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How Doing Nothing Makes You More Productive

Our brains need empty space to dream, concoct, and innovate. Einstein himself believed his best ideas came to him during his violin breaks, what he called “combinatory play” — allowing his mind to have a wilderness of associations, imagery, and elements reaching across boundaries of various theories and fields of thought, not as deliberate problem-solving but as unforced mental meanderings. Boredom, a near-extinct human experience these days, is a powerful igniter to creativity and invention.

When I was in college I had a nickname—Federal Express. I cringe a little now just to write that, but it’s true. Between my to-do lists, my Filofax scheduler, my between-class strategies, and my running shoes I had my life hacked, or so I thought. Efficiency seemed to win me friends, opportunities, and good grades all in one fell swoop. Just outside of college graduation, I bagged positions no one my age had any business landing. But my supervisors were entranced with how much I could get done in a millisecond, let alone an entire day. Headhunters sought me out, and eventually, I found myself at 24 in a high-rise office with a view of downtown working as Director of Marketing for a top radio station in a major metropolitan market. The message to me was clear: it didn’t matter how innovative or creative I was, the key to success was in getting stuff done. Then I got sick––very sick. I was later diagnosed with chronic fatigue.

I learned first-hand that we are not biologically designed to run non-stop without pause. I also learned that there was only so much that efficiency could earn me. A glass ceiling appeared where more was required of my body, heart, and soul if I was truly going to succeed (and survive). I needed to design life-conditions where I could thrive, and create through vision and ingenuity instead of productivity. Between those years and now has been a constant challenge to find that way off the hamster wheel. As technology has risen to match my efforts towards more spaciousness in my life, it remains something I am constantly working on and revising.

Many of us (I wholeheartedly include myself in this grouping) are genuinely exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated at the end of every day. In the mornings, after our third cup of coffee, we can barely drag ourselves to the living-room carpet for a downward dog or a few jumping jacks. “How can it be,” agonized one friend, “that COVID has robbed me of most of my work, and yet I’m busier and more tired than ever?!”

Recently I’ve learned some things that I thought to share with you in case you’ve been trying to think of ways to depart from the overwhelm and chronic anxiety of twenty-first-century living. According to the award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing – How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, the sense of being a hamster on said wheel is partly due to jamming too much into 24 hours, partly due to the inefficiency of multitasking (we’ll talk about that later), but also partly due to the messages our brain is sending to us––giving us a sense of hectic. Let me explain…

Many people in the industrialized world have what Headlee calls “busyness delusion” ––the mistaken belief that we are busier than we are. Now before you get all defensive, just hear me out for a second. Since the mid-1960s much research has been done around time-use and work schedules. The conclusions may surprise you. Men today work about twelve hours less per week than they did in the 1970s. Women work more because more women have full-time jobs than they did fifty years ago, but their unpaid labor dropped by double digits. The total time women spent working has not risen since the 1990s.

So how does this phenomenon of feeling we are ‘working more than ever’ happen? In part, it has to do with a concept called “time perception”, i.e., what we believe we are doing with our time. Thanks to the blurring of lines between home and office, we can do all things all of the time. The Australia Institute published a paper on what it calls “polluted time” ––periods or moments in which work pressures or commitments prevent someone from enjoying or otherwise making the most of their non-work time. According to the paper, time can be polluted by needing to carry out work-related tasks outside of normal working hours, being on call to come into work if necessary, or simply thinking about work to the extent that affects the way free time is used or experienced.

I believe it is useful to view our time as polluted both ways––we pepper our focused work time with personal stuff and work stuff gets peppered into our personal time. We can email, shop, scroll through social media, write a proposal, watch cat videos, write a meeting agenda, fight with people on Facebook, and answer texts, all at any given moment.

Here’s where it gets interesting. From your brain’s point of view, going on to Facebook and writing a proposal are both ‘work’. If, for example, you did thirty minutes of focused proposal writing, then ‘took a break’ and did ten minutes of texting to friends and family and then indulged in ten minutes of online shopping and finally ten minutes of social media, your brain would register one full hour of hard work! So because of this blurring of work/life boundaries, we feel like (or more accurately, our brains perceive that) we are working all the time.

“Regardless of whether you’re really working excessive hours or not, believing that you are short on time has real, damaging effects,” writes Headlee. So it’s useful to do your own very honest time-use inventory for a couple of weeks (do it in 15-minute increments over the span of waking to sleeping) to see truthfully just how you are spending your time. I found the exercise very enlightening and therefore empowering. I learned for example that around my forty-minute mark of focused work, I started to feel fatigued and lose concentration, but instead of taking a real break, I would do some online shopping instead, or I spied on my kids through Facebook. Did I really want to spend fifty-five minutes every single night scrolling through Instagram? That’s nearly seven hours a week of folly. Maybe I could use that time to hike with the dogs instead. Becoming more aware of how I spend my time has already reaped a cascade of benefits.

What is ‘nonwork’ time to the brain? Thumbing through magazines, taking a walk, gazing outside the window, having a face to face or voice to voice conversation with a friend, petting your cat, drawing, building a fire and watching it, coloring, closing your eyes for a micro nap, listening to music…you get the idea.

Polluted time is euphemized as multi-tasking and heralded as some kind of superpower, especially for women. But let’s face it, polluted is polluted. Not only does it overwhelm our brains, but it makes us less productive as well. Our tendency to flit from task to task costs us boatloads of productivity. While it may feel efficient and therefore productive to switch tasks, it’s an illusion. Once you break your focus for any reason, it takes about twenty-three minutes to get back to full concentration. Do the math: let’s say you are at work at your computer for five hours out of the day. If you switch activities (responding to an email, a text, an alert) every twenty minutes, that’s a total of fifteen interruptions which is eating up about ten seconds each––adding up to two and a half hours of texting / Tweeting / emailing. Those fifteen interruptions also consume twenty-three minutes of focus each. That’s over five hours of trying to get focused! No wonder we feel we aren’t getting things done!

The way out? Set aside uninterrupted, unpolluted time for your activities. Turn off your apps, rings, pings, and alerts. Time-block various activities on your calendar: email, meetings, concentration-needing projects, and also time-block for leisure…and for doing absolutely nothing at all. And don’t contaminate the time.

Now that we have the polluting issue out of the way, let’s talk about the ‘doing nothing’ part. Our brains need empty space to dream, concoct, and innovate. Einstein himself believed his best ideas came to him during his violin breaks, what he called “combinatory play” — allowing his mind to have a wilderness of associations, imagery, and elements reaching across boundaries of various theories and fields of thought, not as deliberate problem-solving but as unforced mental meanderings. Boredom, a near-extinct human experience these days, is a powerful igniter to creativity and invention. I used to watch my two children writhe with agony when boredom set in, only to see them create a film, write a play, or build a fort an hour later.

My question is what are we missing by filling every microsecond with doing? What if life has bigger ideas for us than we do? What messages, clues, signals, and cues might it be trying to give us but it cannot get a word in edgewise because of the hustle and busyness we put in its way? When do we allow for time to just drop in and listen? What would happen if we did?

To that aim, I offer the following ten tips to opening your life to more ease, spaciousness, wonder, gob-smacking creativity, and yes––productivity:

Stop multi-tasking – turn off your alarms, alerts, and apps, put your phone to sleep (and in the other room), and do one thing at a time.

Do a time-use inventory – do it for two weeks. Journal about what you discover, and create great strategies from the information you gather.

Time block – earmark actual time areas on your calendar each day for email / free time / focused work/family time, etc.

Schedule leisure – yep, if it’s not time blocked, chances are you won’t do it.

Make a leisure list – of fun stuff to do so you are not seduced into hanging out on your phone.

Trust – that taking time off, really off…to flip through magazines or watch a fire, actually makes you more creative, rested, and productive.

Take regular tech sabbaticals – I do mine every weekend, with an auto-responder inviting people to call me if it is urgent.

Train people – subvert the tyranny of access. Teach your friends, colleagues, and family that you are not accessible 24/7 and stick to your boundaries.

Have Whitespace Days – mine are Mondays and Fridays. These are days free of appointments, email, meetings, and phone calls, and are designated for writing and other concentration- and creativity-intensive projects.

Take up something old – remember how you used to love frisbee? Or needlepoint? Or playing golf? Remember game night with the kids?

As the poet, Judy Brown writes;

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs, a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing, too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

Spaciousness and productivity are not polarities but complimentary. So join me in the Do Nothing Revolution and fuel the fire of your creativity, joy, and freedom.

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