Paul Jarvis

It’s safer to be busy

When we’re busy, we just keep reacting to what’s in front of us. There’s no time for introspection or deep thinking because there’s so much on our plate. Business busyness (say that three times, fast) can hurt.

What happens when we stop filling all of our extra minutes with refreshes, updates and consumption? What happens if we let ourselves stop and be alone with our thoughts, by removing constant stimulus?

Scary shit, that’s what.

A study done at the University of Virginia by Timothy Wilson found that some people would rather be doing something, even if it hurts them, than sit alone with their thoughts and do nothing. 12 of 18 men favoured electric shocks over just sitting and thinking (interestingly, only 6 of 24 women favoured the shocks).

The biggest fear that most of us have now is that our internet will fail or our tiny pocket devices will run out of power and strand us on a desolate island of not being connected to everyone else for upwards of 5–10 minutes at a time.

Like your thoughts, unless you’re vigilant, your day easily fills up if you let it. It requires work (not busywork mind you) to not let the spaces disappear. It’s almost part of our autonomic nervous system (the part of our body that works without us thinking about it—like our heart beating and stomach digesting) to fill a few seconds of free time with something.

Your mind is designed to engage with the external world. This is totally cool. Not everyone is down with introspection, or meditation or whatever you want to call it. But where this falls into the realm of not-so-awesome (a clinical term) is when you fancy business busyness over productivity.

When your work requires you to be creative, you need to be alone with your thoughts. You can’t get around it. You need the mental space to create. And it’s a fact that’s sometimes scary to the point where we enjoy electric shocks more.

But business busyness seldom equals momentum.

Some days it takes me 8 hours to accomplish 1 hour of actual work. There’s social media, and emails, and Slack, and chores and 500 other things that I dabble in before I actually finish what I need to finish. It feels safer because those extra 7 hours were spent avoiding the required alone time with my thoughts so I could create what I needed to make. Shocking right?

The quantity of time spent working rarely equals the quality of the work. Just because you put more hours in, doesn’t mean it’s better work. This article isn’t 4x worse because it took me 15 minutes to write, instead of the usual 60. I was just more productive in my focus on writing (i.e. I didn’t let myself fall into the busy trap, and instead sat scarily alone with my thoughts until they flowed into words).

We prefer doing to thinking, even if our livelihood requires us to think as much as we do.

We’ve got the ability to create intricate fantasies out of nothing in our minds, and they’re full of memories to think back on, yet still, we cringe about it. Even as children, being told to “sit and think about what you’ve done” is the ultimate punishment.

The only way I’ve found to get over this is to sit with the discomfort. Like most creatives, I’m at my best when there’s a bit of fear and a lot of uncomfortableness thrown into the mix. Being alone with my own thoughts is truly frightening, but truly necessary.

So next time you find yourself with a few seconds or a few minutes to spare, resist the urge to pull out your phone (or to start shocking yourself). Instead, just see what happens…

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