An idle mind is a crucible of creativity

One of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is ‘super busy,’ ‘crazy busy’ or ‘insanely busy.’ Nobody is just ‘fine’ anymore,” writes Kate Murphy in The New York Times.

A study shows how far people are willing to go to avoid introspection: 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. Murphy writes about how people are prone to dwell on our problems and other negative things when left with their thoughts, so this becomes an uncomfortable feeling if you’re not “intrinsically good at reflecting.” Instead, people opt for busyness and distractions, of which there’s no shortage. But giving yourself time to reflect can enhance your ability to empathize with others and encourage creativity. This is interesting to me because I feel the exact opposite: I’m always trying to make more time to reflect.

Something experts suggest, which I think sounds effective (I say “sounds” because I haven’t consciously tried this yet) despite it being deceptively simple, is: Use third-person pronouns or your own name instead of first-person pronouns when thinking of your own problems. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, tells Murphy. Makes sense.

Semi-related, it also makes me think of Vietnamese pronouns and how the norm is to refer to yourself in third-person, which I’ve always had trouble with given the variety of ways you can refer to yourself depending who you’re talking with. And unfortunately, my default is assume I’m talking with a grownup, so I use the “one’s child” pronoun. Please don’t speak with me in Vietnamese if you’re not my parent, it’s embarrassing. I’ll stop short of psycho-cultural analysis though.

Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, what I’ve made an effort to do for the better part of this year was to avoid complaining or mentioning how “busy” I am, whether that’s solicited or just in casual conversation. There’s really nothing more behind it than me believing that, well, so is everyone else.

PS. I just added a Hustle & Flow category because it felt appropriate.

2 thoughts on “An idle mind is a crucible of creativity”

  1. Your addition of the “Hustle and Flow” section reminded me of this great piece on “Stock and Flow” ( – brief excerpt:
    “Stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:
    –Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
    –Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
    I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril.”

    While the post is about content and economics, I feel like the stock and flow metaphor could be extended to our own thoughts, our own sources of creativity, our own time and space to think. We are so focused on the flow (the being busy) we don’t make room for taking stock (reflection).

    I find creativity in both the flow and the stock, but increasingly, if I don’t have enough stock the creativity I foster in the flow feels more and more shallow and partial.

  2. Josh — you’re reading my mind. I had that post queued up for another post. I don’t remember when I first read that post, but it’s something I try really hard to work at: that balance of stock and flow. Creativity exists in both for me as well, but an imbalance of the two, especially the constant (and increasingly shallow) flow is exhausting for me.

    This idea extends to a lot of other things too — we still have a newsletter date to schedule!

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