What Happens When You’re Doing Nothing

Authors Billy Ehn and Orvar Lofgren

Most of us spend up to a quarter of our time daydreaming, said Orvar Lofgren, co-author, with Billy Ehn, of The Secret World of Doing Nothing, in a recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Here on Earth. Whether daydreams appear in brief flashes or prolonged reveries, it turns out a lot is happening when we let our minds wander.

Löfgren grew up in Sweden, where he faintly remembers an old tradition called “keeping dusk”, in which people would sit in silence and watch the sun go down. “It’s a kind of magic”, he says in the interview. While this practice has faded, Löfgren says that time spent standing in the grocery line, waiting for a ride, or going through familiar motions at work, serve a similar purpose in turning inward, searching for new ideas and exploring the imagination, even if we don’t remember what we thought about.

Photo: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.)

Löfgren and Here on Earth host Jean Feraca discuss how watching the sunset cultivates a reflective kind of daydreaming, as opposed to “the Hour of the Wolf”—that early morning time when anxieties and worries swarm the mind. Creative inspiration can also be found in these in-between moments, and many artists and writers are active daydreamers. In “Walden”, Thoreau describes mornings sitting “from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness”, and Mark Twain characterizes the lure and “luxury” of the “castle-building habit”, as Feraca notes, reading a quote from Twain.

Like any luxury, it’s possible to overindulge. In the extreme, daydreaming can be a netherworld where we surrender our conscious awareness, and walk the edge between dream and reality. Twain adds: “…and how soon and how easily our dream-life and our material life become so intermingled and so fused together that we can’t quite tell which is which, anymore.”

Far from being empty or insignificant, these “invisible” moments of waiting, routine, and daydream are filled with meaning, and are essential to making our lives work, say Ehn and Löfgren in The Secret World of Doing Nothing. Routines can be boring, but allow society to progress. Waiting is a behavior and an experience, heavily regulated by social rules and emotions, and daydreams offer both a retreat from reality and a chance to imagine new possibilities.

Listen to the Wisconsin Public Radio Here on Earth interview with Orvar Löfgren, and next time you’re wondering what to do to fill a few extra minutes, try doing nothing and see what happens.

Sunset photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce. NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) Collection. Photographer: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.).

6 thoughts on “What Happens When You’re Doing Nothing

  1. Great article! I never really gave daydreaming a thought because it’s something you do automatically. But what I realized after I read this article was that I had some ideas of my own that where created during daydreaming. For me, this article was a real eyeopener, thank you!

  2. Very nice article! I think most brilliant ideas arise when people are (day)dreaming. This way our mind is more open to be able to come up with new creative things and ideas. Thank you for sharing.

  3. It’s quite interesting. I am a young painter. My website is: http://www.oilpaintingcentre.com For me, daydreaming is very important to keep my mind active and creative. Many of the ideas of my works are generated during daydreaming. But, I think, we need to keep a balance between the real material life and daydreaming world.
    It’s really very comfortable for me to sit at the grassland by seaside, enjoy the cool breeze, watch the gorgeous scenery of sunset, and think whatever that I want to think about, or just think nothing……..
    I am living in Xiamen, China, which is one of the most beautiful costal cities in China. So, I can enjoy this kind of happiness very often. I am very thankful in this regard.

Comments are closed.