Mind-LESS-Ness

Recently, I had the good fortune to be gifted a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida. The picture above is one I took of Hogwarts Castle at the theme park.

In general, I’m not one for theme parks but the Wizarding World was uh-mazing. The level of detail and the skill of the actors that made this beloved fictional world come to life was wonderful.

And expensive.

So expensive.

If you want to take the Hogwarts Express then you have to buy tickets to two parks since the Wizarding World is split between them. If you want to buy an interactive wand from Ollivander’s, and do spells throughout the park, you’re going to pay $55.  Do you want ButterBeer? $7.50. Do you want to eat at the Leaky Cauldron? It’s going to be around $20 for some just alright cafeteria food.

As I was walking around the park I was overwhelmed with how much money the parks were raking in and that this was just one part of the Harry Potter Franchise which, over the past two decades, has made a lot of money for a lot of people. Most notably, J.K. Rowling, the author of the books who has an inspiring personal story about going from welfare to earning billions.

What does all of this have to do with rest?

Rowling says that the idea for the first Harry Potter book came to her when she was stuck on a delayed train. Some reports say she was staring out the window.

It seems that Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter when she was engaging in a bit of mindlessness.

Although we are big proponents of the uses of mindfulness on your journey from ABD to PhD it’s important to remember that it is not a panacea. In fact, though the neuroscience of productivity is still very new, there seems to be ample evidence that letting your brain do nothing is every bit as important, and maybe more so, to the creative processes (see here and here) than mindful breaks like meditation.

In fact, moments of mindlessness seem to be key to those creative breakthroughs that can make all the difference in a long-term project like a dissertation. Personally, I have a lot of these moments in the shower or right as I’m about to fall asleep. I’ll just be minding my own business, having stopped working for the day (if it’s a good day), or just thrown my hands up and walked away (if it’s a bad day) and the connection/word/source/thing I was looking for will come to me. Chances are you’ve had moments like these too. Neuroscientists say that the three B’s–bathtub, bed, and bus–are common places for these a-ha! moments to happen. (If you’re thinking of the “Eureka!” story of how Archimedes figured out water displacement while getting in the bathtub–yes, exactly, that.)

Essentially, these creative moments happen when you’re doing nothing and your mind is wandering. It seems that this frees up the brain to make creative connections it would not make in a more focused state.

Taking time to rest is hard. It’s hard for people in a capitalist society where our productivity is made synonymous with our value as humans. It’s hard, particularly, for grad students who are often only getting paid for their teaching or researching assistantship but are also expected to do their own research, write, publish, engage with the wider field, and do departmental service.

Most of all, taking time to rest, to do mindless activities, as an academic in mid-August, is damn near impossible. It feels like the exact opposite of what you should be doing and yet it is incredibly important. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been trying to put together a syllabus, gotten stalled on what should be on the reading list in week 11 of the semester, taken a social media break and stumbled across the perfect source. It may seem like a happy accident, but I think it has more to do with (1) having bada** friends who share great stuff and (2) activating the creative process through a mindless break.

So, delay, if you can, the pre-semester panic and take a mindless break to do nothing. You may be surprised at how much it will increase your overall productivity.

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