making time to not think

Much advice on academic writing suggests the importance of routines – daily writing, finding a good place to work, working for a set period each day. The point of routines is to create a sense of writing as habituated, as something done as a matter of course, rather like brushing teeth or walking the dog.

Targets are also frequently mentioned in writing advice – free writing, generative writing and the use of the Pomodoro technique. These all support writers to produce a particular quantum of text each day. The idea here is to decouple writing from the inner critic, that little voice that continually and often negatively comments on the writing as it is happening.

This is all good advice, in my view, and not something I want to counter. However, I am struck by how these eminently sensible suggestions contribute to our sense of busy-ness. It is very easy to simply add more and more essential daily tasks and targets and suddenly find ourselves completely occupied.

I suspect that what is in danger of getting lost in all of this activity is the time to think.

One of the things I have noticed about working with artists in particular, although it may well not be something confined to this group, is the high value that is placed on slowing down and stopping. Slowing down and stopping are seen as essential to the creative process. Slowing down and stopping requires finding a quiet and still place to NOT think, to UN know. Creating a temporary halt means not consciously working/thinking – and we must remember that writing is thinking.

The type of slowing down I am talking about is directed to freeing the mind from all the things that are of concern, trusting that some-thing will emerge during the time for non-thinking. Paradoxically, not thinking space/time often allows new ideas to bubble to the surface.

The artists I work with often engage in specific exercises to help them slow down and not think. Many deliberately engage in repetitive activity. One artist I know spends time preparing clay, rolling it out, then folding it back up and rolling it out again. She might, she says, spend a day in the studio simply rolling clay. She doesn’t get anxious about not having MADE anything; rolling out clay for a day or more is just part of what is needed. This apparently mindless, but also highly sensual practice, puts her in touch with the material and allows her to switch off conscious thought. It’s a kind of meditation, I guess.

Guided by artists, I have also recently:
– traced patterns from a magazine illustration onto tracing paper – this required time, concentration and also not-thinking since that would disrupt the tracing ;
– held one hand in iced water while writing about/drawing the sensation with the other – this allowed a focus on sensory experience; and
– changed location mid-conversation – this created a new awareness of the immediate context, de-familiarised an otherwise habituated process of talk and stimulated new questions.

Michel de Certeau, in his well-known text The practice of everyday life, one of my very favorite books, also talked about this kind of slowing down process. A passage I remember well is one where he writes about looking out of a train window, falling into a kind of reverie as the landscape changes. In this dreamlike state, he suggests, ideas and narratives that are segmented in our memory often come to the surface. Without apparently making an effort, new connections are made, different perspectives come into view.

It is difficult, of course, to predict whether exercises and reveries will produce new thoughts. So taking the risk to not think is about whether we are prepared to potentially fail – allocating time/space creates the possibility, not a guarantee. If we are writing or reading, we are on task – we see ourselves as on task and we can be seen by others as on task. This is the case even if we don’t produce anything that appears to be worth continuing with. On the other hand, if we are simply daydreaming, or doing a repetitive exercise, then this can easily be mistaken (by us and by others) for not working. NOT working, NOT thinking is of course the whole point… because perversely it may be that the very process of slowing down and not thinking really does create an opportunity for thinking.

Are you a daydream believer? Do you deliberately create places and spaces where you just slow down and/or not think? What happens? What works for you?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in de Certeau, not thinking, slowing down, thinking, time and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to making time to not think

  1. In the house? Breadmaking or baking are good for slowing down the busy brain. Or a trip to an exhibition.


  2. Sandra West says:

    Thanks Pat, this is a timely and I think much needed post. In today’s output focused academic world visible busyness is certainly the rewarded and I observe the expected behaviour. Perhaps it is time that experienced academics who have achieved their current staus through giving time to thinking talked more about their process and modelled it for others a little more clearly. Thank you for leading the way!


  3. Paul Spencer says:

    Now, I’m glad you’ve brought this up, I spend a lot of my time letting my mind wander away from being ‘on task’ – a visibly demonstrable detour from what i am ‘supposed to be doing’ in the eyes of my employer (i.e. being busy). I have to say that I am quite lucky as my line manager understands a little about the way I work and she trusts me to get on with it knowing that I will deliver the outputs.

    I like to think that my detours, both in my mind – of which there are many! – and physically are about a couple of things. On the one hand I really do need time to think, to process and unpack things that have already taken place – this satisfies my introverted nature – my blog is a way of capturing those processed thoughts. On the other hand I also feel I need the time to disenthrall myself (with a nod to Ken Robinson’s TED talk) from the routine; to allow new ideas and perspectives to come to the fore. That is really important and valuable I feel.


  4. Thank you, I knew I would enjoy this post…
    I guess I’m a natural born ‘daydreamer’. As I grew up, adults mainly worried about my great propensity to zone out and daydream. It turns out I sat through most my school years doing just that and, although it lead some teachers to misinterpret my attitude, my school performance didn’t seem affected. Today, I feel daydreaming can be a catalytic force in fostering processes essential to creative thinking. I’m even tempted to go as far as to suggest that it is productive and efficient in ways that have tended to be overlooked in the context of formal education.
    The above is no more than a personal impression for which I have no ‘formal’ evidence. However, I experienced (about 3 yrs ago now) a long period of relative inability to ‘zone out’ due to excessive stress. My body felt in a constant state of alertness, my senses and thoughts hyper-reactive to any surrounding stimuli… I found myself relatively incapable of ‘deep thinking’ as I’d known it in the past (-not good at the start of a PhD!! 😦 ) and so reasoned I’d have to retrain myself to ‘slowing down’, re-learn the art of ‘zoning out’, etc.
    I undertook activities that I thought would lead me to such mindsets and little by little rewired that ‘daydreamer’ part of me. (I suppose some might say I practiced greater ‘mindfulness’ (?) but I couldn’t really tell…). The irony is I feel I’ve been a lot more productive in my PhD studies since spending more time ‘slowing down’ and wondering off in thought. I’ve stopped worrying about ‘productivity and efficiency’ and have re-engaged with my doctoral research on a much deeper level that has felt genuinely satisfying on some days…:)


    • This made me remember Zoltan Dienes… one of my most inspiring university tutors on ‘Consciousness & mental representations’. (I wrote a first PhD proposal based on a lot of his work).
      In 2003, him and Seabrook researched something on ‘incubation’ and it now looks like Dienes’ got some interesting (if fairly technical) publications on the way for this year too: E.g. ‘The speed of metacognition: Taking time to get to know one’s structural knowledge’
      But you may have come across all this already and/or find it utterly irrelevant (!)


  5. I have recently discovered that this is essential for the creative process. For several years now I try to fit in daily walks (either to/from my car to the office or during lunch break or kids swim practice). I had always used this time to listen to music or a podcast but recently “switched off” the phone in favour of silence while walking. Most surprisingly (and wonderfully), thoughts and ideas arise unbidden. I have surprised myself more than once with the connections that seem to fall together like bits of a puzzle contributing to an overall picture. Highly recommend it!!! Be mindful to dress for the weather and feel even better with the added benefits of increased physical activity. And it’s lovely to hear the birds singing.


  6. Irene says:

    I absolutely agree. These days my mind/life sometimes becomes so cluttered with things to do that I find I’m unable to ‘not think’ and my work suffers greatly for it. When this isn’t the case I do cross-stitch as a way of unthinking – it is repetitive as each stitch is exactly the same and, as I’m following someone else’s pattern, not a great deal of thinking is involved. Going for meandering motorcycle rides for a couple of hours in the countryside can also be a good way; especially after a period of very focused concentration. Or just lying/sitting back, listening to the sounds of nature and letting the mind wander…


  7. Kat says:

    I’m a good daydreamer, but I’m not sure I associate it with not thinking, I tend to be thinking quite deeply, just sitting and letting my thoughts move around, and working my way through problems. I find I need a little activity to not think, often something like running works well, or yoga, baking, making jewellery, knitting….


  8. Jenine says:

    Great post, thanks. While doing my PhD I would often spend a day on the weekend making jewellery, a task that didn’t need much thought once the design was decided. Monotony and routine is good, it certainly gave my brain a break and me some little enjoyment and sense of accomplishment that I didn’t really get along the way in my PhD.


  9. Inspiring post. I remember vividly being about 6 years old and teachers constantly chiding me for ‘daydreaming’ or (as an educator I now shudder) ‘not turning my listening on’. At 6 I didn’t have the language skills or the confidence to say “I’m not ‘daydreaming’, I’m not ‘ignoring’ you, I. Am. THINKING!”
    Years and years of schooling has done wonders for me, and I’m not really one to romanticize the noble/innocent knowledge of childhood. But event so, as a first year PhD student I now wrestle with not having ‘done’ anything with my afternoon; in which I might have read a chapter or opening of an article, stared out of my window musing on it’s contents and perhaps scribbled a thought in my research journal. Times like that I long to be that 6 year old, content to sit and contemplate, without constant nagging fear of being ‘unproductive’

    It makes me wonder how much teachers demand attention, or displays of particular attention ‘signals’, not to ensure engagement and learning, but for reassurance they are being ‘heard’; and the effect this has on us in building an image of being productive, or even just ‘good. In my experience true learning and engagement doesn’t always look like what we think it will…


  10. I think you got to have time to think and you can easily make it — for example: walking, bathing, shower, toilet, before falling asleep/getting up, meditation/Yoga, midday sleep, in presentations and meeting, daydreams, classical concerts, traveling along/as passenger, spending time alone, endurance solo sport (e.g., jogging), or while driving the car … as long as you avoid bringing the whole bunch of media distraction with you that is available today. It’s easy, e.g., to listen to podcasts during a walk to the office, but it will prevent you from using this time for incubation. On the other hand, using media can help you to capture more ideas during these times and have them available later. For example, using the notes app on your iPhone allows you to unobtrusively jot down notes about the things you want to use in your next study without making it an awkward “why is this person taking out a notepad and writing stuff down — is it about me” moment for others (they will likely only think that you wrote an SMS or checked an email).


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  12. Kelly Yates says:

    I am writing a dissertation. I find that after 6-8 weeks of working on it 10-12 hours a week that I need to take a week off and not even look at it. I am a quilter so I spend that time working on a quilt. It is amazing that when I go back to the research I have so much more insight.


  13. Sue says:

    Reminds me of Brenda Ueland’s moodling in If you want to write


  14. Jan Pinder says:

    I agree with walking in the stolen moments. Gentle physical activity like walking is good for decoupling the brain for a while, and so is cycling and swimming laps.


  15. Pingback: making time to not think | Techno-social hybridity |

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  18. Here are a couple of related posts and articles worth reading.

    Kylie Soanes’ blog post:

    And a piece in The Conversation:

    In The Conversation article, I comment:

    “Ernest Rutherford, regarded as one of the greatest scientists, asked one of his students who was working long hours “When do you have time to think?” He imposed strict limits on time spent working so that his students could both spend more time with their families AND be better scientists:

    This is borne out in modern times by one of the Australia’s leading scientists telling me that his two best ideas came to him while surfing.”


  19. Pingback: Time for Ideas | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

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