Why Doing Nothing Helps Us Do More

Many undergrad students who I monitor online at the university often get out of the blocks slowly. They fall behind early and get frustrated.  When I reach out to them to find out what’s up, I can almost always predict the answer to my first question: “Are you keeping a calendar?”

The answer is almost always no.

I tell them that it’s impossible to keep a calendar in their head – they need to schedule class time digitally or on a paper calendar. It sets aside time to get the work done.

The very next thing we talk about is breaks.

We tend to believe that if we dive whole hog into projects, and devote large chunks of time to accomplishing a task, we will be more productive, because we are “getting it out of the way”.

There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests taking a lot of quick breaks at work/school actually keeps us on task and helps our creativity.

American Philosopher Henry David Thoreau was a master of break-taking.  He said, If I shall sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I’m sure that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for.

There’s a big difference between frequent breaks and procrastination. If you are able to walk away a few times a day for a quick walk, a meal without work in front of you or even a 10 minute nap, you will come back to your task with some more focus.

Sometimes we find ourselves rocking a project or paper. Keep going. If the words are popping off the screen or the assembly of that widget is invigorating you, there’s nothing wrong with sustained periods of good work. It’s when you feel you are forcing yourself to keep going is when your brain is being overclocked.

Part of my job is creating syllabi for various classes at the university. This involves a lot of surfing for source material, checking for accuracy and discovering the best kind of student outcomes. This takes weeks, sometimes months of research and writing. I do the majority of this work at my home office, which is a big benefit. I have distractions that get me out of the office and away from the iMac. The cycle is usually writing for an hour, then walking away for a bit, then resuming. I am at my worst creatively at 1-2pm, low on mental fuel post-lunch.  A little nap around that time is usually a great way to rest the noggin and be refueled for the afternoon rally.

We have so many distractions already during the day; texts, check-ins on our various networks and emails take us away from work enough.  But that’s not a break – it’s your brain multitasking, which most of think we do well but is proven to be a false assertion.

It’s the act of putting our brains in neutral for a few minutes that makes us ultimately more efficient and more productive.

Be a good boss. Let your people take a bunch of breaks. It’s good for their mental health, and good for the bottom line!

John Scott is the National Online Learning Coordinator and a media history instructor at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University, San Francisco. He also counsels clients and groups on the art of reinvention. His debut book Broken Glass and Barbed Wire will be released soon. Follow John on Twitter @johnscottsf.




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