Why it Pays to be Idle

You want to get more done, be more productive, reach the goals you’ve set and make some real progress.

So you push yourself to work some extra hours. You try out a bunch of new productivity systems, which promise to have you on top of things. You work in the evenings. At the weekends. During dinner.

And you keep thinking if only I had a few extra hours… or if only I was a bit more efficient.

Because it feels like there’s still something missing. You’re working hard, you’re battling forwards, and it’s a struggle.

Does this strike a chord?

There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

The “cult of efficiency” – sounds pretty web 2.0, right?

These words were written in 1932. They’re from the essay In praise of idleness by Bertrand Russell. Since then, it seems like nothing’s improved.

Here’s why it pays to be idle, and why taking enough time to rest and relax will actually do far more to get you towards your goals than forcing yourself to work for an extra hour.

Taking a (Proper) Break Helps You Focus

First, working long hours is neither efficient nor effective. Once you’ve worked for three or four hours, your concentration is going to start dipping. Just think of any time when you’ve worked for a long time – you probably found silly errors creeping in as you got further and further through the day.

This applies to manual, physical work:

A worker who is creating 10 widgets/hour at the beginning of a shift may be producing only 6/hour at the end of the shift, having peaked at 12/hour a couple of hours in. Over time, the worker works more slowly, and makes more mistakes. This combination of slowdown and errors eventually reaches a point of zero productivity, where it takes a very long time to produce each widget, and every last one is somehow spoiled. Assembly-line managers figured out long ago that when this level of fatigue is reached, the stage is set for spectacular failure-events leading to large and costly losses – an expensive machine is damaged, inventory is destroyed, or a worker is seriously injured.

(Evan Robinson, Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work: 6 Lessons, IGDA)

The productivity drop after a few hours’ work is even more significant if you’re doing something creative or information based.

If you’re a writer, you are simply not going to produce good work if you try to write for ten hours straight. You’re going to be at the point where you can barely type, let alone put together a coherent and grammatical sentence.

If you’re a programmer, you’re going to make silly errors – and struggle to see where you’ve gone wrong.

Over-work can be incredibly counter-productive. Have you ever accidentally erased your work or save over it? Usually, that sort of mistake comes from tiredness. Have you ever sent an angry email which you later bitterly regretted?

When you’re doing intense, creative, brain-draining work, you need to stop regularly. I can’t write well for more than an hour or two without a break. And taking a break doesn’t just mean checking emails or hanging around on Twitter. A proper break is one where you switch off mentally – you go for a walk, or take a shower, or have a nap.

Ideas and Perspective

If you’re a designer, a developer, an artist, a poet, a blogger, or engaged in any creative work, you’ll know that ideas are important.

Sure, a large percentage of what you do is simply taking an idea and working it through … but without a solid idea in the first place, your end result is never going to be especially amazing.

Ideas don’t tend to arrive on tap. Of course you can do brainstorming activities and actively seek out inspiration – but it’s hard to have the creative fire that you need when you’ve been slogging away at your work for hours.

I learned… that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.

(Brenda Ueland, quoted on GoodReads.com)

Somehow, your work seems to come together when you’re not actively engaged on it. I get a lot of my best ideas in the shower, or when walking, or when I’m doing something that lets my mind roam.

When you’re in the thick of your daily work, you don’t have any perspective on it. It’s like walking through a forest – you might be able to get a great close-up on individual trees, you might collect some beautiful leaves, but you can’t necessarily tell if you’re going in the right direction. You might be doing a lot, without making any real progress.

Perspective comes when you stop work for a while. When you sit and meditate. When you chat to friends. When you get away from your desk and into your life. That’s when the best ideas come up. It’s also when you can see if you’re heading off down the wrong path.

The problem is, whilst meditating, planning, thinking and daydreaming are all hugely important, they don’t look like work. Perhaps they don’t feel like work. You resist them because they seem like wasted time, time which could be spent clearing your inbox or writing the next few pages of your book, or cold-calling five new clients.

It’s easy to get immersed in lots of activity, without really taking much action. … Real work often involves a lot of thinking and planning. The unfortunate result of this is that busy work often looks more like work than real work does. If you are rushing around looking busy, it gives the appearance that you are working far more than if you are sitting quietly thinking and planning. It looks like that to your colleagues – and worst of all it often looks like that to you.

(Mark Forster, Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management (aff), p68-69)

The chance to evaluate and sift through ideas is what makes the rest of your work possible. Are you spending hours every day doing real work, or just busy work?

It’s very tempting to take a little-picture view of productivity, trying to improve your email management or sort your to-do list. But are you even chasing the right goals? Are you missing out on some killer idea for a project which would make this year one to remember?

Maybe you need a bit more idleness in each day and each week. Not just because it makes you more productive, but because productivity is not the ultimate good in life. Most of us don’t need to do more. We just need more time to be.


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5 Responses to “ Why it Pays to be Idle ”

  1. Great post. Very interesting ideas. Thanks for writing!

  2. Tim says:

    Aaaahhh…

    That is exactly the reason why I love to stumble. If I were to really put my head together and plan the day and use efficiency techniques and be meaningful and perfect and positive all of the time I wouldn’t have me. And me is something important to myself.

    Thank you for giving me another reason to sit right down, take a nap, and play video games. Thank you.

    • Ali says:

      Thanks Tim! I agree “me” is pretty darn important. :-) And naps and down time and walks and indeed computer games can be great opportunities for letting ideas arise … or for just recharging your brain a bit!

  3. Toshi O. says:

    I’ve always felt ‘unproductive’ when not busy, but will try this out.

  4. [...] Why it pays to be idle from Constructively Productive [...]

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