Why Setting Aside Time to Do Nothing Can Boost Productivity

How much work have you done today?

This is an easy question to answer: either you’ve gotten a lot done or you haven’t. The harder question to answer is, “How much nothing have you done today?”

Spoiler alert: scrolling through your Twitter mentions (because you have so many) doesn’t actually count as doing nothing. Doing nothing, in a world that thrives on busyness and checking off to-do lists, is actually a harder skill to learn than teaching yourself how to be more productive.

The good news is, setting aside time to do nothing is actually a productivity booster. Here’s a little insight into why that might be.

Working too hard has short- and long-term consequences


Working 10 hours a day or more, and/or six or seven days a week for months at a time, at first, might make you feel accomplished and satisfied. Look at how much you’re getting done! Look how much money you’re making! Goodbye, student loans! Hello, luxury beach vacations!

Except you never actually get to go on that luxury beach vacation, because you’re either working or secretly suffering from the physical and psychological effects of working yourself too hard.

Working without taking enough breaks can cause a lot of unnecessary stress in the short-term, which can lead to depression in the long-term. Going without breaks can start to decrease the quality of the work you do manage to get done, and it can even start to affect your relationships.

You can’t survive in an all work, no play lifestyle. If you can’t have your evenings to yourself, you need time over the weekend to decompress. You need to set aside time to do those activities that relieve stress and mentally prepare you for the next time you do have to work, even if that literally means you sit and stare at a wall for awhile. A little Netflix or some physical activity is a great start.

Our brains need rest time


The same way eating right, exercising regularly and socializing with other humans are all important parts of a healthy lifestyle, resting is essential to not only your health, but to your productivity as well.

Our brains can only focus on a task for so long before we start to get off track. When you’ve spent an hour working on something without stopping and suddenly notice it starting to get harder to stay on task, that’s why.

You need to give your brain a rest. Think of that hour of work as the equivalent of one hour of running on a treadmill. Eventually, you’re going to have to let your legs recover. Your brain can’t keep going and going nonstop, even if you find yourself in a flow state and feel like you could keep working forever (you can’t).

After that hour you spend working, stand up. Have a snack. Take a nap, if you’re at home (no napping in the break room!). Just let yourself relax. Generally, all you need is 15 to 20 minutes before you can jump back into work again for another hour or so.

Sometimes you need a reset button


Brit Stueven, entrepreneur, took 100 days off from work, and learned a lot about what happens when we take breaks. One of those lessons was about goals, and how, if you push yourself too hard for too long, your focus shifts. You start focusing on the quantity of work you are completing, and now how that work fits in with your goals.

You don’t necessarily have to, and probably logistically can’t, take 100 days away from your business or school or other responsibilities. But you can still take time – a week, a day, even an afternoon or a few hours – to ‘reset’ your mind.

Go on a quick vacation; go for a walk. Stay away from screens and don’t let yourself do any work. Sit in a quiet place and think about the task you are working on right now. How often do you do tasks like this? Are they worth it to you? Do they make you feel accomplished?

This kind of thinking will ground you. It will mentally prepare you to go back to work, no matter how long you have been away, and get things done with a fresh perspective. Nothing you are doing is completely pointless. Sometimes you just need a little time away from it to remind yourself of that.

How to do nothing: a crash course


Do: Take a break every hour or so, for 15 to 20 minutes, a little longer for meals.

Don’t: Spend your entire break surfing the internet or eating at your desk while you answer emails. Step away from your screens. Don’t even check your phone. Candy Crush will still be there for you later.

Do: Think about what you have to do next in a less cluttered environment.

Don’t: Make lists or start brainstorming new ideas on paper. Your mind needs the time to reorganize itself, which is a natural process that you might recognize from all those random, amazing ideas you get while you’re in the shower. When you stop doing and just let your brain do its thing, the results are inspiring. Just don’t act on that inspiration until your break is over.

Do: Set a timer, so you’re not constantly checking the time and interrupting your break by fussing over how much time you have left.

Don’t: End your break before that timer goes off. About 10 minutes in, you will start to think, “Wow, I feel great. I’m ready to go. Let’s do this.” Wait another 10 minutes. Your brain has just finished decompressing. You need mental preparation time, too.

Taking breaks, the kind of breaks that involve doing absolutely nothing, are essential to boosting our productivity. We need time to de-stress and get away from work. We need to let our brains take a mental nap. Sometimes, we just need to reset our minds and return to our tasks with a fresh perspective on our short- and long-term agendas.

Write ‘do nothing’ someplace in your schedule today. Take a break, a real break. You will be amazed at how much more you will be able to accomplish in the long run.