Setting aside time to think proves more challenging than anticipated

I’ve only failed one assignment in my entire academic career, and it was called the thinking challenge.

This assignment was as simple as it sounds: it was literally a challenge to think. Last year, one of my professors, Andy Swihart, encouraged me to set one hour aside each week to do nothing but think, and increase the time I set aside to think from there.

Despite my time-management skills, dedication to completing homework and overall perfectionist tendencies, I struggled to complete even a portion of the challenge. And even though I probably spent more than an hour strategizing how to complete the assignment, from writing out a timeline of goals in a Word document to developing a complicated reward system in which I could enjoy a creative activity, like reading an un-assigned (aka, low priority) philosophy book, after the thinking exercise, I still failed. The difficulty of this seemingly simple challenge awed me.

Interestingly, that failure directly related to my most recent international experience: last spring, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Asia for six weeks. After my trip, I only had one regret: I didn’t think enough.

After I returned from Asia last June, I reflected on my trip often, both discussing my experiences with my peers and completing the recommended post-trip journal for class. I edited my hundreds of pictures, which captured myself and my friends in front of various iconic or interesting sights, leafed through the pamphlets from all of the famous sites I toured and happily shared the souvenirs I trekked home with me. Best yet, I was grateful to have been healthy and safe throughout the duration of the trip.

Despite those objective successes, though, I had to acknowledge one, major hole in my experience: I lacked intellectual appreciation of those experiences.

Each day was packed with things to do, things to see and people to meet, much like any international trip. I often felt drained by nighttime, but fell victim to social pressure to stay active with the group or personal pressure to “make the most of it.” If I could go back, I think I’d instead locate a fairly desolate corner, whether it be a park bench or a concrete ledge outside the subway station, and simply think for a while at the end of each day.

In the moment, however, I was terrified to lose a single, special second of that trip – I was so grateful to be in Asia, and I didn’t want to waste any time. However, that was counterproductive – I’ve discovered that failing to take time to recharge, and think, effectively wasted a lot of my time.

Spending time in solitude allows me to readjust my mindset, appreciate my time and better comprehend the stimulation surrounding me. It lightens my mood, physically relaxes me and makes be more fun to be around. Much like water is the almost-too-easy-and-cheap miracle drug, taking time to think is the ultimate easy, free and painless way to improve your life.

However, it might actually be too easy.

It is incredibly difficult to prioritize a task that is not required nor immediately pleasurable. For example, I can easily prioritize homework or work-related tasks, and once I complete those, I enjoy various low-level thinking activities, such as watching reality TV or light reading. Further, the multi—tasking millennial in me is constantly doing something, whether it’s checking my email or my newsfeed, during the few moments that I have left. Fitting time to do physically nothing and think is a difficult task to choose at any given point, especially when I have so many entertaining options literally in the palm of my hand.

Regardless, I am still determined to meet Andy’s challenge. I realize that I’m motivated largely by deadlines, so last summer, I signed up for a philosophy of religion course, creative writing course and I applied for this very writing job, knowing that each would force me to spend substantial time critically and creatively thinking. These activities help me prioritize slowing down at least a couple of times a week to do nothing but observe, think, write and rewrite. It’s not quite the thinking challenge Andy proposed, but it is a few steps closer to it than where I was before. And, of course, I’m still working my way towards it.

You may very well be more disciplined, or thoughtful, or more something  than I am, so I’ll pass the challenge on to you: Can you set aside an hour a week to do nothing but think?

This entry was posted on Monday, September 22nd, 2014 and is filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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