Making time to think

A Hemingway quote got me thinking:

My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.

Instead, most of us face a pervasive cultural need to look busy, to look productive. But real creative work is often hours of boredom, bouncing ideas around, doing nothing and then a short burst of production.

A good week might see me write a couple of hundred words a week over a few screens. Typing them out doesn’t take more than a few minutes, but getting to that point takes hours. There’s plenty of revising, getting feedback and editing, but a large chunk of that time is ostensibly spent doing nothing.

My best professional work comes from staring at the wall, drinking coffee and going for walks. This, of course, is actually thinking. But I can’t say that I’m going to spend two hours today just thinking. Our professional culture demands the outward trappings of busyness.

Cal Newport elaborates:

We’ve lost our familiarity with the concept of “thinking” as a concrete and isolatable activity; something that can be prioritized, and trained, and even cherished as a valuable pursuit in its own right.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle identified rational contemplation as the highest and best of all human activities. In The Intellectual Life, Thomistic scholar Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges spends over 200 pages detailing how the serious thinker should organize their process of thinking.

Today, we’re not nearly as comfortable with this most fundamental of activities. We talk a lot more about information — how we can get more of it, how we can spread it faster — than we do its processing.

We see this in education systems built more around content than training the meta-activity of making sense of content. We see this in a techno-media landscape that emphasizes expression over cogitation, and tribal Sophism over Socratic grappling.

Making space to think

The problem, though, isn’t confined to the need to look busy at work. It’s everywhere. I’ve internalized this deep need to be efficient and productive. Every second of the day is devoted either to consuming information or doing something with it.

I noticed that I’d upped the playback speed of podcasts to one and half time. Efficiency! A couple of stops on the bus demand that my phone comes out so I get some reading in—not letting a single minute go to waste. Any lull or the first whiff of boredom is met by grabbing my phone.

I pictured myself as a model digital citizen. I don’t go on Facebook, don’t play games. Therefore I couldn’t be addicted to tech.

What I’d slowly lost was the ability to be bored.

While Hemingway and Newport have long stretches of thinking in mind, most of us need to work on embracing the precious minutes of waiting in line, awkward pauses in conversation or a trip to the loo.

There’s no need to embrace an anti-digital fundamentalism. I’m working on being comfortable with a bit of boredom here and there. Likewise, I try to do a bit of monotasking—not obsessively, the odd Slack message still gets fired off during meetings, but I devote a bit of each day to doing just one thing at a time.

By no means am I deep work pro, but since I’ve been working on this over the past few months, my background anxiety and stress levels have dropped. Embracing boredom is finally giving me the time to think and create.