The following article originally appeared on Explore.
The most important geographical exploration in the history of the United States was the Lewis and Clark expedition of 18041806. United States Army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, under the personal direction of President Thomas Jefferson, explored the course of the mighty Missouri and Columbia Rivers with daring and courage that almost defy comprehension. This was not guys camping out, but a dangerous two-year, life-or-death endeavor involving fewer than three-dozen people. Their epic feat remains unparalleled in America's history.
It is difficult for modern minds to conceive how they did it. In the early 19th century there were no reliable maps of trans-Mississippi America. This meant that these explorers knew only vaguely where they were headed. Survival gear was meager. There were no GPS devices, cell phones, walkie-talkies, satellite uplinks, thermal clothing, Vibram-sole hiking boots, camo uniforms, field rations, waterproof Gore-Tex tents and rain gear, rescue helicopters, supply drops, backup teams, automatic weapons, night-vision binoculars, inflatable water craft, outboard motors, water sterilizers, sunscreen, or insect repellantall of which would be routinely available to a military unit sent on such a mission today.
The single-shot Kentucky long rifle and an occasional muzzle-loading pistol, and a hunting knife were their only side arms. Hostile Native Americans could unleash six arrows while they were reloading. Heavy dew could neutralize their gunpowder. Killer diseases including malaria, cholera, yellow fever, typhus, and smallpox were endemic in America's heartland. Many of the medications for these illnesses made things worse, not better. Some of the tribes the expedition encountered were intent on killing or robbing them, or both. Yet they pulled it off with the death of only one man, from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis early in the journey.
Lewis and Clark were co-captains on a military mission whose primary goal was to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. The young men they recruited were molded by the two captains through impeccable leadership and example into a tough unit of high morale. Even when they were at the breaking point from starvation and exhaustion on the headwaters of the Missouri and in crossing the Bitterroot Mountains on the Montana-Idaho border in 1805, The men never sulked, lashed out, demanded to retreat, or insisted on some alternative route, as historian Stephen E. Ambrose writes in Undaunted Courage, his superb account of the expedition.
Lewis knew his men, and he knew how to get more out of them than they believed they had to give. Most Americans of the time, as now, undervalued the contributions of these young menand those of Sacagawea, a teen-aged Shoshone woman and guide, who gave birth on the journey.
At the conclusion of the expedition, Lewis was intent that his countrymen realize the significance of the expedition's extraordinary accomplishment. He was full of praise for his platoon-sized outfit. In a letter to President Jefferson he reported, [W]e have more than once owed our lives and the fate of the expedition to our number which consisted of 31 men. This was not excessive praise. It could have applied also to Lewis, of whom historian Ambrose writes, [H]e was a great company commander, the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers.
Who were these young men? They were all commoners. A few were half-breeds, that racially tinged category of the era. Although their education was limited, they were all smart, tough, highly skilled, adventuresome but disciplined young hell-raisers, fond of liquor and women, raw-boned, and strong as oxen. Like young people who volunteer for military service in every age, their thirst for adventure outweighed their fear of death. In short, they were frontier Americans, bred from fathers and mothers as tough as rawhide. They were handpicked by Lewis and Clark for their hardiness and wilderness sensethe best riflemen, woodsmen, and soldiers in the United States, says Ambrose. They had been at home in the woods and on horseback since they were old enough to walk. Some had special talents, such as blacksmithing, trapping, sign language, or playing the fiddle. All were hunters and most were sharpshooters. None was married.
Their firsts took many forms. Facing a bitter winter in 1805 on the stormy Pacific coast, the members of the expedition voted whether to build their shelter on the north or south side of the Columbia River. Sacagawea was allowed an equal vote, as was York, the Negro slave of Captain William Clark. This is believed to be the first time in American history that a woman and a black slave were allowed to voteand in the same election.
The only team member not permitted a vote was Seaman, Lewis's faithful big black Newfoundland dog. Note to dog lovers: Seaman was a magnificent animal and he left his mark. Books have been written about him, and monuments and statues to him abound in major cities that now exist along the Lewis and Clark route in Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and elsewhere. For specifics, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seaman_(dog).
One of the expedition members was George Shannon, who was either 16 or 18 years old (his birthdate varies in the records) when he was recruited by Captain William Clark in Louisville in October 1803. Shannon was the expedition's youngest member, but perhaps the best educated, and he was raring to go. He must have been mature for his years, for he was appointed as a stand-in for the sergeant of his squad, should the latter become indisposed.
On August 26, 1804, as the group made its way up the Missouri River near today's Yankton, South Dakota, Shannon went ashore with the expedition's two horses to hunt. He did not return that night. Two of his companions were sent ashore to find him the next day, to no avail. Shannon later revealed that he had indeed returned to the river, expecting to rejoin his companions at their night camp, but they were not there. He was certain the boats had gone ahead of him, an understandable mistake in the trackless wilderness, so he scrambled to catch up.
Shannon was actually ahead of his companions, so his vigorous efforts to overtake them put him even farther ahead. Sixteen days later the river boatmen were astonished to see Shannon materialize from the trees on the bank, with only a single horse. He was starving and emaciated. After running out of ammunition, he had managed to whittle some bullets out of wood and shot a rabbit, but after that he had only wild plums and grapes to eat. On one occasion he had come within 40ft of a buffalo, but was helpless to kill it. One of his horses had played out and died, an indication of how hard he was traveling. Increasingly weak, he kept to the riverbank, hoping some trader's boat would come along going downstream and rescue him, but that did not happen.
The other expedition members realized what was happening days before Shannon appeared; they had seen his tracks headed upriver but could not catch him. Demoralized, starved, exhausted, and at wit's end, Shannon finally did what he should have done in the first place: be patient and wait for the group to overtake himif only he had realized he was ahead of them. Instead, trying to play catch-up, he had nearly perished.
The Shannon Error
From Shannon's experience, we can deduce the Shannon Error: the pursuit of a goal with great effort, the attainment of which is through less effort, not more; or, trying to catch up when you are already ahead.
Shannon's erroneous beliefs trapped him. Doing nothing was essentially impossible for him, because he did not know he was ahead of his colleagues. What he did know was alarming: alone in hostile territory, ammunition exhausted, and little food. The correct thing to do was to camouflage himself along the river bank and simply wait. This very strategy of riverine concealment would later save the life of John Colter, one of Shannon's comrades on the expedition, when Colter famously ran for his life from the Blackfeet in 1809, in one of the greatest survival legends of the West. But because Shannon did not realize where he was, none of these options made sense. His solution was to hurry, faster and faster, toward his imaginary goal. Only when exhaustion and near starvation forced him into helplessness and inactivity was he saved.
The Shannon Error, Modern Style
The Shannon Error is a potent metaphor for the mindless frenzy that passes for much of modern life. Many of us sense we are getting farther and farther behind and cannot keep up, and we feel beleaguered, confused, and alone. We are completely unaware that in many ways we are actually ahead of the game. We believe we are not peddling fast enough toward some goal. If only we were more industrious, enterprising, productive, and intelligent. Like Shannon, we are in hostile territorythe workplace, the office, the competition, the market, swimming with the sharks, surrounded by people who oppose us: our boss, our supervisor, our fellow employees who are competing for our job.
Like Shannon, we have run out of ammunition: our customary coping techniques, mental reserves, and inner strengths no longer suffice. No reinforcements are in sight. So, like Shannon, we respond with busyness. We try to impress those in charge. We volunteer for overtime and extra projects. If we are in academia, we strive to publish more papers. Seeking additional endurance, we attend the weekend seminar on stress management. We increase our visits to the health club or yoga studio. Maybe if we changed our appearanceweight loss, a new wardrobe, and Botox. We cut back on family time, spouse time, and friend time. And we often wind up like Shannon, exhausted and at wit's end. Not knowing what else to do, we for once do nothingnot from insight or wisdom, but from sheer frustration and exhaustion.
In this state, something remarkable sometimes happens. Symbolically, we look around and see a boat coming upstream, veering toward the shore to rescue us. We realize our error: we have been outrunning the very thing that could save us. Our frenetic activity was not the solution, but the enemy. Our boat is the revelation that our success and survival are often better measured not in busyness and doing, but in not-doing, reflection, silence, stillness, listening, and noticing. Our awakening can be catalyzed by anything that brings us to our knees or threatens to destroy us. For example, I have often had patients who said, Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.
I have a daily remembrance that reminds me that, no matter what happens this day, I am starting out ahead in important ways. I grew up on a farm in central Texas with no indoor plumbing. Our water source was a deep well, which sometimes went dry in summer. It was my chore to draw water from the well for household use. I enjoyed this task. I have always been drawn to waterwater drawing me, as I drew water. This chore was unpleasant in winter, however, with a frozen, rigid well rope to tug on. To this day, when I arise every morning and turn on warm water in the bathroom or flush a toilet, my mind flashes back to childhood when indoor flowing water, let alone warm water, was a fantasy.
An accompanying image that invariably appears is that of people for whom obtaining water is a daily struggle. The image takes the form of an African woman walking miles to a water source before her family rises so they will have water, usually dirty and polluted, for the day ahead. I realize that, whatever other challenges I may face that day, I am already ahead, not behind. Starting out ahead, unlike Shannon, I do not have to hurry. I have a friend who was reared in the same circumstances. He has a sign posted in his bathroom that he sees first thing every morning, which reminds him to be grateful for the blessings he enjoys: NO WHINING.
If young George Shannon had slowed down, his problem would have been solved. People who probably have never heard of Shannon are nonetheless taking his error to heart by limiting unproductive busyness in their lives.
For years I have admired the writings of Pico Iyer, 56, the British-born, acclaimed travel writer and essayist. Iyer has written wisely about the pathological pace of modern life. Most of his early life was spent shuttling between England and California. Through it all, he managed to resist the incursions of modernity, eventually coming to a still place. As if describing an antidote to the Shannon Error, he says,
In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I've yet to use a cell phone and I've never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day's writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event. None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it's just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel bettercalmer, clearer and happierthan being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It's actually something deeper than mere happiness; it's joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as that kind of happiness that doesn't depend on what happens.
[I]ve never meditated
; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness. 
Many people, like Iyer, realize that something has gone seriously wrong with the pace of modern life. As author Tim Kreider writes in his essay The Busy Trap, If you live in America in the 21st century you've probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It's become the default response when you ask anyone how they're doing: Busy! So busy. Crazy busy. It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: That's a good problem to have, or Better than the opposite.
Much of our busyness is not mandatory, but is freely chosen. The fact that we willingly participate in it suggests that it serves a purpose. One of the most obvious advantages of busyness is its usefulness in dodging invitations or engagements we do not want to accept. Instead of simply saying, No thanks, its easier to respond with, Love to, but I'm so busy. Perhaps another time. Other advantages of busyness are less obvious.
Kreider: Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I can't help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn't a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn't matter.
Busyness crowds out idleness, which we learned in childhood is the Devil's workshop. We were taught that doing nothing is the road to perdition. We owe this linkage of idleness with eschatology to our Puritan forebears, who, Kreider says, turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.
Idle comes from an Old English word meaning empty and useless. My thesaurus indicates how negatively we have come to regard idleness. Synonyms include laziness, indolence, apathy, slothfulness, inertia, lethargy, inactivity, frivolous, and being without a job.
Today, anyone championing idleness is likely to be thought of as subversive of the social order, or even an anarchist. Hostility still exists toward the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, those layabouts who celebrated idleness and raised play to an art form. The fact that the decade of the 1960s witnessed an efflorescence of creativity, art, and music, and catalyzed a retreat from a useless war that killed nearly 60,000 Americans is an awkward fact that hippie denigrators find difficult to explain.
Some eminent thinkers regard idleness and play not as a threat, but as a salvific, redeeming factor in society. Consider this zinger: The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That's why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system. This is not the view of a bomb-throwing anarchist, but the legendary Arthur C. Clarke, the genius inventor, author, and futurist who gave us the prophetic novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and who hatched the idea of communication satellites while scuba diving and playing pinball games in his spare time.
Two opposing attitudes toward idleness have ricocheted through Western culture for two millennia. One is represented by Hesiod: Work is no disgrace: it is idleness which is a disgrace; Lord Chesterfield: Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Reading, solitude, idleness, a soft and sedentary life, intercourse with women and young people, these are perilous paths for a young man, and these lead him constantly into danger. The contrasting view is typified by Kierkegaard: Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good; Virginia Woolf: It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top; and Agathie Christie: I don't think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly from lazinessto save oneself trouble.
But there is a middle ground for idleness, as suggested by one of my favorite aphorisms, The lion is mighty in his repose. Or as hinted by William Wordsworth: Golf is a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness. (The historicity is accurate. Golf was invented on the Scottish coast in the 15th century; Wordsworth was born in 18th century.) Wordsworth's notion of strenuous idleness makes sense, as does the corollary of idle strenuousness. Idle strenuousness captures the idea of flow, in which struggle merges with joy, resulting in the effortless accomplishment of tasks that are truly fulfilling. On the other hand, strenuous idleness surfaces when one works so hard at playing that the entire effort is corrupted.
Some cultures have handled the concept of idleness more gracefully than ours. Recently, during a lecture tour in Japan, Barbara, my wife, and I were invited to tour a splendidly manicured moss garden of several acres where around 150 species of moss flourished. The garden was stunningly beautiful and tranquil, surrounded by cloud-shrouded, forested mountains. It was an enchanted world. Our Japanese guide explained the symbolic meaning of moss for the Japanese. He said, Americans say, A rolling stone gathers no moss. Japanese people say, Unless you learn to be quiet and still, you will gather no moss. They have turned our negative view of idleness (and moss) upside down.
As artist Georgia O'Keeffe expressed the point, Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't timeand to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.
Buddhism emphasizes the virtue of emptiness, a close cousin of idleness. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes, Although we have no actual written communications from the world of emptiness, we have some hints or suggestions about what is going on in that world, and that is, you might say, enlightenment. When you see plum blossoms or hear the sound of a small stone hitting bamboo, that is a letter from the world of emptiness. Of course, in order to notice these subtleties, one must pay attention, which is impossible during excessive busyness. This direct, uncontaminated perception of the thing itselfits suchness, its thusness, its Buddha natureis the essence of Zen Buddhism.
When Busyness Backfires
Yet for many, this sort of talk will never annul the harsh reality they face each day in the workplace: work harder or face the consequences. Yet there is growing awareness that this Shannon version of productivity and the management credo that supports itworking harder, faster, and longer, always from a catch-up positionis not just incomplete, but is colossally wrong.
In the business world, we are still in the shadow of the Puritanical loathing of idleness. Ray Williams, an executive coach and advisor to many senior executives and professionals, writes in his essay Why Busyness Is Not Productivity in Psychology Today:
Yet the prevailing popular and business cultures continue to perpetuate the myth that we must work harder and longer to be more productive, and that in turn will produce a better life and better economy. This philosophy flies in the face of all we know from brain science research, productivity research for most of the 20th century, and comparative data with other nations about how to measure the quality of life.
Our quality of life is being sacrificed to busyness. Americans reported in 2008 that for each consecutive year since 1987 they are busier than the year before, with 69% reporting they are busy or very busy. When asked what they have had to give up to accommodate being busier, 56% cited sleep, 52% recreation, 51% hobbies, 44% friends and 30% family. In 1987, 50% reported having at least one meal a day with family; by 2008, only 20% reported such. The rationale behind being busier in the work place is that time spent working is directly proportional to productivity, output, and profit. Williams argues that the reverse is likely true.
Social futurist Sara Robinson also believes we have it backwards. In her essay Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week, she maintains that 150 years of research proves that long hours at work will kill profits, productivity, and employees. For most of the 20th century, she explains, American business leaders believed that making people work more than 40hours was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensiveand the most telling sign of incompetent management . The concept that output does not rise or fall in direct proportion to the number of hours worked is a lesson that seemingly has to be learned each generation, Robinson says.
She cites research showing that employees who are knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a dayabout sixcompared to physical workers. Research from the U.S. military has demonstrated that losing a mere one hour of sleep per night for a week is associated with a level of cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.10%, widely accepted as a drunk-driving level. This is an ominous finding, because loss of sleep, as mentioned, is the most frequently reported side effect of overwork.
How did we unlearn the lesson that harder, longer work does not mean greater productivity? Robinson cites two major factors. One resulted from our increasing infatuation with technology as the cornerstone of our economy. From California's Silicon Valley in the 1980s there arose a stereotype of the successful workersingle-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn't just work; it was their life's passion and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food and sometimes even personal care.
Another factor strengthening the overwork message was an emerging management and leadership style advocated by management guru Tom Peters. In the early 80s, Peters promoted the Silicon Valley work ethic to the rest of the country in the name of excellence. He extolled tech giants like HP and Apple for the passion of their workers, and told old-industry employers that they could move into the new age by seeking out and rewarding that kind of passion in their employees, too. Though Peters didn't advocate this explicitly, it was implicitly understood that to passionate people, 40-h weeks were old-fashioned and boring. In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
The goal was to unleash internal entrepreneursworkers who would devote all their energies to the corporation's success, in expectation of great reward . In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America's business landscape. And with their passing, we all but forgot all the very good reasons that we used to have those limits.
Against this gung-ho dogma, other views seemed not just old-fashioned but commercially subversive, cowardly, and practically treasonous. No Peters' disciple would ever have agreed with the middle-ground view of Samuel Butler: To do great work one must be very idle as well as very industrious.
I do not need to analogize to healthcare professionals. Most readers of Explore are involved in healthcare, which is one of the most stressful occupations in American society. Burnout among physicians and nurses is so commonplace it has become a cliché, an event so frequent that it is simply assumed. This is ironic. There is an entire branch of medical research that deals with the health problems caused by stress, yet it is in healthcare that workplace stress is epidemic.
Correcting The Error
What is to be done? Robinson: The original short-work movement in 19th-century Britain demanded eight for work, eight for sleep and eight for what we will. It's still a formula that works. But in many healthcare institutions, workers who demand something akin to an 888 formula risk being punished or fired. Robinson realistically admits that employers will have a hard time making this shift toward sensible worker treatment. Two generations of managers have now come of age believing that a good manager is one who can keep those butts in those chairs for as many hours as possible, she says. Of course, hiring new people is out of the question . We will not turn this situation around until we do what our 19th-century ancestors did: confront our bosses, present them with the data, and make them understand that what they are doing amounts to employee abuse, and that abuse is based on assumptions that are directly costing them untold potential profits.
My point goes deeper. I'm suggesting that in many instances it is employees themselves who are deluded, thinking they are behind when they are really ahead, and believing that some imaginary goal can be reached by working harder and longer.
In an existential sense, we are all aheadsentient creatures in a life-supporting cosmos, alive and kicking, enjoying ordinary luxuries that would have dazzled kings and queens of the past. Thinking we are behind when we are really ahead pushes our consumption buttons in an attempt to plug the empty holes. Does that new flat-screen TV really add to our life? The third car in the garage?
I profess no expertise in avoiding the Shannon Error. During most of my professional life as an internal medicine physician, I worked around 100h a week in a practice that involved the care of very sick critical-care and coronary-care patients. I never mastered the Shannon alternative of doing less and I paid a price for it. That is one reason I resonate with the predicament of healthcare workers who treasure sanity in their professional life, but find it difficult to achieve.
The situation has changed. Currently, healthcare professionals do not need to be passive or helpless in confronting job stress and burnout. Many programs have been developed that increase coping and resiliency, promote sensations of calm and control, improve problem-solving ability, and improve morale and job satisfaction. [26, 27, 28, 29, 30].26, 27, 28, 29, 30]
But this is a complex issue. Those of us who are called to a healing profession are inwardly disposed toward a trajectory of self-sacrifice in service to others. Sacrifice and dedication to helping others are missing factors in nearly all the analyses of experts who weigh in on this issue, including those quoted above. I have often asked emergency room (ER) nurses why they continue their enormously stressful work, year after year, nearly always overworked and underpaid. One ER nurse said, It's like I was tapped on the shoulder by the universe to do this work. Most say something like this: Sure, it's crazy, but ER work just gets in your blood.
Blood! Exactly! In mythological terms, our calling resembles the hero's or heroine's journey, in which he or she deliberately sets out on a dangerous adventure for a greater good, with the up-front realization that one may not survive. Blood indeed may be spilled, lethally. For 50,000 years of human history, the shaman's archetypal calling has been similar. These considerations elude time-management analyses. I have never heard of an eight-hour hero or a one-shift shaman.
In dissecting work patterns, therefore, we should not rule out the importance of self-sacrifice lodged in compassion and service to others, as when physicians, nurses, and other healthcare personnel consciously opt for such. On such personal sacrifices are great civilizations built. The key issue is whether self-sacrifice is entered consciously, by choice, through awareness of what one is doing. It is a matter of whether we choose sacrifice, or whether we are being sacrificed.
You might be interested in knowing what happened to young George Shannon following the Lewis and Clark expedition. He had a full life, punctuated with blood. In 1807, the year following the completion of the great expedition, he again went upriver on the Missouri in an effort to return Sheheke, a Mandan chief, to his tribe, following the chief's visit to President Jefferson in Washington. Shannon's party was attacked. He was seriously wounded and a leg was amputated. But by 1818, he was practicing law in Lexington, Kentucky. He was elected three times to the Kentucky House and later ran for U.S. Senator from Missouri. Shannon had a compassionate streak, often defending underdog clients in courts of law. He was a friend of Stephen F. Austin, who helped settle Texas, and General Sam Houston, who led the Texans to independence in 1836 in their war with Mexico. When Shannon died in 1836, Sam Houston, as president of Texas, instructed all government officials to wear black armbands in respect to his high standing, undeviating moral rectitude, and a mark of the nation's gratitude for his untiring zeal, and invaluable service.
Fine words. But I wish General Houston had mentioned Shannon's contribution as a teenager on that historic trek to America's Pacific coast with Lewis and Clark. I bet that was the achievement that Shannon treasured most intensely all his life. He knew he had done something hard, the stuff of legend. And I bet he never forgot the lesson learned when he got lost on the wide Missouri.
There is an old saying: If you want to hide the treasure, put it in plain sight. The Shannon Error seems so elemental that we should not need to be reminded of it. Not so. We humans are richly endowed with forgetfulness. On our vigilant awareness of the Shannon Error, our life may depend.
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