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Feeling Lazy? How Downtime Can Boost Creativity and Improve Productivity

Daniel Threlfall
October 24, 2016

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Feeling Lazy? How Downtime Can Boost Creativity and Improve Productivity

We generally think of laziness as a bad thing. I’m beginning to wonder though if laziness is something other than the moral and categorical evil we usually associate it with.

I’m an entrepreneur, business owner, and a dad of four. 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 two things on this topic.

  1. Productivity is hugely appealing. It is viewed as a 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?

How can laziness and productivity co-exist?

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richard feynman


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, to research, to write, and to 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, however, Feynman was chilling in the Cornell cafeteria after a meal. He was having a leisurely moment. He wasn’t holding an iPhone, because this was the 1960s. Instead he was watching a cafeteria worker throwing and spinning plates in the air.

And that’s when it happened.

It was Feynman’s eureka moment. His Archimedean bath, his Edisonian light bulb, his Newtonian apple.

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 > A burst of creativity > A period of accomplishment.

Chapters of our history suggests this pattern is true where mental rest is followed by monumental discovery. 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.

It probably is not true that Newton was napping under an apple tree when he was rudely awakened by an object lesson of gravity.

But the principals of these stories has merit. Restful moments are often followed by productive or creative bursts.

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.

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The Default Mode Network


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, when we daydream, when we think about the past or future, or when we 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 that our mind uses to clear away the rubble and to 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...being lazy

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 your understanding the message.

The word lazy is a strong word, which is why I chose to keep it in the title of this article. But it’s also a pejorative word, one that is almost always used negatively.

What I want you to see is the positive side of downtime, relaxation, chilling out, resting, 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.

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

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

But without the opposite—a positive form of laziness—productivity wouldn’t happen.

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

Q: What's your Feynman moment? What discoveries did you make during your own downtime? Share your experiences in the comments. 

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