Why Adult Life Needs More Idle Time, and How to Get It

The Importance of Boredom Part 2

Scheduling Time for Nothing

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I routinely found my father lying down on the sofa on Saturday afternoons.  He called it “resting his eyes,” and it was a guiltless ritual he allowed himself his entire life.  He didn’t call it Scheduled Time for Nothing.   

If every fiber in your body is cringing as you try to imagine allowing yourself unstructured time, for well, nothing, you are likely not alone.

The story about my son and his robot costume from last week’s blog provides a clear illustration of how to deal with the boredom your children experience, but what are we adults to do? Remember, boredom is an emotion we deal with our entire lifespan. We adults no longer have parental figures giving us the gift of unstructured time. The responsibility of allowing time for idleness falls on us.  Nurturing our creative parts by allowing time to do nothing is essential to a sense of restfulness and wholeness. The most realistic way for adults to linger, idle, or sit in neutral, is to make time for nothing. 

Recognizing Gaps of Time (There Are Gaps, I Promise!)

Take stock of your daily routines and habits, get real about how much time you spend on digital devices that is mindless scrolling or rabbit-hole diving that doesn’t serve you well, and decide to put your phone down.  If your phone or laptop isn’t your vice, figure out what is and make a conscious effort to disengage for a few hours a week. Commit to downtime on your calendar. There, I said it again. We must schedule in time for nothing.  And along with blocks of time dedicated to nothing, unplug during the naturally occurring idle times of life.  There are multiple opportunities in a day to take advantage of idleness: eating lunch by yourself, ride the bus or subway without listening to a podcast, stand in a line without looking at your phone.  Let there be moments of time that are not dictated by outside information penetrating your thoughts. 

Despite all the cultural messages we receive, we can embrace time not spent hurrying, learning, or doing. There is inherent guilt many adults experience when just sitting. When, in fact, boredom and idleness can be profound ways to access our imaginations, releasing our deepest ideas into consciousness.

Permission to Rest Your Eyes

All of this brings me back to my childhood memory about my father, on those Saturday afternoons, lying down on our sofa, hands crossed over his chest with his eyes closed. 

“Dad,” I would ask, “are you sleeping?”

“No, I’m just resting my eyes” was his predictable response.

He was indeed awake, his eyes were just closed. I came to discover later in life that my father’s Saturday afternoon idleness was his sorting-out time.  He was a busy man with a full-time career, four children to raise, and a lot of personal interests and hobbies. I now realize his afternoon resting was time to solve problems and daydream.   A gift of time to himself.  It was also a gift to his family when my father modeled granting himself permission to be idle.  We were raised by a man who showed us how a wholehearted adult life could be lived.  A balance of work time, playtime, and downtime.

Cultivating Problem Solving and Creativity Through Idleness

1.     Monitor your screen time. Take a week and dedicate it to dissecting your screen habits How to Break Up with your Phone, by Catherine Price, is an excellent resource for this. It’s a pocket-size book with a life-size punch for realistic ways to cut back screen time. It is research based, to the point, and a quick read.  Where is their room to whittle down mindless or non-intentional screen time and increase idleness for your mind? If you are feeling brave and dedicated to reclaiming pockets of time, ask your family members about their perception of your screen use. 

2. Mind the Gaps. Permit yourself a rest during small (or large) gaps of time. If you are freaking out when you read this thinking: There are no gaps!  Then start there. Where can you realistically create gaps of unstructured time. (Hint: the intention is to take something unwanted or unintentional off your calendar to find a gap.  There are only 24 hours in a day…no 25th hour will be granted).

3. Exercise without a Smart Phone. The hour of exercises is a gift of time where your  mind will wander if given the chance. Research shows increased mental health benefits from outdoor exercise when no external stimulation other than the naturally occurring is present (no earbuds!).

3. Give yourself a Running Start: Make an Aspirational List. Start with phrases like:

I would like to spend more time ______________.

I have always been curious about _____________.

When I was a kid, I used to love to _____________.

When I am doing ______________ I feel more like myself.

This is the adult version of your kid’s Bored List.  Remember, the emotional state of boredom is one we humans instinctually try to get out of (which is why modern life makes avoiding boredom so easy).  When you have a running list of creative projects or problems that need solving, your idle mind will get to work on items from your Aspirational List to avoid boredom.  The result?  You will find your mind drifting into inspirational places that a distracted and externally stimulated mind just can’t get to.

4. Take the Challenge: Get a Cup of Coffee and Sit for 15 minutes, longer if you can. See what happens.  Take a pad of paper and pen if that helps you capture what bubbles up to the surface.  Let go of expectations about this idleness.  Let time unfurl naturally and follow whatever direction the winds of your mind happen to be blowing. 

5. Rest Your Eyes. Go ahead, give it a shot. The worst thing to happen is you might actually fall asleep.


Heather Carlson

Heather Carlson

Heather Carlson lives in Boulder, CO with her husband and three children. She is a graduate student studying Couples and Family Therapy with a passion for helping families stay connected in our fast paced and technology driven world. In her spare time you will find her in her garden, out on the trails, or cooking for family and friends.

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