Be More Productive—By Doing Less

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“Leisure is the new productivity.”

That counterintuitive slogan emerged from a panel I attended last week at the annual conference of the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank where I am fortunate to be a fellow. The panel was anchored by Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter and the author of a new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.

Time and the way we spend it was Schulte’s focus, and she argued that we spend too much time working, logging more hours at the office than employees in any other developed country save Japan and South Korea. As a result, “we have a lot of unproductive, sick, unhappy, burned out, and disengaged workers,” Schulte noted. Ironically, we are less productive, creative, and innovative than we would be if we had more time off.

Our continual state of busyness, she explained, prevents us from entering the loose, associative mental state in which unexpected connections and aha! insights are achieved. Schulte was drawing here on the research of psychologists and neuroscientists, one of whom, Northwestern University professor Mark Beeman, was also on the panel.

Beeman and his collaborators have found that although we may appear idle while daydreaming or mind wandering, the brain is actually working especially hard in these moments, tapping a greater array of mental resources than are used during more methodical thinking. This unfocused “default mode,” Schulte has written, “is like a series of airport hubs in different and typically unconnected parts of the brain.” When activated, it “puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.”

If we don’t allow our minds to have this kind of downtime—because we’re always under stress and on deadline, always making calls and checking email—such connections and insights won’t materialize. “At work and at school, we expect people to pay attention, to focus,” Beeman observed. “To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things. Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Schulte and Beeman contend that we need to make room in our lives for two distinctly different kinds of mental activity: the directed, focused attention usually expected of us at work and at school, but also a more diffuse and leisurely state in which we’re focusing on nothing in particular. “Oscillating” between these two modes—a kind of interval training for the mind—is the best way to reap the benefits of both kinds of thought.

“As we move ever further into a knowledge economy, in which ideas are our products, we have to think about where ideas come from,” Schulte concluded. Where they come from, she argued persuasively, is not only from conventional work, but from productive leisure.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Do you have enough “productive leisure”—fruitful mental downtime—in your life? Please share your thoughts on my blog.

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5 Responses to “Be More Productive—By Doing Less”

  1. This research makes a lot of sense to me. In my role, I have to come up with creative ideas for blogs, articles, workshop designs, webinars, etc. on a regular basis. What works well for me is to focus a lot as a prep step: Deeply understand what we’re trying to accomplish and why…. and then allow some time away from my office where my brain will keep working on the problem on some level.

    Some of my best ideas do come during “productive leisure” time: lying in bed early in the morning and letting my mind wander; working out “mindlessly” at the gym; showering (good relaxed mindset there); making mix CDs; reading seemingly unrelated books; taking long walks outside when I first get to the office and after lunch, etc.

    One other note: At times our company has a “Fabulous Friday” event where we do stuff like improv comedy and games, such as having our whole team submit obscure facts about themselves and then trying to guess who’s facts are whose. This was all meant to be pure fun and team building, but some of those events have yielded ideas that landed in client programs!

  2. Leesa says:

    Try scuba diving. When I am under the water nothing else takes any thought. I am focused on my breathing and amazed by what can be found. There is something absolutely awesome about floating 25 meters beneath the surface beside a school of over 100 fish—all moving to the same current and all at peace with the world and ourselves.

  3. Eric Christiansen says:

    Absolutely! Like anything else, you need to find the time for this — structure some un-structured time (sounds ridiculous, but it’s essential). I frankly like my morning & evening commute, especially on my Harley. It’s only 25 minutes or so each way, yet it’s some of the most valuable time I have just to let my mind go where it will. Of course, any ride on my bike will do that for me, and a couple of hours is ideal. Still, any time simply to think about anything or nothing is worth taking. The greatest insights come from making random connections between things that don’t seem linked in any way and yet, if you open your eyes, your ears and your mind, you perceive the relationships otherwise obscured by to-do lists.

  4. BJ says:

    I believe it is the deliberate and intentional dumbing down of America. I refuse to own a cell phone, I find them extremely rude, I value my privacy and I’ve never felt important enough to own one. When my friends ask what about emergencies, my
    response is, I can assure you, the person who comes to my rescue will have one.

    Although I own a TV, on the rare occasion it actually gets turned on, it’s only to watch a specific guest on Charlie Rose. I spend all of my time reading, watching, listening, constantly learning and thinking. I truly love my life.

    I am shocked and appalled at the decline in our society. I believe wholeheartedly the reason why people are not outraged is solely because no one, is in fact, paying an ounce of attention. Walk the streets of NYC. Is anyone not looking down at a gadget?

    I’ve always felt the excuse I’m so busy is merely an euphemism for I simply don’t have time for YOU! I find it even more amazing how sickness and death changes everyone’s priorities. How they have time to go to the hospital and or a funeral. Very sad.

    Forgive me for sounding so morose, on the contrary, I could not be happier or feel more fulfilled not wasting my time being so busy! I’d much rather have one dinner date per week and savor every word that was spoken, than not being able to recall
    WHO I had dinner with, when dining with a different person every night of the week.

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