In defense of zoning out


I was a very spacey kid. I remember playing Monopoly with my two best friends, and their rule was that if you didn’t notice that someone landed on your property, they didn’t have to pay. Since I was the only one zoning out the minute my turn was done, this rule only affected me. They would hurl the dice at me when it was my turn, because I was never paying attention. I did not like Monopoly.

School was similar. The entirety of K through 12 felt like long stretches of daydreaming punctuated by moments of terror when I was put on the spot and had no idea what was going on. I did not like school.

A few years ago my kids, inevitably, got Monopoly and we sat down to play. A few minutes into the game a familiar sense of dread washed over me and I said, “Oh, wait a minute. I hate this game!”

The great thing about being an adult is that if you are lucky, you can arrange most of your life around the activities that you are interested in and that play to your strengths. Work-wise, it is easy for me to focus on clients, reading, and writing, which is how I spend my days. I also have lots of tricks and systems for doing all of the tedious life tasks that aren’t so engaging. And although I refuse to play Monopoly, I am a pretty attentive mom.

But the brain wants what it wants, and my brain wants to zone out. In graduate school, I was working as a prenatal massage therapist one day a week. For me, being a massage therapist was the ultimate space out activity. I noticed that by the end of a giving 4 or 5 massages, I’d have worked out all sorts of problems: the structure of a paper I was writing would suddenly be clear; I would have an idea for how to shift my schedule so I was not constantly racing around, I’d worked through some money problem I was dealing with. The act of letting my mind wander allowed my brain to sift through all the low-grade thoughts bouncing around in my head and come up with the gold.

It turns out, the mind is just as active when we are focusing or when we are spacing out – different areas of the brain are just activated. Idleness is connected with greater creativity, increased productivity and better problem solving.

There is also research that a wondering mind is an unhappy mind. To me, there is a distinction between spacing out and ruminating. Ruminating is the death of joy and should be curtailed. If you find yourself mulling over how much you loath your neighbor or reliving a dressing down you received from a boss ten years ago, you are better off consciously refocusing on something else. And of course, you want to spend most of your life living in the moment, focusing the bright light of your attention on the people and activities that are meaningful to you.

I currently carve out time for mind wandering during my commute to my office, which is a 2 mile walk from my house. I used to bike, (which in Brooklyn is a uniquely terrible activity for zoning out) and I would start my workday feeling rushed and overly task-focused. Now I walk to work. I take care not to ruminate, and when I get to my office I immediately write down any ideas or thoughts that feel worth remembering. Sometimes there is nothing, and that’s okay too.

Think about when you have had your best ideas in the past. What were you doing? I used to work for a successful scientist who told me that every single idea for a scientific breakthrough he’d ever had came while he was in the shower. Someone else I know enjoys washing dishes for the mental downtime it offers. Is there a way for you to work in this activity every day?

Modern life requires so much of our brains. Our attention is constantly being captured and directed. Let it do its own thing once in a while. Tim Kreider, author of “We know nothing,” said it best:

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”