Making Time for Nothing: Teens and the Art of Zoning Out

09/07/2017 12:21 pm ET
Zoning out enroute
Photo by Gina Maier
Zoning out enroute

As the final wave of back to school reality (aka anxiety) sweeps through my house and the schedule dictating what will fill our family’s days in the upcoming school year emerges, I’m hoping the summer habits of slowing down, allowing time for nothing, and general daydreaming make their way into the school year mix.

These are habits my teens appear to have mastered over the summer when their days, for the most part, were unstructured and life simply ran its course, quiet and undemanding. Of course, there were moments when witnessing yet another all-day teenage lounge session of accomplishing nothing, started to irk me. But seeing my kids inhabiting that summer-world far away from school stresses and the constant cry of ‘hurry up’ that pervades the school year, was a reward and made me forget, at least temporarily, the unmade beds and dirty ice cream bowls still sitting in the sink from the previous night’s movie marathon. To see them slow down, and just be, was worth it. After all, theirs is a generation that lives in warp speed - where waiting is a foreign concept, and allowing empty moments of letting your mind sit, wander and daydream is in direct opposition to the instant lives they lead, with the always-present smartphone complicating things further. These teens are almost never alone with their thoughts and as a result, are losing out on the benefits that come with simply letting the mind rest.

According to Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University, this unstructured, seemingly unproductive time is fertile ground for creativity, problem-solving and inventiveness. “Such moments of daydreaming or when your mind is wandering, is called ‘task-negative’,” says Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. “This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable.”

But getting to this brain state can be tough for teens when schedules are too full and there’s a cell phone living in the palm of their hands stopping the mind from ever reaching that dreamy state. With the ability to constantly connect, they’re the first generation to never truly be alone – whether in a Tim Horton’s line-up, or a barber’s chair, an elevator, at a bus stop or even just walking down the street. This new reality means teens might just be missing out on opportunities that allow for daydreaming – and along with it, the creativity that can lead to incredible ideas, inventions, break-throughs and a clear head. I’m not advocating a screen-free house, but having limits can help foster the possibility of day dreaming. After all, it’s unlikely Archimedes would’ve had his Eureka! moment if he’d been watching Netflix on his propped-up iPad while soaking in the bath.

While summer fades, and with it, the easy pace that opened up space for doing the kind of nothing where ideas are born, the time for mind wandering will now need to be actively encouraged. When I drive my 14-year old daughter to her singing lesson, phones will stay off, and I’ll let the car go silent between snippets of school news - and watch in my rear view mirror hoping to see that blissful, glazed over look on her face as she stares out the window hypnotized by the passing trees, her mind quietly relaxing, percolating, allowing solutions and ideas to bubble to the surface. Maybe she’ll have an Einstein moment – possibly hatching a world-changing concept in the way that Albert did on his streetcar ride home from work when he dreamily observed the Bern clock tower and figured out the special relativity theory? The odds are low, but I’m happy to give her the chance. Would the world be the same if Einstein had a cell phone on that ride?

In a radio segment on CBC Spark, Nora Young brings to light the practice of simply taking time for quiet reflection, a discipline she reports is practiced by former Secretary of State, George Shultz, who sets aside a weekly hour of solitude for contemplation. The concept is great, but I admit, once the school schedule ramps up into full throttle, it might be difficult to slot in a ‘Shultz Hour’ for my teens between guitar practice, kick boxing, and senior high Biology labs.

A Shultz moment
Photo by Gina Maier
A Shultz moment

However, when I remind my 16-year old son to cut the grass this fall, I’m going to consider it his hour of reflection, whether he knows it or not. Perhaps while he zones out with the hum of the motor in his ears, he’ll have an experience like Philo Farnsworth, who, while plowing his potato fields at age 14, was inspired by the back and forth motion of the till, to create the first television. Again, maybe this won’t be happening in our back yard, but I’m happy to try it out.

And when my teens inevitably sleep in on weekends, as they did so successfully all summer, I’ll keep their phones out of reach, encouraging them to make the most of that blissed-out time when they’re lying in their beds, and perhaps they’ll have a moment like Descartes, another fan of lying in, and figure out a theory as earth shaking as his Cartesian geometry. At the very least, I’ll know I’m doing my best to help them tap into that lost route to unearthing their deepest, best thoughts and ideas, dirty dishes and all.

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