If You Want to Be Proactive, You Need Downtime
In 2012 essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote a column in the New York Times, entitled The Busy Trap, which was a rallying cry against the culture of incessant busyness.
In the months leading to writing the column, Kreider’s own aversion to busyness was put to the test due to professional commitments. Every day, he woke up to an inbox filled with emails asking him to do things he didn’t want to or presented him with problems he now had to solve. This onslaught of seemingly harmless obligations actually got in his way of doing what he wanted to: writing and sketching.
Kreider’s solution? He fled to an undisclosed location that had no TV, where he had to drive to the library to check email, and could go a week without seeing anyone he knew. He remembered about buttercups, stink bugs, and the stars, and finally got some real writing done for the first time in months.
The desire to maximize our productivity has led many of us to treat idleness, slacking off, or downtime with disdain. Idleness leads to boredom, a state when the mind is at its most apathetic. People resort to various actions to dodge this redundancy — extra work, binging on Netflix, or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, shooting their veins with heroin.
But Krieder’s experience is proof of the opposite. In fact, he isn’t the only one to benefit from idleness. Archimedes’ Eureka moment, Newton’s apple, Bill Gates’ “Aha!” moment about the internet, were results of idle time. Cutting away from the seemingly regrettable yet inevitable barrage of obligations allowed them to focus on what matters.
In his column, Kreider wrote:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to get any work done.
Here are three research-backed reasons behind why slacking off spikes your productivity.
#1. Slacking off reduces stress and helps you recharge.
Back-to-back video meetings have been symbolic of the pandemic era for many people. And research shows that jumping from one meeting leads to a spike in the activity of beta waves that cause stress.
But when the same people took just 10 minutes to rest, beta activity dropped, allowing for the brain to reboot. Just like a system reboot cools an overheated computer, a brain reboot helps participants start their next meeting in a more relaxed state.
Like attending meetings, multitasking may give us bragging rights, but it extracts a huge toll. Our stress levels increase while switching between tasks, IMs, emails, meetings, and other interruptions. At the same time, our IQ levels drop to that of an eight-year-old child. What happens when we take important decisions in such a frame of mind?
Taking just 10 minutes to chill out after every 30 minutes allows you to process your experiences and makes you feel less exhausted. It also improves your ability to focus on your work, meetings, communications, and relationships.
#2. Slacking off aids insight.
Microsoft may have been the first operating system to open the Worldwide Web to the world, but Bill Gates was not the first to identify the potential of the internet. In fact, he thought it was a passing blip on the way to a more elaborate form of digital information exchange. When Netscape was founded in 1994, Microsoft didn’t even know what a web browser was.
Thankfully for the company, Gates figured out that the internet would reshape the future. During one of his “Think Weeks” — a ritual where he retreats to an isolated cabin, disconnects from all technology, and cuts himself off from all family, friends, and staff — Gates wrote the Tidal Wave memo that veered Microsoft back to the future.
The daily grind traps our mind in a tunnel where forward becomes the only direction to move in and we fail to check whether it’s the right direction in the first place. We inadvertently drift with the herd and risk being trampled.
To stand out from the crowd, you need enlightenment and the practical advantage that comes from ‘insights’ — powerful experiences that expand your understanding of the world and yourself. In such moments, you might realize that the solution to a complex problem is actually straightforward, or an alternative approach to a predicament reveals itself, or you can “see” the direction you should head in to achieve your goal.
Such insights often reveal themselves during downtime, when your brain is in a state of productive distraction and allows unrelated dots to connect.
#3. Slacking off resets your inner GPS.
“You know that old saw about a plane flying from California to Hawaii being off course 99% of the time — but constantly correcting? The same is true of successful startups — except they may start out heading toward Alaska.” — Ev Williams
As humans, we aren’t all that different from startups. The successful ones stay in forever-beta mode, correcting their course and readjusting their goals, while the ones who refuse to adapt eventually fail.
Achieving goals demands consistency, which is difficult when an onslaught of urgent but unimportant tasks keeps pulling at us. Such deviations appear tiny at the moment, but they compound in the long term to land us in a place where we don’t want to be.
I often lose sight of important tasks in the daily grind. That’s where leafing through my journal as I wind down my day helps — it makes me reset my inner GPS. I didn’t email a guest inviting her to my podcast. I exercised my arms instead of working out my core muscles today. I didn’t check whether a faulty meter is a reason for high power bills for the last two months. When I lay out the next day’s schedule, I prioritize the important tasks that got missed.
If you remain in a reactive state, if you always ‘go with the flow,’ you’ll become a prisoner of events. Being proactive means identifying how to achieve your goals, readjusting your GPS to stay the course, and working smarter rather than harder. Slacking off lets you do all of the above.
Your well-being is important for your productivity and mental health. But the good news is that you don’t have to take drastic steps to introduce idleness in your life. Here are five simple ways to prioritize your relaxation as much as the items on your to-do list:
- Take walks in nature. Walking through busy city streets forces you to navigate complicated tasks like figuring when to cross and how to not bump into a pedestrian or vehicle. But walking in nature exposes you to ‘inherently fascinating stimuli’ (sunsets, for example), which replenish your focus mechanisms.
- Engage in relaxing activities. A casual conversation with a friend, playing a game with your kid, listening to music while cooking dinner, play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature does.
- Enjoy a power nap. When you take a nap, the synaptic connections that get used less by your brain get pruned. As a result, your brain cells shrink by up to 60 percent to create physical space for you to learn better. That’s why your thoughts are clearer and quicker after a refreshing sleep.
- Meditate. Among the myriad benefits, meditation for a few minutes daily is known to reduce negative emotions like anxiety, stress, and aggression, and sharpen positive traits like focus and self-compassion.
- Indulge in leisure reading. Research states that reading and intelligence have a relationship so close it’s symbiotic. More research states that reading without a fixed agenda substantially reduces stress.
Slacking off might seem counterproductive — even annoying — when there’s so much to do. But such moments of systematic idleness don’t just facilitate inching closer to your goal; they also free up cognitive resources for other pursuits.
After all, productivity doesn’t mean doing more things right. It means doing more of the right things without sacrificing what you value along the way.
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