JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Busy doing nothing

Posted by on Mar 29, 2019

People-watching is a favorite pastime and yesterday provided the perfect opportunity. I arrived an hour early for my flight and so the airport provided the perfect place and time to sit and just watch. In a bold move, I closed my computer and put my phone in my backpack and just sat and observed. Maybe the fatigue from the work and travel aided my ability to sit still, but nevertheless, I resisted the urge to iSomething and simply sat. The shapes and sizes of the varying bodies is always a fascination and creates a strange appreciation for the human form. A friend in college would sit in the middle of the quad and hilariously and innocently “issue mental fashion citations.” We always laughed so hard when she would share her list of offenses with us at dinner. Now, this was in the late 1980’s, so if you had time to sit around, there was no technology to distract or use to occupy the mind. You either read or chatted or just sat. There is no more of that, just sitting, just being, just hanging out and not having something in your hands or ears to fill your brain. I miss that.

One thing that was fairly common watching hundreds of people move through the airport was the visible busy-ness of the brain. Eyes darting everywhere but seeing very little as the sheer volume of information appeared overwhelming. Those clearly in a hurry were scouting their routes, looking for the places to dart between the lolly-gaggers and strollers, at the same time trying not to sweat too profusely as they dragged their luggage along awkwardly. Managing travel has a high degree of difficulty. I remember when I started traveling regularly for work, I didn’t know “the drill” and so wasted more time and energy than I can bare to admit. But after a while, I got better at it, and eventually became good at it. I sat in airports for unreasonable amounts of time but luckily, always ended up home safely. Keeping that end-game in mind helped with the unavoidable frustrations. Now, airports are easy, familiar, comfortable, but I can’t help but notice the struggle of others, and wonder is it because of the airport or not?

The opportunity to observe is less and less and so data collection and the subsequent assumptions are fewer and further between. But watching all the people yesterday reminded me of how basic and common our struggles are. The number of faces looking down, with a furrowed brow and moving lips unknowingly was staggering. They were talking to themselves, and not in the need to be institutionalized way but in the trying to solve some serious problem way. Now, an airport is a busy place that has a tendency to induce stress so perhaps my sample was skewed, but I wonder if there is any place to sit and watch and find something different these days.

In 2010, nearly a full decade ago, Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert did a study discovering that on average, people are distracted 47% of the time. That means that you are not thinking about what you are doing, who you are talking with, or what you should be thinking about more than half the time. Nor is the person standing or sitting across from us, no matter how engaging we think we might be. A sobering data point, ain’t it? Since reading that article all those years ago, the ability to notice how often my mind wanders has been a blessing and curse. There are times when being deeply engaged in another is easy and wonderful. Then, there are times when a root canal has greater appeal. One of the major points of the finding was, “the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.” The location of the mind is the key, period. This confuses my mind, however, because we are always so wrapped up in where we are! Oh, the rabbit hole. My best guess to explain the unexplainable confusion here is that even though we are not “present” half of the time, we are not present enough to realize we are not present. That is the nature of distraction, isn’t it?

So, then, what do we do? The simple answer is to strengthen the mind to pay attention better and to better things. Simple but not easy, as they say. In training for performance, any kind of performance, what you say to yourself is paramount. Athletes spend countless hours working on “self-talk,” and necessarily so. The moment your inner voice goes rogue, performance suffers greatly. The factors at play (pun intended) are too numerous to count but let’s just think about what you are thinking and when you are thinking it. In performance, whether it be sport or business, paying attention to the task is important (duh). Negative self-talk creeps in when you see or hear something or someone that rattles you or shakes your concentration or confidence. All it takes is a moment and off the mind goes, either to a memory or future worry of something negative. This is the point where intervention is important.

The first thing to do is strengthen your muscle of awareness. You have to notice when your inner voice goes rogue. This takes practice and intent…and being able to be uncomfortable. We typically don’t like to notice when we start to feel bad because then we feel bad about making ourselves feel bad. Get over it so you can get over it.

The second thing to do is have something better to say to yourself. Simply noticing your inner voice is negative does not stop it from being negative! And no matter how many times your coach or boss tell you to “Be Confident!” it never works. What works is replacing the negative with something positive. But let’s not get all into positivity for positivity’s sake. You actually have to believe the positive self-talk, otherwise you may as well not waste the energy and just leave the negative stuff in place.

The third thing to do is to practice. This is what separates the winners from second, third, or last place, no matter the game. You don’t realize it, but you have been practicing negative self-talk for years! That is why you are so good at it and don’t realize you are doing it. It is a habit, dammit, and takes a lot of work to think differently. Time is the magic element here…time will go by no matter what so you might as well get to work on it.

As I watched a man on a business call pace up and down the corridor lining the seats for our departure gate, I noticed how his attention waxed and waned. He was in his late fifties and was “old school.” His computer was tucked away, and he had a scribbled list in his hand, supported by a tattered notebook with the corners of the pages worn from overuse. He fiddled with his pen as he paced and talked, and when obviously failed to get his point across, his mental pressure traveling to his hands would cause his pen to come apart and fall on the floor. I would bet he was a high-level manager talking to his manager, who he clearly thought didn’t understand his plight. He was lobbying for a new hire, a woman, and he was fighting hard for her against someone who wanted someone else. I couldn’t tell if it was purely a gender issue but my suspicion and bias crept in. You could hear the passion and determination in his voice and then see the subsequent jaw clench as his sentence was cut off. Then, his eyes would wander and his feet would stop moving, and you could see his attention leave the building. It was fascinating to watch him disconnect from the conversation and stare at anyone who happened to be walking by. As he jerked back into it, he would use a verbal filler like we all do to feign attention, all the while trying not to expose the battle between the rogue inner voice and the necessary public voice. The most amazing part was he had no idea he would disconnect because it was just so natural, he simply reconnected and moved on.

No one else was doing nothing, especially not the group of teenagers heading to Orlando for a choir competition. I guess I was not doing nothing because in truth, my mind was busy doing psychology in the form of observation. I enjoyed being mentally dragged around by whomever happened to enter my field of vision as I tried to read their minds and wondered what they could be thinking that would match up with their face and body language. The interesting thing was how refreshed I felt after sitting there for an hour, just observing, but being very engaged in it. There are many times when sitting for an hour is anything but refreshing, especially if I waste it scrolling endlessly looking for the next post that will make me feel better than the last. I wondered what it would be like for many of these busy, distracted travelers if their thoughts had been less distracted. So many looked so stressed and so few looked happy, could that be changed with a few tweaks to a few thoughts and attention. Killingsworth and Gilbert think so.