Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of recovery and restorative workouts. The stress we put on muscles during a workout tears the muscle fibers; the muscle gains strength in the recovery phase, when the fibers heal.
In addition, our lifestyle and activities leads us to overuse some muscles and underuse others. This creates imbalances that lead to injury. Restoring this balance is crucial to maintaining peak performance.
The challenge that many of us have with restorative and recovery workouts is that they often feel like “doing nothing.” We often feel like we are not accomplishing anything unless we are can measure or track the activity and the results.
What applies to the body applies to the brain.
The brain is a muscle that is also subject to overuse. And most of us fall victim to the habit of always being on.
If we aren’t checking email, we are checking our news feeds. The constant screen time can take a toll on our health, reducing our vision, interfering with our sleep, and creating physical ailments like “text neck” that pull us out of physical alignment.
But it’s not just the screen time. Even when we unplug, many of us are thinking all the time. Sometimes it’s about work: the next blog post, the new marketing project, the big problems we need to solve for our clients.
And then there’s the thoughts about other parts of life: planning your upcoming vacation, knocking off your to-do list, the running list of things you’d like to get to someday, the mental chess with your schedule as you try to make time for everything.
All. The. Things.
They use up a lot of brain energy.
Why We Resist Slacking Off
Even though we know we should clear some mind space, doing so is its own challenge. There’s that voice in the back of our mind that tells us we should be doing something “productive.”
We often feel guilt and shame if we “slack off.”
As Olivia Goldhill writes in an article for Quartz at Work:
The problem comes when we spend so long frantically chasing productivity, we refuse to take real breaks. We put off sleeping in, or going for a long walk, or reading by the window—and, even if we do manage time away from the grind, it comes with a looming awareness of the things we should be doing, and so the experience is weighed down by guilt.
When we feel guilt for taking time off we don’t reap the benefits of the downtime. This creates a cycle where we discount the value of breaks. After all, if it didn’t produce a benefit, why do it again?
Very rarely do we hear the voice that tells us your time off didn’t produce a benefit because you allowed the guilt and shame to steal that benefit.
Making the Most of Every Moment
We are conditioned to believe that time is limited and that “wasting” time is frivolous. We should optimize and maximize every minute of our precious lives.
Yes, life is precious. Every moment matters. This is precisely why we need to make time for slacking off.
“Wasting time” is not a waste of time. Goldhill quotes workplace psychologist Michael Guttridge, who reminds us that “slacking off” is necessary.
“Wasting time is about recharging your battery and de-cluttering,” he says. Taking time to be totally, gloriously, proudly unproductive will ultimately make you better at your job, says Guttridge. But it’s also fulfilling in and of itself.
Not every activity needs a defined purpose and outcome. In fact, some of the best moments in life come when we are wasting time. And when we look back we often find that some of that “slacking off” time was actually the most productive time
Wasting Time as Productivity
When we get out of the work mindset, off our screens, and let our minds wander, we create space for the subconscious mind to work.
It’s in the “slacking off” space that the subconscious makes connections and sees patterns. That’s where we spark creativity and innovation.
The best ideas almost never come when we’re focused on the problems and goals for which we need them. They come to us in the spaces we create for exploring, investigating, tinkering, or just simple doing nothing.
The Best Way to Focus: Unfocus
Last week I shared several tips for how to focus when you feel fatigued. It turns out that the best way to focus is to unfocus.
As Srini Pillay explains in an article for the Harvard Business Review, when we allow ourselves to unfocus, we activate a brain circuit called the “default mode network,” or DMN.
In this mode, the brain is actually using more energy than it does at rest:
Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.
That sounds like a lot of benefit from a brain circuit that was nicknamed “Do Mostly Nothing.”
When we are slacking off and “wasting time” it only appears that we are doing nothing. In fact, our brains are doing the heavy lifting of the creative process.
Just like with the body, the important work is subtle, not sweaty.
Push Your Edge by Doing Nothing
For many of us in the US, this weekend is a holiday weekend. The extra day off is a perfect time to push your edge a bit by experimenting with doing nothing.
Slack off. Sleep in. Go for a walk just to wander around, without a purpose or a mission or an errand to run.
If you don’t have the extra day off, you can still try this. Start small, with just 30 minutes. It might be uncomfortable. Embrace it. See what unfolds.
You may find it to be your most productive time.
Report back and let me know what you did and how you enjoyed it. Please share in the comments — you’ll help others by letting them know that it’s ok to slack off.
Bonus: Watch the Broadcast
In yesterday’s episode of My Circus Life, I tied all of this together with last week’s episode on tips to find your focus when you feel fatigued, which I also covered in a 2-part blog series: Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. You can watch the entire reply of yesterday’s show, which I broadcast on Facebook Live, here.
I’m on a mission to help high-achievers and service-oriented professionals create space to do their best work in a sustainable way. Join The Ritual Revolution interest list to learn more about my movement.