Some Periods of Non-Doing
Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, observed that people need periods of doing nothing like plants need periods of darkness. “If a plant gets nothing but sunlight,” Pirsig said, “it’s very harmful. It has to have darkness too. In the sunlight, it converts carbon dioxide to oxygen, but in the darkness, it takes the oxygen and converts it back into carbon dioxide. People are like that too. We have to have some periods of doing and some periods of non-doing.”
This week’s SIX at 6 is all about some periods of non-doing.
Even When You’re Not Working, You’re Working
Quentin Tarantino was asked about his creative process. “It all changed,” he said, “around writing Inglorious Bastards. It all changed.” Inglorious Bastards was Tarantino’s sixth movie. It came out in 2009. “Before that,” he said, “I was very much an amateur mad little writer. I mostly wrote at night, all night long, go to bed in the morning.” Or if he wrote during the day, he’d go to a restaurant or bar, “order some shit, drink a lot of coffee, and be there for 3 hours with all my shit laid out.” Around writing Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino decided to become “more professional.” This is his more professional process. He starts writing during the day time. Then after a few hours, he stops writing. Now comes the most important part of his profess, he says. “I have a pool, and I keep it heated, so it’s nice. And I hop in my pool and just kind of float around in the warm water…and then a lot of shit will come to me. Literally, a lot of ideas will come to me. Then I get out and make little notes on that. But not do it. That will be my work for tomorrow.” As another filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky, says, “procrastination is part of the process. Your brain needs a break…and even when you’re not working, you’re working. Your brain is putting stuff together.”
When Your Brain Gets A Rest, Ideas Walk In
What Aronofsky refers to as “procrastination,” Lin-Manuel Miranda calls “incubation.” “Incubation,” Miranda says, “is a really important part of the process.” He tells the story of how the idea for Hamilton came to him. “The best idea I’ve ever had in my life—perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life,” he says, “came to me on vacation.” It was his first vacation in over seven years. And as Tarantino does daily, Miranda was floating in a pool. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest,” he says, “Hamilton walked into it.”
Less Coffee. More Rest.
In a twelve-year stretch, the legendary college basketball coach John Wooden won ten NCAA championships. In that period, his teams won a record 88 consecutive games and seven championships. So thinking Wooden would find it impressive, a young go-getter once said to Wooden that he was plugged into his job 24/7/365. Wooden asked, “How much coffee does it take to do that?” Wooden was interested in sustainable high performance. So he wasn’t always plugged into his job. “During practices, two hours each day, I expected total and absolute concentration and participation,” he wrote, “However, once practice was over, basketball was over.” He told his players—outside those two hours—to not think about basketball, to stay away from the weight room, to concentrate on things unrelated to basketball. “I felt it important to refresh and recharge oneself, not to be so consumed with basketball that it becomes a chore.” Wooden’s wife Nellie said that because he left basketball on the basketball court, she could never “tell if [John] had a good day or a bad day at practice. [He] left it behind at the office.”
The Science of Downtime
In Deep Work, Cal Newport helps us understand the science behind the benefits of downtime. There’s the study from Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, which showed that when deliberating over a complex problem or decision, you should let your unconscious mind work on it. There’s the famous attention restoration theory study, which showed that “you can restore you ability to direct your attention if you give this activity rest.” There’s Anders Ericsson’s pioneering paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” which showed that we have a limited window for cognitively demanding efforts. “Decades of work from multiple subfields within psychology,” Cal writes, “all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.”
Making The Wagon Move
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” We work with doing, but non-doing is what we use. Floating, procrastinating, incubating, resting, recharging—these are important parts of the process. They make our wagons move.