One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1999 comedy, Office Space. The movie didn’t exactly hit it big in the box office, making around $12 million, but it has since become a “pop cultural cornerstone” due to its cynical, witty, and often spot-on caricature of Corporate America.
Although the scene most commonly quoted is the one where two consultants, both of whom are named Bob, are trying to trim the fat by identifying obsolete positions (“What would you say you do here?”), there’s one that’s even better. It’s the moment where the main character, Peter Gibbons, breezes into the office after failing to show up for a mandatory Saturday meeting. When his friend—in an attempt to warn him about the trouble he’s in — asks what he was doing, Peter says, “I did nothing. And it was everything I thought it could be.”
Even in 1999, when cell phones were massive, clunky, and had a singular purpose, and the Internet was just starting to take off, the idea of being able to do nothing seemed preposterous.
Now, it seems like a punishment.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully recognize how much easier many aspects of our lives have become with the advent of smartphones, which enable us to do everything from navigating a foreign city to filling prescriptions. I have an app that lets me see what my kids are doing in kindergarten, one that pays for parking, and one that houses hundreds of recipes.
Unfortunately, doing nothing has developed a bad rap, as many associate it with irresponsibility when, in fact, good old-fashioned boredom can “trigger our imagination and creativity,” European professor Manfred Kets De Vries wrote in a Forbes article. He believes that having nothing to do offers “valuable opportunities for stimulating unconscious thought processes. Unconscious thought excels at integrating and associating information, by subconsciously carrying out associative searches across our broad database of knowledge.”
In other words, doing nothing can be the key to resolving complex issues.
And it makes sense. Think about it — how many times have you thought of a solution while doing a menial task like taking a shower or pouring a cup of coffee? Probably more times than you realize.
Many of us, however, require a push to take that step — whether it’s stepping away from our phone, computer, or desk. Not surprisingly, companies like Google and Intel are implementing initiatives like meditation programs, trampolines (yes, trampolines) and “quiet periods” to make it happen, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As great as that sounds, most of us work for companies that don’t have either the means or the willingness to make somersaults mandatory. So what can we do to clear our heads? One article suggested stepping into a conference room, closing the door, and taking a few minutes to reflect. Another touted the benefits of apps that remind users to stop and breathe (although, in my opinion, this defeats the purpose).
My advice is to go “off the grid” by taking a phone-free walk, cooking (using a printed out recipe — no Pinterest), playing fetch with a dog, or reading. The idea is to find a task that requires no analytical thinking, no WiFi, no technology.
What often happens during this period of disconnection is that the problems we were so keen on solving (through one more text, one more email, one quick Google search), “will look quite different and we might find the answer was right there all along, staring us in the face,” noted Kets De Vries.
An added upside? We’ve managed to cut the umbilical cord of technology, even for a few minutes, and embraced the beauty of nothingness.
And that’s something.