In a recent interview, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that all serious thinkers and writers should stop using Twitter.
He didn’t mean to critique the 140-character medium or even the quality of social media conversations in the age of fake news.
Rather, it was a call to action to get beyond the noise.
For Coates, generating good ideas and quality work requires something that has become incredibly rare in modern life: quiet.
Coates of course isn’t the only public figure to advocate for cultivating periods of deep silence. Author J.K. Rowling, biographer Walter Isaacson and psychiatrist have all had disciplined practices for managing their information flows. Ray Dalio, Bill George, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan have also described structured periods of silence as important factors in their success.
Recent research studies show that regular periods of silence restore the nervous system, help to sustain energy and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the environment. For example, Imke Kirste from Duke Medical School recently found that silence helps to develop new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. A 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology concluded that while there were advantages to structuring offices around open plans, the disadvantages of noise and distraction outweighed the benefits that came from unplanned interactions.
Creating periods of silence in your life isn’t just about getting relief from incessant noise or chatter. Real periods of sustained silence help to facilitate clear and creative thinking and quiets the inner chatter of the mind.
It’s about taking a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities: having to think of what to say.
According to Hal Gregersen in a recent Harvard Business Review article, cultivating silence “increase[s] your chances of encountering novel ideas and information discerning weak signals.” When we’re always fixated on what we should say next, or write next, or tweet next, it’s very difficult to make room for truly different perspectives or radically new ideas.
It’s much harder to drop into a space for deeper modes of listening and attention. Because it’s in those deeper modes of attention that really novel ideas are found.
Even busy people can create conditions in their lives to enjoy sustained periods of quiet time. Here are four practical suggestions:
1) Break up meetings with five minutes of quiet time. Hit the reset button by closing the office door, retreat to a park bench or find some other quiet hideaway.
2) Take a silent afternoon in nature. Immersion in nature can often provide the clearest option for improving creative thinking capacities. Henry David Thoreau went to the woods for a reason.
3) Go on a media fast. Turn off your email for several hours or even a full day, or try going on a “digital detox” from news and entertainment. This is a great way to rest your mind from the incessant distractions of push notifications and news alerts.
4) Take the plunge and try a meditation retreat. Even a short meditation retreat can provide a simple pathway to helping people move towards deeper listening and awakened intuition. As the journalist Andrew Sullivan described his experience of a silent meditation retreat: “My breathing slowed. My brain settled…. It was as if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.”
While the world is getting noisier and more complex, silence is still accessible. It just takes commitment and dedication to create practices to cultivate it.