; but new information acts like a bridge joining previously unconnected strands of thought together. The meditative mind plays at the intersection of the new and the existing; allowing real integration and insight.

Idleness and big and creative thinking There is an interesting conundrum to the way the mind works: most of the really big, strategic problems in our business and our lives will only be solved through idleness. When we get stuck on a problem, we are stuck in a single ‘problem frame’. The solution comes only when we start thinking about the problem in totally different ways. Yet, the harder we focus on a problem, the more our attention narrows; and the more we become fixed in a single view. Famously, Sir Isaac Newton, Archimedes and Rene Descartes all solved their big problems in moments of idleness. When we are idle, our thoughts zoom out, ambling more expansively around the issue. It is through the broader and wider ramble of the idle mind that we are most likely to see the big picture and solve the big problems.

Idleness and differentiation Michael Porter claims the heart of any sustainable advantage does not come from productivity, but from differentiation. I would argue this applies at a corporate level, and at a career level. Differentiation requires an ability to come up with entirely different strategies and solutions to everyone else. In other words, differentiation requires creativity; and great creative ideas come from idleness. For example, as Daniel Goleman notes, it wasn’t during a strategy session that Marc Benioff dreamed up the idea for, but on a month-long holiday in Hawaii. When we are idle, our thoughts can make weird and wonderful connections in the brain; connections and patterns of ideas form that are simply not possible from a more logical, focused form of thinking.

More productive idleness

Digest what you consume: develop a practice that whenever you have consumed valuable information, take some idle time, away from people and devices; give your brain the chance to make sense of it, play with it and integrate it. Research shows we can accelerate our digestion by gently, but deliberately meditating on the topic we’ve just consumed, allowing the mind to wander and play with the ideas.

Intellectual ambling: It seems the best form of mind wandering, especially for incubation of problems or ideas, is when we combine mental idleness with the mildest form of activity, like a gentle walk. I call this intellectual ambling. It seems the act of physically wandering helps the mind to wander, and so solve more problems. Dead time: Life is full of moments which were always considered ‘dead time’: the walk to the station or the doctor’s waiting room. This dead time may have felt irritating, but it created space in our lives for meditative thinking. The next time life creates an opportunity for dead time, seize it with both hands. Leave your phone in your pocket, the radio off, and allow your idle mind to wander, to experiment and to be brilliant.

Leave a Reply