How Doing Less Makes You More Productive: The Paradox of Good Down-Time

How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward. ~ Spanish Proverb Click To Tweet

“Less is more.”  We’ve all heard this saying before, but usually in the context of design rules, not personal productivity.  When we are told that by working less we will achieve more, it sounds completely counterintuitive, right?

Yet, this proposition is supported by empirical findings.  In 1993, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study in Berlin which found that most successful musicians not only practiced less time (only 90 minutes per day), but took more naps and breaks during practice.

A 2014 study by John Pencavel of Stanford University more definitively proved that reducing working hours improves productivity. Pencavel found that productivity output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and literally stagnates after 55 hours—output after a 70-hour work week hardly differed from a 56-hour week. Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute think tank, says:

“The simple reality is that work, both mental and physical, results in fatigue that limits the cognitive and bodily resources people have to put towards their work.”

This is not a contemporary idea…

Some philosophers and economists figured this out long ago.  In 1986, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto postulated that only about 20% of what you do each day produces 80% of your results. This is known today as the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. In 1931, in his essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the great British economist John Maynard Keynes advocated for a 15-hour workweek.  And in 1932, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a piece entitled “In Praise of Idleness,” in which he said:

A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work. ~ Bertrand Russell Click To Tweet

Rather:

The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. ~ Bertrand Russell Click To Tweet

Our modern rat-race… what’s chasing the rats? 

Despite these studies and the experts’ advice, the culture of overwork is thriving in North America. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, full-time workers in America average a 47-hour workweek. Twenty-one per cent of those surveyed reported working 50 to 59 hours per week and 18% reported working 60 or more hours.

Advances in technology is certainly fuelling this trend by enabling employees to take their office home.  A recent Pew survey found that 35 percent of adults say the Internet, email and cellphones have increased their hours worked. For office workers, the number rises to 47 percent.  

However, while technology is the enabler, it may be our values and beliefs that drive the work treadmill.  Most of us believe that work is a noble pursuit, and that ‘busyiness’ implies being important and indispensable.  It holds social cachet.  People brag about being busy, and not getting enough sleep has become a badge of honour.  And this constant work mode takes a toll – both physically and mentally. 

A whole other looong article can be written about the various health problems that stem from sustained stress, and many of us probably know at least one person who suffers or suffered from a burn-out.  And there are also ramifications of this all-work-and-no-play lifestyle down the road—the longer we work 24/7, the harder it becomes to get off the treadmill—many of us feel lost without the strict structure of work in our lives when we find ourselves let go from our job or when we retire.  


The hazards of being constantly “plugged in”… 

In addition to enabling people to take their work home, today’s electronic devices tempt us to be constantly “plugged in.” It’s very commonplace these days to see people on the street, at a bus stop, or in a park or a coffee shop, nervously hunched over their iPhones and iPads, maniacally scrolling and clicking for the latest information.

Being in an “always on” mode blocks the necessary brain processes that occur when we let our minds wander—processes necessary to our creativity and planning.  According to research published in the journal Psychological Sciences, we engage in “creative incubation” during mind-wandering.  What it means is that if we are faced with a problem that requires a solution, letting our minds wander allows the brain to continue sorting the challenge in the background. Any new information can interfere with this background mental work, and diminish our ability for creative solutions.

“Creative incubation” explained…

Sociologist Christine Carter, one of the founders of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, and author of the book “The Sweet Spot” which makes a case for “strategic slacking,” explains this process in an interview for the Washington Post:

“There’s a neuro-biological story behind it. We have two attentional networks in our brain: task positive and task negative – they function like a see saw. Only one is active at a time. When we are focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is on. What’s off is the task negative – the mind wandering, daydreaming, what most people tend to think is the “time wasting” mode.
 
“So all the great work we do in the world, we give credit to the task-positive brain. We assume it takes a lot of self discipline and willpower to just muscle through. We write books. We build bridges. We raise children. That’s what our culture told us to focus on – human output, like the factory model. But it’s actually not true. When you’re staring out the window, out into space, relaxing, driving but not listening to the radio – or checking texts, ahem! – and you let your mind wander, the task- negative brain becomes active.
 
“All those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, and it’s all happening at an unconscious level. That’s where insights come from.”

See the wonders of mind-wandering…

So, do a little time wasting.  Unplug.  It’s not only good for your health, it will help you—paradoxically—to get ahead.  

Try it.  Stop your task, but don’t check your favorite website or your email. Instead, walk to the window and think about what you see, until you get bored.  Close your eyes for a few minutes and focus on the sounds in the room. Step outside, but leave your devices inside, and just take in your surroundings, letting your mind wander and the background processing of your brain take place.  This doesn’t have to take very long.  Yet you’ll find that this brief interlude will help you re-approach the task or problem at hand with much more focus and vitality.

“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,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”