Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Author: Andrew Smart
Title: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing
Published: July 30, 2013

When I set out to read this book during May, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the book was about the benefits of shutting down the mind for longer periods of time during the day rather than adopting the traditional “working at all hours of the day” mindset. However, in many ways, the book surpassed my expectations.

Harping on the dangers of our current working culture, Andrew presents example after example of respected philosophers, poets, and thinkers in our history and details how idle time was crucial to their greatest achievements. He offers up the story of Isaac Newton for example, who came to the conclusion about gravity while daydreaming in his garden. There are countless more examples that stand in stark contrast to the typical view of work today.

Many of the obstacles in our path to idleness are easy to see. Cell phones, for example, ensure that you can stay in constant communication with others (both at your job and elsewhere) through email, Twitter, Facebook, and any one of the other twenty thousand social media apps on the market. In the book, Smart argues that if we’re constantly available to be reached through our smartphones, are we ever really “off” at all? (I’d tend to agree with “no”).

The benefits of idleness aren’t just hypothetical. The book actually delves deep into the science of the mind, particularly into something referred to as the “default mode network”. This network is a complex interwoven series of connections throughout the brain. During periods of idleness (when you aren’t thinking about your to-do list or getting things done), this network fires up and enables unique ideas to surface and original connections between ideas and thoughts to be generated. The theory goes that this network is essential for true creativity.

So, exactly what am I going to do with this information tomorrow? That’s difficult to say. I’ve experimented with my work schedule quite a bit in order to enable more idle time during the day. I don’t think manipulating the schedule is the only answer however. I think larger gains can be made through flipping your mindset and abandoning things like email and Twitter when you’re truly supposed to be “off”. I’m planning on experimenting with some opportunities like “dead time”, a cutoff point each night where electronic devices go into airplane mode until the next morning. I think there are endless opportunities for progress here. The key is just to take it easy a bit more and accept that daydreaming and doing nothing can be beneficial.

Reading Notes

Even Bertrand Russell, one of the most prolific mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th century, wrote a book called In Praise of Idleness. In it, he writes, “I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

Sometimes our survival depends on the ability to successfully meet this challenge. However, if that moment becomes every minute of every day of every month of every year, your brain has no time left over to make novel connections between seemingly unrelated things, find patterns, and have new ideas. In other words, to be creative.

In other words, a multitasker cannot actually distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information because the multitasker does not really know what they are doing at any given moment.

It has been estimated that at work you spend anywhere from twentyfive percent to fifty percent of your day just recovering from interruptions, asking yourself “where was I?”

At the very least, modern neuroscience is rapidly amassing more and more evidence that the resting state of the brain is vital to its health.

“Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign … The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.” —Elon Musk, founder of Space-X and Tesla Motors

“The economic crisis is a crisis of managed expectations. Americans are being conditioned to accept their own exploitation as normal. Ridden with debt from the minute they graduate college, they compete for the privilege of working without pay.”

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