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.