Sitting Still, Doing Nothing

Cricket - September 22, 2010

Recently Alain De Botton (http://www.alaindebotton.com/) posted:

“One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.
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The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.”

Enter meditation. Sitting for a period of even 20 minutes can feel like fasting for an extended period of time-especially when one considers that nerve transmissions occur at a rate from 1 to 120 meters per second – and that we each possess millions of neurons. That’s potentially a lot of stimuli to filter and process.

I don’t particularly like meditation. Or, I “like” it in the same way I “like” push-ups and sit-ups–it’s good for me, I like the results, but I don’t always enjoy the process.

S0 when Maria proposed an experiment to sit daily for eight weeks and record her progress and post about it (coming soon we promise!), and Annie joined in, I also made the commitment. Partly to see what effect it would have on our work as a creative team, and partly because I thought the extra structure and presence of others would help me practice meditation more regularly, something I’ve been trying to do anyway.

I’m not naturally good at sitting still and doing nothing—it flies in the face of my natural work ethic. If I’m lucky I can make it through a full half hour, constantly clearing away the intruding thoughts to make room for white space. As a designer I’m a big fan of whitespace on the page, but rarely do I find very much of it in my mind.  Occasionally when I sit I get glimmers of it. Sometimes the invading thoughts become design solutions or a new project—those are the gems I’ve held onto—but most thoughts get tossed and left behind. It can be surprisingly hard.

Our experimental period has ended, but we’ve kept on sitting. So really it’s still a work in progress, but here’s my take so far…

There have been days too busy to squeeze in 20 minutes of sitting. Lately we’ve sat less than we should. But I’ll say this—the days we sit together are better than the days we skip. Even the days we sit and get interrupted part way through, or the days where a veritable shit-storm of thoughts attack are easier and more productive than the days I keep my nose to the grindstone.

How is it better? It’s easier for me to make decisions. It’s easier to be patient with myself and my creative process (and with others).  The studio is just a tiny bit calmer, more productive and happier. Have I re-learned to concentrate?  Maybe a little bit.  I’ve definitely learned to filter.  And in design – that’s ultimately a big part of what we do – we filter through all the messages and prioritize the information we need to present and eliminate the distractions.

I’m a little bit embarrassed to share this thing that has a faint whiff of patchouli to it. Our studio is really nothing like a hippie commune. But this practice has been so productive and constructive for us and our work that it’s an experience worth sharing. Has it been a good business decision to invest this much (20 min X 3 people X our average billable rate X 40 days and couning) in “doing nothing”?  I have no doubt it’s been worthwhile. Look to see some of the results in our updated portfolio.

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