Daydreaming when there’s nothing else to do: Talia Winiarsky reflects on her new experience with unproductiveness over spring break


Talia Winiarsky

I am bad at relaxing. Luckily, Horace Mann provides plenty of ways to take up my time. Between plans with friends and homework, I rarely have free time on a typical weekend, but I love my busy schedule because it gives me a sense of purpose.

After I finished my last test before spring break, however, I didn’t know what to do with myself. College tours had been canceled. I was going to study for the ACT, but that was canceled too. Initially, I spent time with friends, but as the intensity of coronavirus increased, I began strict social distancing. I wandered my apartment aimlessly, looking for something to do. I compulsively checked my email, watched the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, read large chunks of books every day, and wrote reactions to each of them.

Yet, I still couldn’t fall asleep at night because I felt as though I were constantly forgetting something. Without school to guide me, a piece of me was missing, and I felt a nagging guilt. Every time I picked up the book that I was reading for pleasure, I worried that I should be reading a book for my Junior Research Paper, studying for the ACT, or doing some other activity to plan for the future.

Eventually, I had to accept the discomfort of relaxing, because two and a half weeks is too much time to be constantly doing schoolwork. I started by altering my routines. Usually, when I go running in the park on the weekends, I set my alarm, run a set loop with a friend, pick up a salad for lunch, and return home to do homework. During those runs, we inevitably talked about school, so when I returned home, it felt as though I had never left my desk. This past week, however, at whatever time I woke up without an alarm, I would go for a leisurely run in the park, alone exploring rambling paths in areas of that park that I never knew existed.

At first, the silence was unsettling. I was used to chatting with friends and didn’t know what to think about to entertain myself. I let my mind wander to whatever I first thought of as I meandered the park. Surprisingly, when I returned home, I felt refreshed and more productive than before.

The time that I spent engaging in nothing other than my thoughts, music, and nature caused me to clearly articulate my desires. I had hours to think about what I wanted to say in my English paper, and what sources I wanted to use for my history research. I even wrote this Op-Ed in my head one morning while riding my bike, and when I came home, I sat down to draft this with no writer’s block whatsoever.

I thought about things unrelated to school too, like friendships, relationships with family members, and how to preserve my health in uncertain times. A world in which everything is canceled can evoke many feelings: anxiety, sadness, and boredom. In addition to those things, however, I also found focus, clarity, and a new appreciation for the people I love.

Former Editor-in-Chief of the Record and current editor and columnist for the New York Times David Leonhardt ‘90 wrote recently about a concept he coined as a “Shultz Hour,” named for George Shultz, who served as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State. For an hour a week, Shultz would spend an hour alone, reflecting in his office. Shultz told Leonhardt that his “hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job.” It provided a moment of clarity among the tedious details of his job.

I used to think that I didn’t have enough time to carve out an hour from my schedule to do nothing. I would try to set aside time, but then worries would gnaw at the back of my brain and I would reluctantly take out my chemistry modeling set or reread that passage for history class. Now, I realize that taking an hour to do nothing could save me several hours later. Perhaps trying to picture the molecules in my head for a few minutes would have been more effective than fidgeting with models and staring at my textbook.

Reflecting, or daydreaming, as neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin wrote in a Times Opinions piece, “leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.”

I never expected that the time that I set aside not to be productive was the time that I was the most productive. I’ll be elated the day that social distancing is over, and I can’t wait to return to school, but in my routine, I’ll remember the benefits of those quiet moments I had to myself.