Staring in to the fire The benefits of alone time

Over the last year or two, over-connectedness in society and our inability to “disconnect” from technology has been a recurring theme in my incidental reading. Much has been written and spoken about the negative effect that it is having on the way we process information and communicate with each other. Whilst many of these essays are quick to point this out, not one tries to suggest a practical strategy to counteract our addiction to real-time updates. To me, it seems there’s just one logical strategy; increase the amount of time we spend thinking about, well, nothing. What’s the value proposition? We’re guaranteed to be more creative.

Throughout my internet meanderings a variety of writers, critics, scientists and essayists have tried to coin a simple phrase that encapsulates moments of rest for our brain. It’s been called “Creative pause”, “Idleness”, “Gap-time” and the “Empty box” to name a few. Whilst no one can agree on the term, there does seem to be consensus that as technology demands more of our attention – as we fill our daily opportunities for alone-time with a quick refresh of our pocket-dwelling internet devices – we’re starting to realise that there is tremendous value in letting our minds wander. We’ve also come to realise that one of the best environments to facilitate this is through moments when we’re alone.

Everyday our brains are being bombarded with tidbits of information. 30 second video clips, the internet’s best one-line quotes, the branding and advertising as we walk through public space. The 5 minute phone calls, the 4-hour Skype ones, the 100s of emails, the 1000s of friend requests and an excess of tweets to follow and read. There’s now a piece of information designed to fill any gap in our lives. We feel that some of these bits of information are important enough to take action on, others merely permeate our attention momentarily before the next distraction takes its place. While this information shrapnel is being sucked in to our brain through our senses at every potential moment that we have for some downtime in our lives, when do we get the chance to put these seemingly disparate jigsaw puzzle pieces together in a way that is meaningful?

There is an expectation in our 1st world secular culture that taking a moment to be alone, to ‘space-out’, to think about ‘nothing’ is wasting time. We tend to feel that these moments might be better spent consuming more information or outputting something of significant value in to the world. One has to wonder how this came to be. I’ve been reading “The rituals of dinner” by Margaret Visser and the book talks about the evolution of manners in our society and how children learn to ‘behave’. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the societal construct of ‘manners’ could be partly to blame for perceiving alone-time so negatively. Let me present a scenario.

Someone is standing at the corner of a room at a large party. There are large groups of people mingling, laughing, telling stories but this person is not holding a drink, nor a cigarette, they are not talking to anyone. They have their hands in their pockets and they are just looking out of the window. Someone who does not engage in conversation when there is an opportunity is somehow extricated from social circles. They are judged to be either uninteresting or snobbish, either boring or unattainable. Sure, there may be an extrovert who may try to (in their words) “bring them out of their shell” but inevitably this person is disengaged and prefers to be alone. We assume that if no one else is conversing with this person that other people have tried and failed and because of this, we make our own judgement about them and most of the time it’s to find someone else to talk to.

For some reason, and perhaps it’s learned behaviour, we never make the assumption that perhaps that lonesome person in the corner of the room might just be thinking, or having a rest from the everyday. To avoid being pigeon-holed and to avoid automatic social rejection from a group of people whom we do not yet know, we’ve come to rely on the smart phone. The internet-enabled digital device in our pockets has become the default broadcast mechanism that we use to tell those around us that we are still part of someone’s tribe. Today, a person standing in the corner of a room at a party fiddling with their digital device is assumed to be a social equal to the flamboyant story-teller who mingles and meets effortlessly with people they may or may not know. It’s ironic that it’s not until we’ve designed ourselves in to a situation where every beep from our pocket signifies social acceptance within a community that I’ve realised that the process of not-doing may be just as important to us as the process of doing.

Being alone at a party, restaurant, bar or other public space without a phone in hand might seem strange to some but within a religious context such behaviour is normal if not encouraged. Whilst I’m not a member of any religious faction, I grew up in a family that was devoutly religious across a diverse range of faiths. Regardless of their different belief systems, a common thread ran through them all – their interpretation of alone time was labelled ‘reflection’ and it was an essential aspect of practicing their faith.

For some reason, the word ‘reflection’ conveys a sense of meaning or purpose to the activity of being alone. Reflection from a religious viewpoint is essential for well-being. It’s your time; time to think about yourself and your place in the world. Time to consider your experiences and how they have affected your point of view on the world. Reflection in a religious context isn’t ‘weird’ and it doesn’t mean you have no friends. In fact, the more you ‘reflect’ the more ‘devout’ you are perceived to be. Regardless of the religion, be it the different strains of Christianity or the different religions across eastern and western cultures, all of them contain this common interpretation of worship. Why is it OK to do this within a religious culture but not in a secular one? Why aren’t designers doing more reflecting?!

The avenues that demand our attention in technology-driven lives are increasing more than ever and trending suggests that it’s not slowing down anytime soon. Our 1st world culture has been habitualized to the hyper-consumption of information and resources and as a result we as humans easily fall in to the trap of  “FOMO” or ‘the fear of missing out.’ The fear of missing out is the fear that if we don’t keep up to date with every input of information from all parts of our lives (whether it be work, social life, general interest or world affairs) we might miss out on some important piece of information, that for some reason, might change our lives for the better. This anxiety of being ‘left-out’ or not knowing what someone else knows, seems to be the driving force in motivating us to fill our gap-time, to sacrifice creative pause, to avoid idleness or reflection at all costs.

Whatever anyone calls it, religious or otherwise, for me reflection is the time our cave-dwelling ancestors had for sitting around a fire and just staring in to the flames. Those moments when conversation played second fiddle to the aimless mind-wandering that our brains needed to do to recover from a hard day of hunting and gathering. Not only did it give our brains a chance to rest but it also provided the opportunity for improving the way we did things. What went wrong today? What went well? How could we improve the hunt next time? It gave us the opportunity to assess our life experiences internally and come up with solutions to those problems. It let our imaginations run wild with ‘what-if’ scenarios before we broadcast them to the rest of the group and as a result, it created the perfect environment for that buzz-word of the 21st century – innovation.

I’ve written about the value of time and the process of incubation in a creative context before. I know and practice the importance of letting a design problem ‘incubate’ for days before the inevitable lightning bolt of creativity strikes and the solution just presents itself naturally. It’s not until right now though, sitting in this coffee shop alone, without my wife or colleagues, family or pets that I realise that life experiences also need time to incubate. We need to create the time to reflect and let the natural connections form between those bits of shrapnel that build up on our brain like moss on a rock left out in the rainy forest. The irony for me is that this moment as I write this essay, is the proof that this time alone can yield positive results and help me create.

One of the barriers to finding alone-time is of course time itself. Many of us wake up in the morning, check our digital calendars for the day and see a continuous block of colour telling us that yet again, today is another day that our time is devoted to someone else. And yes, living in the habit of day to day means that those many appointments are simply unmovable. Whilst at first this might seem like an impossible barrier to overcome, looking ahead in the calendar reveals gaps in our dedication of time to others. Whether it is next week or next month, there will inevitably be moments that are not yet scheduled; we see ‘gap-time’. Identifying this gap-time is step 1, step two is to act upon it. The problem shifts to perceiving scheduled alone-time as less important than anything else that may come up where someone else is involved and that’s a tough nut to crack.

One of the biggest barriers to keeping my scheduled “fire-staring” time (yes, that’s what I’m calling it now) rat­her than devoting it to someone else comes down to my parents training me too well in manners, in being unselfish. There is, unquestionably, a level of guilt associated with reserving some of my time for me. Not only has it been bred in to me that being selfish with my time is rude and should be avoided at all costs in order to improve any relationship with another human being but it’s perceived as less valuable also. If I devote my fire-staring time to someone else perhaps I’ll benefit from it in a more tangible way than if I keep my time to me. Perhaps the promise of a free meal or a case of beer from a friend, or a kiss from a member of the opposite sex, or even just the experience of interacting with other human beings will be more valuable than simply being alone and “thinking about nothing” for a while.

Fire-staring hints at the potential for value whereas someone else promises it. ‘Staring in to a fire’ isn’t a socially accepted excuse for not devoting time to someone else. Of course, some people need less fire-staring time than than others. This presents in own barrier in that the  value of it is harder for those people to understand. These differences in perception can put strains on social relationships. There is the fear of being alone; of being ‘left out’ of future social invitations that niggles at the back of one’s mind, “You stay here and stare in to the flames whilst the rest of the tribe goes hunting”. With this said, I’m now more confident than ever in knowing that the benefits of fire-staring time can manifest themselves in ways we can’t predict and they can be on a scale that can be more beneficial to the social fabric in the long run. It’s for this reason that fire-staring time has become one of my most valuable appointments in my calendar.

My own experience has shown that fire-staring time is a catalyst for analytical and creative thought about problems and experiences I wasn’t even consciously aware that I had; problems that I don’t have time to recognise during other parts of my day. I write more, I read more, I draw more and I have the mental sustenance to create more. Fire-staring recharges my batteries. It allows me to join some important jigsaw pieces together and throw out the ones that I’ve been holding on to. I’ve had time to look at them properly and realise that they don’t fit my bigger picture. From an outsider’s point of view, I can understand that the correlation between fire-staring and creativity seems tenuous but like with most things that come naturally to us, it’s difficult to identify them let alone explain them to another. I only know that it happens through observation of my own habits and creative output – the jigsaw metaphor sums up how it feels.

For me, fire-staring has tremendous value in giving me time to interpret my world. Even if there might be a time where there will be no output it’s become an intrinsic and regular part of my life; like collecting a bucket of shells at the beach until the bucket is full. One has to take time to empty the bucket and sift through the shells to find ones that go together in some way. When these are organised, I can proceed to make a mosaic. Once the bucket is empty and the mosaic is made, the process of filling the bucket starts all over again. This regular and rhythmic approach of collecting, sorting and creating, like any habit, is intrinsic to its success.

What I find fascinating about all of this is that although our current use of digital technology is filling our gap-time and preventing us from having the time to sort our buckets of shells, it actually has a very important role to play. It’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the way we’re using it. The beauty of digital technology is that it now gives us the opportunity to collect shells from beaches that generations before us have never had the chance to scour. It provides a wider breadth of shrapnel from which to make our mosaic and we don’t even have to leave our own homes to find it. It means we have the opportunity to make brand-new, never-seen-before connections between vastly different pieces of information in order to form new ideas and solutions to the problems we encounter in our lives and culture. Where the problem is right now is that we need more time to sort it all out and we’re just not making that time for ourselves. If creativity truly is the act of making new connections, our ability to broadcast a plethora of cultural habits to each other can allow us to cross-pollinate those different ideas, recipes, languages and values that we’ve never had the opportunity to put together before now. We have the chance to be the most creative version of humanity yet – how exciting!

I hope that as a society we can come to recognise the value of fire-staring on the same level as we do our natural resources of oil or water. Perhaps then we can make changes to our cultural values to instill habits in our children for creating legitimized and accepted fire-staring time in our connected world. By doing this I truly believe we can propagate a society where creative thought and problem solving aren’t activities reserved for the marked elite (or those who label themselves as ‘creatives’) but one where that sort of thinking happens for all of us on a day-to-day basis. The opportunity for innovative thought is immense. Through making fire-staring ‘par for the course’ in the way we live our lives we’re likely to have a more ‘life-driven’ approach to developing better ways to live and work. We’ll solve bigger problems (and more of them) as we collect jigsaw puzzle pieces from places that previous generations could never have dreamed of going not so long ago.

2 Responses to “Staring in to the fire The benefits of alone time

  1. Thank you for the BEST answer to my question of “why we stare at a fire?” I am just getting back to “meditation” (for me that means a deep consideration/study of everyday objects). The experience is identical to your fire staring time. You are right–it refreshes our minds and, for me, my soul. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Coveyy talks about expanding the “gap” between stimulus and response. So often, our family-of-origin-trained minds only know one way-there is no other way than our parents’ way. As we slow our actions, our minds are open to the new and different responses. Now, my challenge is to learn to “stare at the fire” in the fullness of my life; not just during my mornings in my study.

  2. Thanks for your comments Richard. I should definitely read the book you’ve mentioned, it’s been recommended to me by a number of people. I think the endeavour to slow is something we’re all feeling as technology tries to push us the other way. Taking time out for personal reflection seems to be more difficult now than ever. I do believe that if we can find this time we begin think differently to the rest of the world. In my field of design, this becomes a really key advantage. Good luck in your own journey.

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