The most productive thing you could do is to do nothing.
The most interesting moments of a conversation come from silence. A conversation without silence is nothing more than a shouting match.
Trying to listen to music without spaces between notes is like plugging your headphones into a jackhammer. Rhythm without silence is nothing but noise.
While trying to come up with stuff to say for this post I found myself getting uncomfortable. Not knowing how to structure each sentence, not knowing which words to use, not knowing how to best express my thoughts around a topic I care about — all these things were bothering the crap out of me. The urge to tab over to Social Media instead of writing this was as strong as the urge to open a jar of double chocolate chip cookies. The clacking keys of my keyboard puts me at ease, makes me feel like I’m Being Productive, I’m Writing, I’m Contributing To Society and Gosh Darn It People Like Me. But the silence before I could write was almost unbearable.
For some reason, I have no clue why, silence makes us agitated. Silence makes us restless, unsettled, awkward. We even have a flavor of silence called awkward silence. Of course, awkward silence is real. When you say a joke you think is funny and no one laughs – that silence is a signal that you should probably reconsider what you think is funny. But when someone asks you a question, and you need to think about it before answering – that’s the silence you should embrace. Sitting there, thinking about the question, considering the right words, considering the proper order, of course this is going to take more than half a second. So why so much fuss over dead air? Why pollute the beauty of silence with words spoken so hastily that no one – including you – can understand them?
We’re so afraid of silence that we’ve created tools to get rid of it. There are now apps for podcasters that remove filler words. With the click of a button, podcasters can remove all the uhms and likes and ahs. Why? I think this is a mistake. I choose not to remove filler words from the conversations I have on my podcast because that’s what a conversation sounds like.
Robbie Crabtree, a trial lawyer and wizard of public speaking, taught me that the best speakers embrace silence. He’s right – the best speakers squeeze silence as hard as you’d squeeze your spouse after being separated for 6 months. Seriously, they practically make love with silence. Embracing silence in our speech is how we should be editing the likes, uhms, and ahs out of our speech. There is a beauty behind how hard it is to be articulate. There is a beauty behind the imperfection of our speech. Remove filler words, remove that beauty. And that would be a mistake. This the role of Wabi-Sabi: grace in imperfection. It’s because of our imperfect speech that we can strive to improve it. And yes, listening to someone talk with too many uhms and likes is like trying to listen to music you hate. But the only way to get rid of those ear sores is to shut-up and think for just half a second before speaking.
Anyways, back to doing nothing. Nobody does nothing literally. We’re always doing something. Breathing. Sitting. Standing. Looking around. Imagining what we’d do if we won the lottery. Imagining what we’d do to someone else if they won the lottery. Sometimes we do two of these things at the same time. You could argue that we’re always multitasking. I’m sitting and writing, simultaneously. I’m writing and thinking, simultaneously. You’re doing something and listening to this, simultaneously. We’re more proactive than we think. It’s impossible to do absolutely nothing. So when I say that the most productive thing we could do is to do nothing at all, what I mean is that we can use idleness, quietude, rest, boredom, we can use these moods and modes productively.
I know that the idea of productive idleness turns a lot of people off. We want idleness to be exactly that: idle. Idleness, free of work. Rest, free of hustle. Quietude, free of deals and transactions, bosses and coworkers. At the end of the day, what we want is, well, exactly that: the end of the day. We get off of work at 5 pm, and what do we do? Netflix and chill, usually. And there’s nothing wrong with a little Netflix and chill. I don’t believe there’s a such thing as guilty pleasures. And I don’t believe anyone should be ashamed of relaxing, especially if it’s deserved. Netflix and chill is just the modern day, oh, I don’t know, newspapers and chill. A biological axiom from which we will never be liberated: We’ve been chilling since we were crustaceans.
But please let me ask you to consider an alternative to Netflix and chill. An alternative to our default ways of buffering ourselves from practical boredom. Consider Contemplation and Chill. Consider using the space between bustle to be thankful. And if this seems too utilitarian, too “means to an end,” consider how unhappy you feel when the means of your workday – and what you do at the end of your workday – is picked for you by someone else.
Unhappiness is having your time, and how you use it, controlled by someone. We seem, as far as I can tell, happiest – or at least most content – when we decide No, I’m going to control my time and what I use it for. No, I’m going to be the utilitarian of my life. This is my time, and I’m not going to allow anyone to dictate, punctuate, and politic over how, where, why, and with whom I spend it most.
Protect your boredom. Embrace silence. Defend your right to remain idle.