Earlier today, I was hopelessly trying to remember the name of my sister’s first car. It was on the tip of my tongue. I knew it started with a P. My brain was filled with many, many thoughts. Hours later, while sitting on the toilet, aha! PT Cruiser. Just like that. Apparently, my brain had continued to search for the answer without my knowledge. Amazing.
This is called default mode network (DMN). The brain takes time to do background sorting and filing. Ironically, one can only switch into this productive mode when we are doing nothing. In fact, doing nothing is a prerequisite.
Doing nothing in prison seems counterintuitive. One of prison’s best known clichés is, “Do your time, don’t let your time do you.” This goes with all the advice I’ve heard about surviving prison: keep busy, create a routine, find a way to keep your mind occupied as idleness is the devil’s workshop. But the reality is we need a little downtime, alone if possible. That’s why so many of us have our best ideas come in the shower, on the toilet, or while daydreaming before bed.
Research shows the benefits of idleness goes beyond remembering and creating. Doing nothing is essential to our health, happiness and productivity. Undirected or at rest, our mind and body begins releasing biochemicals that encourage digestion, calm and repair. Albert Einstein was known for his frequent walks, naps and daydreaming. He recognized that taking mental breaks throughout the day produced better results. Much better than keeping a steady pace of active mental efforts.
My advice is to do nothing and do more of it. One suggestion is to merely slow down simple tasks you do everyday. Don’t rush through a bowel movement, relax and enjoy the downtime. The same goes for your shower. Even something as mundane as washing your hands can be an opportunity to slip into DMN mode.
Force yourself to take an extra 30 seconds and be mindful in the moment. Additionally, schedule some time for yourself. Take a walk at the yard or gym. No music, no friends, no agenda just be. I, like Einstein, always keep a pen and paper handy for when ideas come to me. I quickly jot them down and get back to doing nothing. Reclaim this time. We may find ourselves accomplishing more and getting more out of life.
Sources for the essay: “Experience Life” magazine and “The Living Experiment” podcast.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.