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Team Productivity

Feeling Lazy? How Downtime Can Boost Creativity and Improve Productivity

Daniel Threlfall
October 24, 2016
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As an entrepreneur, business owner, and a dad of 4, I have a lot of stuff to do. My to-do list is slammed. My inbox is bristling. My schedule is full. I don’t have time for inappropriate laziness.

But does laziness have a flip side that could actually help improve one's productivity? Could it be the necessary yin to productivity’s yang?

Experience and research has shown me 2 things:

  1. Productivity is hugely appealing and is typically always viewed as good. We read books on it, buy apps for it, and get pretty good at it.
  2. Rest and the cessation of work, however, is viewed as a necessary evil. Sure, we might go on a fun vacation once or twice a year. But trying to get 8 hours of sleep? A leisurely afternoon with the family? A few mindless moments of daydreaming on the couch? Absolutely not!

If productivity is a good thing (and I believe it is), then could its counterpart—non-productivity—be a good thing, too?

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How can laziness and productivity co-exist?

Richard Feynman was a brilliant guy. He lived from 1918 to 1988 and played an influential role in higher education, national defense, and politics. He had an intense and demanding schedule. People expected him to teach, research, write, and solve difficult problems in the field of theoretical physics.

But Feynman was burning out. Here’s how he described his experience:

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

In other words, Feynman was ready to chill for a while.

One day, Feynman was chilling in the Cornell cafeteria after a meal, having a leisurely moment. He wasn’t holding an iPhone (because this was the 1960s). Instead, he was watching a cafeteria worker throw and spin plates in the air.

And that’s when Feynman’s eureka moment happened.

Watching the spinning airborne plates, Feynman accidentally stumbled onto a physics discovery that earned him the Nobel prize.

In the Feynman story, I see a pattern:

Mental relaxation > Letting go > Chilling out for a while > Breakthrough discovery > Burst of creativity > Period of accomplishment

Chapters of our history suggest this pattern is true where restful moments are often followed by productive or creative bursts. It could very well have been that Archimedes was taking a leisurely bath when he suddenly realized the principle of displacement and proceeded to streak through Syracuse shouting, "Eureka!" And while Newton may not have actually been napping under an apple tree when he was rudely awakened by an object lesson of gravity, the principals of these stories have merit.

I’m making my case on more than just anecdote. Science says so, too.

The human brain has something known as the default mode network or DMN—a pattern of interconnected regions of the brain that “talk” to each other in meaningful ways.

The Default Mode Network
Image source

It’s called the “default” network, because this is the network that the brain falls back on by default—when it’s not involved in a specific mentally demanding task.

The DMN springs to life when we relax, daydream, think about the past or future, or think about ourselves.

Our DMN is responsible for organizing the disparate information that our brains take in during the course of the day. It is the method our mind uses to clear away the rubble and pave the way for that feeling of a “clear mind” and creative breakthroughs.

Although you may feel as if you’re chilling, your brain is actually hard at work. All that’s going on in the background—the organization, sifting, filing, eliding, rearranging—is a critical part of mental health.

Do you know the feeling of cognitive clutter? The sensation that you’re running around doing but not achieving, hustling but not thriving? Do you ever experience mental cacophony or an internal frenzy that just won’t quiet down?

It could be because your DMN hasn’t been activated recently.

So how do you turn on your DMN?

How to be lazy in a good way

Activating the DMN requires deactivating in other ways—chilling, relaxing, vegging out. But how do we do it right? How do we do lazy in a productive way?

First, let me dial back on the “lazy” verbiage because that might get in the way of understanding the message.

The word lazy is almost always used negatively. What I want you to see is the positive side of downtime, relaxation, chilling out, unplugging, unwinding, and resting.

Rest—if we choose to use that word—is a good thing. We simply cannot be productive, creative, or even functional without it.

In fact, it's the secret that enables Washington Hyperloop to power through high-intensity projects without losing steam or focus.

Here are a few ways you can engage the power of downtime to supercharge your life and allow you to thrive.

  • Get the right amount of sleep. Your brain needs sleep. Make the effort to reorient your brain’s attitude towards sleep.
  • Take a daily nap. Napping is a powerful memory-booster, life-giver, and DMN-activator.
  • Structure some unstructured time into your schedule. Use time productively to not do anything that seems productive.
  • Give your employees some unstructured “free” time. To help your team with this, see what Google used to do with its “20% Time”—providing employees paid time to work on something apart from their regular assignments. LinkedIn, Apple, and Microsoft do the same thing. Unstructured time can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.
  • Take a day off of work. If you can’t afford a day, try an afternoon. Don’t dive into your to-do list or “catch up on some things.” Just unwind. Rest. Then exercise. Walk. Think. Daydream.
  • Play games for 5 minutes. Just 5. Set a timer. My kryptonite is Words with Friends.
  • Have a cup of coffee or tea without doing anything (not even on your phone). This is harder than it sounds. Five minutes of sipping a beverage without reaching for a mobile device is something people used to do in the 1930s, I think.
  • Meditate. It's mental training, not necessarily a religious or spiritual exercise. Although some religions and forms of spirituality teach specific types of meditation, the actual exercise of meditation is more about being mindful of yourself and your surroundings than it is about connecting with a higher power.
  • Play a game with your kids. Let your kids pick a game, preferably something offline, and just enjoy it with them. Candy Land doesn’t require a ton of mental exertion.
  • Take a slow walk. A walk, whether by yourself or with friends and family, can be a great way to relax and unwind.

Productivity is great. I love the feeling of eating goals for breakfast, plowing through a to-do list, and making things happen.

But without downtime, productivity wouldn’t happen.

We need both. We need to hustle with equal permission to be lazy now and then.

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