Taken at face value, these two terms might look the same. For busy people, the idea of doing nothing appears to be akin to wasting time. However, there is a very distinct and profound difference between them.
I had a Skype call this morning with one of the athletes I work with. He is an international cricketer who is currently coming back from an injury. The last few weeks have been unusual because he hasn’t been able to just go out and play cricket. This enforced break has created a challenge. Now that he can’t default to training and playing, which is his regular pattern, how does he fill his time? Initially, he found himself “killing time” on occasions. He found things to do which filled his day. Often these things would not be particularly productive. On reflection, he’d admit that he probably wasted time. He and I chatted about the drive we often feel to fill our time. Sometimes it is because we feel guilty if we’re not doing anything. However, just filling our time doesn’t usually help us make progress. I suspect a lot of us fill our time as a way of avoiding nothingness. It is something that Stephen Taylor described as ‘humania’ (Taylor, 2012). The smartphone is a really easy way to make sure that we can always busy ourselves. I watched the other travellers on the London Underground yesterday. All of them were engaged in something; reading, listening to their iPod, fiddling with their mobile phone. I suspect that we tend to do this as a way of escaping the prospect of doing nothing.
Nothingness is a scary place for many people. When we do nothing there is an opportunity to reflect. It’s almost like having a huge mirror in front of us. We face the daunting prospect of looking at ourselves, contemplating our lives & our existence, and living in the moment. Rather than being able to engage ourselves with our thoughts, imaginings, memories, texts, tweets, and emails, we’d have to experience life in that moment. What if we don’t like it? What if we don’t like what we see in the mirror?
My mentor, also a sport psychologist, once explained that he was taking the staff of a Premiership Football team away for a few days to challenge them. He was proposing to spend the weekend at a monastery in silence. Interestingly there were some that found the idea quite threatening and fought against it.
In contrast to filling our time with mindless stuff, doing nothing can be an incredibly enriching experience. Imagine taking a walk along a beach and immersing yourself in each moment. In doing so, you allow yourself to appreciate every experience. You become present; in the moment. Whilst walking on a beach might not seem particularly relevant to the training of an international athlete, it is absolutely integral to his performance. Being present, and playing in the moment, is critical to his performance. In reality, learning to doing nothing is incredibly productive and beneficial.
I’ve noticed over the years that great athletes often have the ability to apply themselves completely to training. Their preparation and approach means that they often squeeze every possible ounce of benefit from a session. These athletes also have the ability to rest completely. The great Kenyan distance runners report that their training environment is optimal because it only contains three elements; training, eating and resting (Ankersen, 2011). They don’t have the distractions of WiFi, shopping, television, and the constant bombardment of emails and text messages.
Maybe a simple change in perception will help us to adopt this elementary wisdom.
It is possible to waste time by being busy.
It is also possible to gain a great deal of benefit from doing nothing at all.
Have a great day!
Bibliography & Further Reading
Ankersen, R. (2011) The Gold Mine Effect; Unlocking The Essence of World Class Performance, London: Rasmus Ankersen.
Hartley, S.R. (2011) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.
Hartley, S.R. (2012) How To Shine; Insights into unlocking your potential from proven winners, Chichester: Capstone.
Taylor, S. (2012) Back To Sanity; Healing the madness of our minds, London: Hay House.