The hidden secret to productivity – doing nothing

The hidden secret to productivity - doing nothing

So when was the last time you did nothing? No, I really mean it. When was the last time you did absolutely nothing? I bet you can’t remember. If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you try to pack in as much as you can into your day. For example, I flick through news and articles on my phone while walking down to the station and then while waiting for the train. I check email on my notebook on the 30min commute to work. And I pull out my phone a hundred times during the day – in meetings, in the lift, in queue for coffee – to use those precious minutes to catch up on news, on learning, on work. Which of these are you guilty of?

Human beings are not computers. We’re not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time – The Energy Project


In many work environments today, taking time off – is seen as a sign weakness, being lazy, or slacking off. The “great” employee is the one who responds to mails within 5 minutes, any time of the day or the night. Even friends and family connected to us on Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media tools expect a prompt response – 4 hours later, is just too late. The tweet storm is over.

Not everyone has a 4 hour work week like Tim Ferris. Most of us end up with anywhere from 40 to 60 hours of work each week. Salespeople and Silicon Valley professionals end up with close to 80 hours. Even if it’s interesting, rewarding and fulfilling, it is incredibly taxing on the brain. This study shows 35 hours of work each week is actually the sweet spot where productivity peaks. Anything beyond that, and we’re actually less productive, though we may feel otherwise.

70% of workers are actively disengaged – The Energy Project.

While the pressure to stay connect and be “on” always is immense, of late I’ve been coming across research that says it may actually be counterproductive. Perhaps it’s a signal from my tired brain. Thought I’d share some of the incredible research that shows how important things like day dreaming, boredom and doing nothing are for our mental health and productivity.

  1. ‘Doing nothing’ let’s your brain recharge

Your brain burns calories just like any other part of your body. Once the glucose levels fall beyond a point, it impacts your thought process. Your brain needs to recharge. Those 10 minutes of doing nothing help it recharge, replenish its glucose supply, and clear out the residual chemicals. In fact, just knowing you have a break coming up helps give your mind that extra push to wrap up the current task.

Your brain uses up more glucose than any other bodily activity. Typically you will have spent most of it after 60-90 minutes. (That’s why you feel so burned out after super long meetings.) – Inc.

  1. Taking more breaks – doing nothing – helps you get more done

There’s a simple trick to accomplish more, while working less. Most productivity gurus talk this, and yet we are so reluctant to actually do this, since it is so contrarian to the common place work ethics. Take more breaks! The kind where you do nothing – not even check mails, or your social media profile. According to research, one of the most common traits of highly productive people, is that they work in focused 60-90 minute cycles and take up to a 15 minute break in between. This cycle of intense, focussed work followed by a calm, unstructured break in between is the best way to ensure you really get more done. You could even try out the Pomodoro technique.

Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy. — NewYorkTimes


  1. Daydreaming improves your focus and creativity

If you thought daydreaming was a waste of time, think again. Research shows that daydreaming encourages the kind of long range neural connections that correlate with higher IQ levels. Perhaps it’s time we encourage kids to stare out the classroom windows every once in a while. Or start scheduling dream breaks to improve focus at work. Some researchers are even saying that daydreaming may in fact be the default state of the brain.

There is a difference in the kinds of day dreaming though. Absent minded, unconscious day dreaming, where you’re not even aware – doesn’t help. As long as you’re conscious of the fact that you’re daydreaming (the dream itself doesn’t matter much), it leads to greater creativity.

It turns out that cultivating an active idle mind, or teaching yourself how to daydream effectively, might actually make you smart. — ScienceBlogs

  1. Letting the mind wander ensures that we stay engaged

Apparently, when we’re working on mundane tasks, ones that we’ve mastered before, letting the mind wander ensures that we stay engaged and in a state of arousal. In a way day dreaming keeps you from actually dozing off! It also enables the mind to connect experiences from the past – the magical aha moment when you suddenly connect the dots. This kind of mind wander may also be the only real multitasking we’re capable of. The mind knows what it can and cannot get a away with – it allocates the ‘spare’ resources to anticipating what needs to be done next, pull up pleasant memories, or sort through the mind in other ways.

 … these [wandering] thoughts reflect an amazing capacity on our part to multitask – Scientific American

  1. Boredom helps you find meaning in life

We rarely give ourselves the chance to be bored, but boredom, like day dreaming and other aspects of doing nothing, has its own benefits. Studies show that boredom motivates people to engage in meaningful activities – especially ones that attract social approval. People have an innate need to belong and be social. Boredom increases nostalgia and triggers a search for meaning, in the process giving rise to increased pro-social behavior.

Boredom may sometimes be good for you by prompting courses of action that can add to life’s meaningfulness. — WijnandVanTilgurg


  1. Just the option to do nothing reinforces goals

While striving towards any goal, there are bound to be hurdles and roadblocks, especially if the goal is the kind that requires sustained commitment and effort. Only those who persist in the face of adversity are likely to reach their goals. Studies show that when faced with tough choices, just explicitly listing the option to do nothing makes people choose a more action oriented path. Just the choice to nothing reinforces our commitment. The no-choice option reminds us that we prefer the chosen path, and that it is worth pursuing.

 ….This strengthens individuals’ commitment to, and increases their persistence on, their chosen path. – Schrift & Parker

  1. You don’t always need to do something

Productivity is really about getting your work done, so that you can stop working and do the other things that matter to you. It’s not about being busy all the time. It’s not about being connected all the time. It’s not about being “on” all the time. Sometimes, you really don’t need to do anything about the situation, about the email, or about that project. Decision makers, especially managers, salespeople, or others who work at jobs that require constant interaction with other people, tend to fall into a trap to be seen as always on top of the situation. Many times it comes from a place of ego, to establish their importance, rather than a real need to step in and save the day.

“There is one question the effective decision-maker asks: ‘Is a decision really necessary?’ One alternative is always the alternative of doing nothing.” – Peter Drucker.

When we’re under pressure and in a crunch, we often feel the need to push forward, to keep going. Especially those of us who like to be productive all the time. But the next time you’re in a crunch, it might be good to look up some of this research, take a deep breath, and slow down instead.

Have you experimented with doing nothing? Share your experiments with us.

Sometimes, doing nothing is the most productive thing you can do.

[Image credits: Thomas Tolkien, Ryan Ritchie, Craig Paterson, Schristia ]

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  • Ishan Bhat

    Just what I needed sitting in the office today! Thank you 🙂

  • Jayden Chu

    Even machines tends to overheat, how much more a human body? “Human beings are not computers. We’re not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time”, this statement is entirely correct because we human beings are pretty much fragile compared to machines. That is why if machines need battery/electricity and ventilation to work, we human beings needs to eat and rest to work. What a refreshing article thanks 🙂