The Power of your Idle Brain (And the Cream Bucket Dilemma)

Idle Hamster in the Cream BucketI’m an idler. I’m proud to say that, because in times of 21st century high-speed economy and accelerated lifestyle everybody seems to feel an urgent need to move hectically, trying to climb up on the career ladder. It gets even worse in times of recession, when we are willing to do anything to avoid a cutback in the paycheck, or even getting laid off and falling through our (perceived) security nets, hitting the ground with a boisterous and disgusting sounding *SPLASH*. (Or *KABLOOIE*? A non-native speaker’s dilemma, but a boisterous and disgusting sound, anyway!)

Hectic movement in times of economic hardship seems to have some tradition. In the thoroughly entertaining Steven Spielberg movie Catch me if you can, the father of main character Frank William Abagnale tells a story of two mice that fall into a bucket of cream and try to get out. While the first one quickly gives up and drowns in the liquid, the second mouse just moves so hectically that he churns the cream into butter and manages to crawl out. This, the movie suggests, is the adequate way of living our lifes.

Now, let’s imagine Idler Mouse™ in this pot of cream. I mean, he got in there for something, right? Yeah, he wanted to have some cream! So while the stupid mice from the story would either die or stress out, Idler Mouse would just relax, float on his back, call some friends and invite them to join the party – to have a bacchanal feast together and leave not one little drop of that delicious liquid in the bucket, ending up with a big and tasty beer cream belly.

The thing is, your options when swimming in a giant bucket of cream are rather limited. Real life, in contrast, provides us with a much larger set of opportunities. We are just not seeing them because we are so busy moving hectically, trying to churn the cream around us into butter to get away alive, even if it doesn’t lead us anywhere.

This is where idler lifestyle becomes helpful. Just stop the daily (or should I say: dairy?) grind for a moment, float on your back, and consider your situation.

Because, like Russell Kay, the inventor of the Lemmings video game always said: “When everybody is moving hectically into one direction, make sure they are not lemmings heading for a cliff before you follow them.” (Well… actually he didn’t say that, but I thought it would be cool to keep rodents in my metaphors. Also, this works pretty well as a selection process for your Twitter followers, so keep it in mind.)

While many people perceive idling as a loss of time, they forget the positive effects of it. One of the most elegant idlers of our times, Tom Hodgkinson, has been popularizing the whole concept for quite some time now. Still, there are not too many idlers found on the web – probably because they prefer to just have a cup of tea or take a walk or get drunk with friends than to write largish blog posts (like I do).

For me, a central element of idling is spending a lot of time in a state of absolute relaxation and/or analog entertainment, like laying in a hammock or sitting on the colonial wall of Cartagena, looking at the sea. Although I am doing this for no reason or secret plan at all, I noticed it helps the brain to develop new ideas and build up connections between existing ones.

When I was writing my diploma thesis, this strategy worked out great for me. After some stressful time in Germany resulting in various illnesses, I decided to take a new approach. Instead of suffering through the whole study process in a grey and cold winter, sitting in badly lit and crowded libraries, I resolved to get this thing written in the Caribbean.
I took a flight to Cartagena and got accustomed to spend the cooler morning hours working on complicated texts, having an early lunch afterwards, taking a longish nap, and then spending the rest of the afternoon and evening hours sitting on the beach and enjoying myself.

The results were extraordinary. While I often felt I did not know where I was heading, the whole thesis was written in four or five large writing session of about ten pages each – the rest was polishing and getting the formal stuff straight. I was able to hand it in about six hours before deadline – a new record for me (admittedly only attained thanks to the motivation of having my best friends waiting for me in a beautiful patio with two bottles of Zacapa Centenario). In terms of impartial feedback, I got the highest qualification and a happy professor.

Now, does this work for everybody?
I’m not sure, but there is some evidence for it. Not only did I experience equally positive results while idling during the preparation of exams and presentations, I could also get confirmations of similar strategies in the work of some of my mentors. Also, brain research seems to support my thesis, showing that many mental problems get solved by our subconsciousness during daydreaming and times of idleness. According to an article in the Boston Globe, it has been “demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings […] the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings.”

So while the stupid mice will either panic or work their asses off for nothing, Idler Mouse knows exactly when to relax, when to connect with his friends, and when to take action. If idleness in itself does not appeal you for whatever strange reason, you should at least try to pause your hectic movements from time to time for the sake of productivity. Action will follow in its due moment, and the results will be pleasantly surprising because your idle brain does its job without you even noticing it.

Did you ever have a positive experience with the power of your idle brain? Why not share it in the always intelligent & friendly anarchistic comments?

Illustration CC-BY-SA Based on great images CC-BY-SA Yukari* & CC-BY Smabs Sputzer.


  1. FA…
    I’ve spent the better part of the last year trading time on opposite ends of the productivity/idleness spectrum. Because of a particularly tough professional/financial downturn, I was in a state of confusion. Because of the seriousness of the situation and my need to support a family, I churned a lot of butter. But mixed in with all that productivity were periods of intense reflection as I questioned my life to that point, and where I hoped to go moving forward.

    Back and forth it went for more than a year. Well, the results are in and there’s no doubt about it…productivity lost. Part of the problem, I think, is that we fool ourselves into thinking that any action is good action, and we stop analyzing its utility. Doesn’t matter that the action will never lead us where we want to go, because dammit, it feels good to do something! But in reality, all it really does is give us an excuse for continued misery/failure/call it what you will. “Well, hey, I tried everything, I worked my butt off and nothing came of it.”

    No thanks…the smart money is on reflection first. On quietly assessing a life, and then moving forward based on your findings. Took me a while to figure that out, but it’s a lesson well learned.

    Thanks for the advice FA…

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jeb! I understand the churning of butter in your case, because ones responsibilities are a lot higher when you have a family to support.
    Anyway, it’s interesting and great to see that we reach similar conclusions concerning the need for reflection.
    In addition to that, letting the subconsciousness do some work – without concentrating on it – and feeling well idling (i.e. doing nothing for some time) may help to find our balance and better ways of taking action.

  3. Fabian – Definitely agreed on this. I’ve been doing a lot more reflection lately. Although on a different tangent than Jeb above, I was almost doing too much reflection. I’ve always felt that I’ve wanted to do something different with my life for the past 10 years or so. The problem is I didn’t do anything. I just thought about it and read books and talked to people. In the end my discovery showed that by only trying something will we be able to move forward. The thing is, I’m not expecting quick results. I know it’s going to be a lot of hard work, but the good thing now is that I’m actually starting to do more things that I enjoy doing and I think that’s the point and what you discovered and shared in your journey above.

  4. Nate, maybe one problem with reflection and idling is not noticing when we are ready to move on. There just are no green lights, no clear signal there, telling us to move on. So we just have to consciously decide upon jumping into the cold water and give it a try, trusting our intuition and the power of our idle brains!

  5. Thanks for that, it’s a good reminder that our conscious decision-making rests upon a much deeper and more mysterious process that we can only use if we slow down enough to hear it.

    It reminded me of a lovely snippet by Thomas Merton:

    There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork… To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence… The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace, it destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

  6. @gaiapunk & @Lawrence: Thanks for your comments! This is really one of the great things about blogging – to be able to connect with so many different people and always get new input! The idle elements of permaculture are as thought-provoking as the quote by Thomas Merton!

  7. If you haven’t read it already, you should take a peek at the book “In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed” by Carl Honoré. It gets a bit redundant (and dare I say…slow) as it goes on, but the general thesis of the book fits right in with this post. It made me realize that there are many areas of life that you can slow down in without necessarily losing your place in the rat race.

  8. …Not that you’re interested in being a part of that rat race to begin with. But for those who are still too scared to dream outside of it. :)

  9. Sarah, thanks for the recommendation! I heard of the book some time ago and I’m actually very interested in it, but I couldn’t find it here in Colombia yet. This is one of the disadvantages of living abroad… libraries and book stores around here are not too good – especially in Cartagena. So I’m really looking forward to having a decent ebook reader some day… that will make things a lot easier!

  10. And concerning the rat race, you’re absolutely right… I am still denying to enter. Maybe I’m just more an “Idler Mouse Race” person! :)

  11. Hey Fabian, I think being idle is very helpful in situations like when you are stuck with a problem or when you have just learnt something complicated, because the brain has the time to digest the information and form new connections. Great post!

  12. Oscar, thanks for your comment! I am idling on a new post these days and it’s working fine… ;)

  13. From what I understand, idling our minds means letting go of our minds. Creativity comes when we don’t listen to our minds and let our inner self find productivity in the realm of the infinite. Our minds are full of judgment and fences our ideas. Letting go of it–or idling–will open your subconscious to the vast knowledge that is always there. :-)

  14. Yet another great post Fabian!

    The story of the 2 mice really resonated with me, because many times we create our own limitations by restricting the choices that we have, by seeing only what we choose to see, instead of being open to the possibility of there being more options than first meets the eye.

    To stop and consider, to daydream, to be idle, to be still… definitely something that I can do (or is it be?) more of.

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