Stop Idling and Start Thinking

How much of your day is spent on deliberate thought?

I’ve been asking myself that question a lot recently. There’s no doubt that we have moments when our minds are operating on all cylinders–what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow”–and other times where your mind is in a state of idle.

I often consider the utility of time spent doing certain things. Idling, as you might guess, has a low utility. By contrast, reading, thinking, and learning from others has a rather high utility. We all recognize this. But what prevents us from buckling down and doing the high utility activities?

There’s often a notion of the need for rest. It’s ingrained in our society for religious reasons, and research shows its importance in long-term productivity.

This leads to yet another question, though: what separates high-performing thinkers from low-performing thinkers? Is it the quantity of time spent on idle thought, or the type of idle thought performed?

My hypothesis: it’s neither. Rather, it’s a matter of productivity during thinking hours–time when you’re actively using your mind. Some people simply think harder: they analyze situations at a deeper level for a more sustained period of time. Over years and years, the benefits to this level of thinking accrues, like compound interest on principal.

I think the problem for many is that they don’t practice moments of deliberate thought, not out of choice but instead by circumstance. I’d speculate that an individual is naturally inclined to long bouts of deep, deliberate thought, but only when they find something that truly strikes a nerve.

What that thing is turns out to be different for everybody: maybe it’s art, maybe it’s linguistics.

This isn’t a poorly-written manifesto that reiterates the trite advice to find what one’s passionate about. Passion is a superficial term that as far as I’m concerned describes something that’ll bore you in a few months.

Rather, you need to find something that gives you sustained interest over years, if not decades. Thinking about this thing, whatever it may be, perhaps won’t supersede your daydreaming–after all, that’s important–but it may make you think deeper during the times when you should be productive. And that’s what really matters.