Going Fallow

7 February, 2020

You probably know someone like that. Perhaps even several someones. Someone who believes that they need to be doing something all the time. Someone on the productivity treadmill. Someone who suffers from something I call the idle hands syndrome, as in The Devil makes work for ...

On top of that, I keep hearing people repeat that the brain is a muscle and that it needs to be continually exercised. It’s an interest idea, and one that’s more or less true. To a point. Any muscle that you exercise needs to rest after it’s been exerted. That includes the brain.

You need to go fallow once in a while. Doing that lets your brain cool down, if you will. And, more importantly, it moves much of the processing of thoughts and ideas from the active front of the brain to the back of the brain.

One of my personal heroes is the late Freeman Dyson. Dyson is a unique character, who’s done a lot of interesting work over the decades — ranging from designing an interplanetary spacecraft to doing some groundbreaking mathematical work to coming up with a number of interesting scientific concepts.

But it was a story about a bus ride that Dyson told in the book The Starship and the Canoe that demonstrated the power of going fallow. At the time of the story, Dyson was a graduate student working at Princeton University. He was trying to solve a particularly thorny theoretical problem, but was having no luck. During a school break, he decided to take a cross-country bus trip. During that trip, Dyson was concerned more with the his journey and the ever-changing scenery than with the problem that vexed him. Then, at the end of the trip, guess what happened. The solution that Dyson had been so desperately seeking came to him.

You might not have a eureka moment like Freeman Dyson’s, or come up with a solution that will change … whatever. But by going fallow for a short time, you’ll refresh brain. That just might help you see pieces of a problem a bit more clearly. If nothing else, it will help clean the slate and start anew.

Scott Nesbitt