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By Sally Torbey

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About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to the share the good times and discuss the challenges of...  (More)

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Why is doing nothing so difficult?

Uploaded: Jul 18, 2014
A paper was published this month in the journal Science (choose "writing" and last title under "affective forecasting") that explains why I check my email at least 30 times a day, even though the most exciting item I will probably find is the announcement of a sale at swimoutlet.com or a recent UpToUs site upgrade.

Palo Alto Online blogger Cheryl Hahn Bac is the sixth author on the paper, which describes how folks experience time alone without external distractions. Some of the studies were conducted while she was a graduate student at University of Virginia.

Study participants were instructed to sit for a short period of time (no more than 15 minutes) in a room with nothing to do. They were asked to try to make this experience pleasant by relaxing and thinking positive thoughts, while staying seated in a chair and staying awake. Most folks found this task very difficult. In fact, it was so unpleasant that in one study participants chose to shock themselves, just to do something, rather than sit quietly and do nothing. I cannot help but think of how, whenever I have nothing else to distract me, I obsessively check email on my cell phone, which is probably only a little less unpleasant than the 2.3 mA shock that the women in the study chose to give themselves, (men received 4 mA as they were less sensitive to the pain).

According to Cheryl, the researchers were surprised at how difficult it was for the participants to entertain themselves by just thinking, and the researchers tried to come up with strategies to improve the experience. But even when they prompted the participants to plan ahead what they might think about, or complete the experiment in the comfort of their dorm room or home, the results were the same. Folks were bored and unhappy when alone with their thoughts. And, there is no correlation with use of cell phones or social media, so it is not just folks who are accustomed to the constant connection and stimulation that technology provides that were unhappy.

With all the evidence accumulating regarding the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness and meditation, and the ability to consciously direct our thoughts, these studies are an impressive demonstration of how hard those practices are to master and maintain. No wonder religions through the ages have incorporated prayer and quiet times of reflection, as our natural inclination seems to be to seek external stimulation, whether pleasurable or unpleasant, despite how important stilling the mind or directing our thoughts is for our well being. Another example of something so good for us that is, along with healthy eating and exercising, so hard to do!

I do take heart in the lack of correlation with social media use. It appears that at least technology is not causing this inability to enjoy stillness and quiet. Technology merely exploits this inclination by giving us a constantly available alternative activity.

I am trying to reduce my habit of compulsively checking email. Visualizing shocking myself whenever I am tempted to do so is, at least for now, a good deterrent!

Comments

Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 18, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Wonderful, Sally! Thank you!


Posted by CherylBac, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jul 18, 2014 at 10:19 pm

CherylBac is a registered user.

Sally, thank you so much for reading and discussing our article! You make some great points. What a clever deterrent to compulsively checking email. Please keep us posted on how it goes


Posted by Mother of 4, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Jul 18, 2014 at 10:34 pm

Very interesting study and comments.

I would have thought that being in a room and being told to sit still and do nothing would be a very difficult thing to do. I would be bored and unable to sit still and have no idea what to think about.

Yet I know that on the few occasions I am in the house alone with no particular urgent work, I sit still and enjoy the time just looking at whatever is around me, the photos and pictures on the wall, the flowers outside, the birds singing and feel completely at ease with nothing special to do. The minute the door opens and someone comes in or the phone rings, that special time is gone.

It may be that it is so rare to have the luxury of nothing to do and be able to enjoy it, but I think that being told to just do nothing is a very different scenario.


Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Jul 19, 2014 at 8:16 am

Lots to think about. Thank you, Sally and Cheryl. Our attraction to staying busy even when it's shocking might be similar to the need for noise. Are we in our cores afraid of something? In the city where I am surrounded by noise even with windows closed, indoors, I add to the noise with radio to try to smooth over the outdoor sounds. When I am away from the city where it is quiet and if I feel safe, I need less radio.


Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi PR,
Thanks for reading and commenting!

Hi Cheryl,
I'll keep you posted on my efforts. For now, equating checking email with choosing to be shocked is helping me be more mindful of whether I really need to check email or I am just using it as a distraction.
The research you've done is fascinating and provides interesting insights into human behavior, as well as raising some intriguing questions!

Dear Mother of 4,
Thanks for reading and commenting. You've raised an important point. Maybe it was just the bleak surroundings of an academic building that made it difficult for participants to enjoy a few minutes of quiet. The researchers tried to address this in one of the studies by having participants complete the 15 minutes at home, and at a time of their own choosing, but the participants still didn't find the experience any more enjoyable. Perhaps the issue is really, as you mentioned, that it is difficult to direct our minds to get lost in thought on command, even if we ourselves are making that demand!

Hi LJ,
It sounds like the unpredictable city noises are distracting, but you respond to the radio's more predictable sounds like you do to quiet, and it allows you to more easily lose yourself in thought. I often turn on the car radio, but then completely ignore it while driving familiar routes around town, instead finding myself lost in contemplation. It is a little disconcerting to arrive at my destination and remember very little of the drive, but I do some great thinking in the car. Probably due to the absence of the temptation to distract myself with email!


Posted by wondering??, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jul 22, 2014 at 9:34 am


When reading this, I instantly thought of my mother-in-law in her advanced stage of Alzheimers. When I visit with her and 17 other men and women in her memory center just sitting and staring, are they feeling a need to do something but just can't because it is a lot more than just 15 minutes.


Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 22, 2014 at 10:07 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear wondering?,
Thanks for reading and commenting. It does make you wonder if maybe Alzheimers increases people's tolerance for quietly sitting.


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