5 Reasons You Should Waste Time to Be More Productive

Friday, February 23, 2018
Fatou Darboe

Image credit: Flavorwire

January is over and February is almost through. All holiday decorations are down and festivities have officially passed. You’re probably asking yourself, “What do I do now?”

We indeed live in a society and culture that is very forward-driven. Everything we do is directed towards our desire to better our future, including working hard towards our ideal careers.

That is not a bad thing at all. That drive is what makes us who we are. 

However, while it is important to be productive, it is neither good nor healthy for us to feel forced to be productive at all times. 

Max Weber, German sociologist and economist, frequently talked about confusing activity with morality. In analyzing the effects of the Industrial Revolution, Weber says that we began equating being productive with being good. 

And we have become even better at doing that today. We think that being busier means that we are better.

We teach kids from a very young age that if they are extremely productive in school that they will get into the best colleges. And that if they are extremely productive in college, they will embark on successful and meaningful careers and lives. 

We teach them this because we believe it – it is now ingrained in us. And that cycle continues. 

However, there are many problems with this way of thinking. It is an error to equate unproductive behavior with time wastage and laziness. 

Let’s take a closer look at our obsession with being productive and the benefits of wasting time.

Our Obsession with Being Productive

Our culture greatly promotes the idea, more accurately, the belief, that working long hours will improve productivity. Recent studies report that longer days, less vacation time and later retirement are the main features of the American working world today. 

Americans are in fact working longer than their working peers in the rest of the world. Workers in other countries (mainly in Europe) have their working hours cut by law, in order to create a better work-life balance.

In Europe, the Working Time Directive sets a maximum 48-hour working week while the U.S. has none. 

According to the International Labour Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” 

The US is also the only industrialized country in the world with no national regulation on annual leave.

Wherever you are in the world, your job is an important and valuable part of your live. It might even be the center of your world. Especially if you are passionate about your work and it gives you excitement each morning. 

That is great. That is balance and happiness. 

However, that can all be lost when you veer towards finding value in getting things done and being as productive as you possibly can be. 

Image credit: The Atlantic

You probably have a lot of people in your life telling you how busy they are. It may even be the response you get when you ask a majority of people how they’re doing. 

And it has almost become a brag, concealed as a complaint. Yet, if you notice, they also complain about being exhausted and stressed out. 

The truth is, people in the 21st century just have no clue how to relax.

When we take time off, we keep busy with taking lessons, going to social events, exercising, texting or constantly being on our phones. 

How ironic. 

In this highly digital age, surrounded by limitless entertainment and distractions, it has become much easier for us to be constantly busy versus doing nothing. 

And that is when our obsession with productivity starts to hurt us, burning us out physically and psychologically. 

Our over-stimulated world can turn us into hurried and anxious workaholics all in the name of increased productivity and life fulfilment.

The line between work-related tasks and home time can consequently become very blurred. The moment we stop working, we feel guilty. So when we get home, we keep working: we check our emails, make to-lists for the following day, reply to messages that instantly pop up on our phones, etc. 

Technology has indeed made it easier for us to be reachable and more connected to our work. But just because you can do work anywhere, it doesn’t mean that you should.

The need to be reachable and “connected” prevents us from living in the moment, which is very important. 

In a relaxing moment, getting that email or notification on our phones can distract or draw us away from the moment and take us back into our stressful jobs. 

Constantly doing that puts a lot of meaningful and important things in our lives at risk. We make excuses for not sleeping in, finishing that book, focusing on loved ones, for not exercising, etc. – all of which are greatly important for our physical and psychological health.

Even at work, we find it difficult to step away from the desk. Do you eat lunch at your desk, in front of your computer? Do you do it because it makes you feel more productive? Most of us would say “yes.” 

Yes, it may seem as though we are being more productive by having lunch at our desks but we are actually taking much longer than we should to perform the simplest of tasks. We are simply wasting our rest time.

It turns out that one of the best ways to revitalize ourselves and become more productive is the opposite of that: we don’t have to find time in the day to work more. We need to instead find time in the day to stop working.

That means stepping away from our desks at lunch time.

There is indeed strong evidence that taking a break to simply breathe, recharge and do nothing can both increase happiness and improve productivity.

Let’s take a look at the science behind it.

Being Productive Isn’t Really Being Productive

Several studies have shown that giving our brains a rest makes us more productive. The relaxation time allows us to recharge and helps to prevent burnout. 

Stepping out of the office for a stroll, or to read a newspaper at a coffee shop, gives one’s mind a much needed break to reorganize itself.

The Economist published an analysis of the average working hours of citizens in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). They report that more productive workers actually spend less time in the office. 

A 2014 Stanford University study, conducted by John Pencavel, also found that working long hours doesn’t increase productivity. 

He looked at hours worked versus output, and found that “below 49 weekly hours, variations in output are proportional to variations in hours. But when people worked more than about 50 hours, output rose at a decreasing rate. In other words, output per hour started to fall.”

Image credit: The Economist

Furthermore, data from the OECD, reports that Germany has the highest productivity to GDP ratio, followed by France then the U.S. Both Germany and France have a shorter average work week than the U.S. 

Germany actually has a policy of kurzarbeit which enables employees to cut their work hours by 50 percent and get paid 80 percent of their salary. 

Now, if we look at studies and reports on happiness, we find that Danes, who work the fewest hours in the world, are always ranked highest for happiness. A Dane once told the Washington Post, “here, if you can’t get your work done in the standard 37 hours a week, you’re seen as inefficient.”

Numerous studies have indeed shown that working 40-hour plus weeks does not increase productivity. It can in fact, kill profits, productivity and employees.

J. Keith Murninghan, a professor at Kellogg School of Management and author of Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great leader, argues that, “doing nothing creates all sorts of benefits: a more satisfied work force, a better end-product, lower turnover and more relaxed managers.” 

Furthermore, according to Murnighan, “if your team is successful and see you [the leader] that you are doing nothing, they will not think you as lazy. Instead they will want to know your secret.”

The research is endless. Let’s look at one more study to help us fully understand what productivity really means and what it is all about.

Kerri Smith conducted research on the importance of wasting time, or doing nothing, and found that in our resting state, our brains are not resting. Our brains are completing unconscious errands of assimilating and meting out conscious experiences.

Image credit: Giphy

The brain expends a lot of energy while focusing on a given task – as much as 20 percent of the body’s energy. In our resting state, the brain helps us to process experiences, merge or associate memories, strengthen learning, normalize our emotions, and keep us effective and productive in our work and everyday decisions.

In summary, doing things that you deem to be a waste of your time, i.e. lounging around and resting your mind, usually aren’t a waste of your time. One way or another, you are being productive even though it doesn’t appear so.

And in case you’re not convinced that being overly obsessed with productivity can hurt you, here are 5 reasons why you should waste time.

Before we get started, it is important to make clear what relaxation and wasting time is. Relaxation is not about binge watching TV shows on Netflix. Watching TV is certainly a good way to unwind but it is not the same thing as total relaxation.

It is purely entertainment, and entertainment can at times be quite unrelaxing. Think about when you watched Breaking Bad. Were you completely relaxed or on the edge of your seat? Most of us were on the edges of our seats. It is not relaxing and it is not a waste of time. 

Wasting time means not doing anything in particular. It means doing activities that allow your mind to go completely blank and empty. 

Ok then, let’s get to it!

5 Reasons Why You Should Waste Time

1. Wasting Time Makes You More Creative

Wasting time has been connected with creativity. Research shows that the more our minds wander, the more creative and inventive we are. 

Companies like Google recognize that, as they have programs like “Search Inside Yourself” and Neural Self-Hacking,” in addition to mindfulness and meditation. Those programs allow employees to connect more deeply with their inner thoughts and feelings; and also enhances their creativity.

A study found that the amount of time successful musicians spent practicing each day (90 minutes a day) was significantly fewer than their less-successful counterparts. They not only practiced less, they also took more naps and breaks during the day, whenever they were tired or stressed.

That is not surprising, as creativity requires a relaxed state of mind — with no feelings of obligation or distraction. Our minds need to be receptive and free to focus on whatever they want to. Whereas in a productive state, we tend to keep moving at all times and cannot stop to imagine.

When we allow our minds to simply wander, we activate the brain’s default mode which allows it to stroll into our memory, ideas and emotion storage spaces. As a consequence, we obtain our most innovative insights, i.e. our imaginations go to work. And that is how creative and innovative ideas are born.

For example, do you have great ideas while you are in the shower? Probably. 

Image credit: Newsweek

Research shows that we are more likely to come up with brilliant ideas when we are doing something monotonous or boring. The reason why we think of brilliant ideas while in the shower is because it is one of the few times during the day when we are actually bored. 

It is the only time when the distractions and stimuli are gone and the brain works the way it is supposed to. 

You can recreate a shower moment by going for a walk (without your phone or any other electronic device). A simple 20-minute walk will do. It will steer your brain to a creative space that it rarely goes to by itself.

2. Wasting Time Makes You More Self-Aware

Most people do not have a high level of self-awareness. Wasting time, particularly spending time alone, doing nothing, can give you a better sense of self understanding. 

Our eyes are always on the prize when it comes to productivity. But sometimes, the prize is not what we want – the prize is usually executing tasks on that never-ending to-do list. 

Productivity gives us very little time to step back and reflect on what is important and most valuable to us. 

You can tap into your interests, passions and abilities when you allow your mind to simply go blank. That blank state quietens your mind and allows you to tap more deeply into your inner self, giving you a better understanding of “you.”

That self-knowledge supports you in gaining more self-confidence and gives you a clear sense of purpose in life. 

You can then connect the heightened level of self-awareness to your values and goals.

3. Wasting Time Allows You to Cultivate Better Relationships

Your relationships are the most important thing in the world. Yes? But do you spend enough time cultivating and nourishing them? 

When you are busy being productive, it is hard to spend quality time on your relationships with friends and family. You may be so caught up in being productive that you end up neglecting or taking loved ones for granted.

Additionally, if you often get agitated, angry, impatient or intolerant of others, you may need to waste time in order to change your perspective of them. 

Studies also show that not giving yourself enough time to reflect (by not relaxing) impairs your ability to empathize with others. That is because the more connected and in touch we are with our feelings, the more compassionate we become about what other people are experiencing.

So, when you relax and do nothing, you will find that people and things irritate you less because you are more calm and tolerant.

4. Wasting Time Improves Your Productivity

Productivity kills productivity. What do we mean by that? Simply, we are more productive when we are more relaxed. 

You can keep up with your tasks and to-do-list(s) and end up with not very much to show for your efforts. Whereas, if you focus on creating in the moment, and are happy doing whatever you are doing, you will be filled with natural energy to do more.

That energy fuels accomplishment with very little ease: you will accomplish more in less time. (Think about the aforementioned study on Danish productivity and happiness.)

5. Wasting Time is Good for Your Health

If you are constantly feeling tired and consequently stressed out, but don’t know why (especially if you’re getting your 8 hours’ worth of sleep), you may not be resting enough. 

By resting, we mean sitting still or enjoying a good cup of tea without doing anything at all. 

Try resting at least 20-30 minutes every day this week and see if you notice a difference in your fatigue levels.

Being deliberately unproductive can not only reduce your fatigue level but has other tremendous benefits for your psychological and physical health.

Wrapping Up

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Always remember that at any given moment. It should be your mantra when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed in your race to become more productive.

Certain activities (like watching TV, meditating, zoning out, walking to work, taking a long shower or bath, listening to music, reading something non-educational, cooking, etc.) are indeed productive. But when done without stress or pressure, they can be extremely calming and healing. 

So, it is possible to be productive and relaxed at the same time. It is however not advisable to turn something relaxing, and perhaps unproductive, into a goal-oriented activity. 

How about you turn off alerts on your phone as soon as you leave the office? Or perhaps leave your laptop at work? Or have lazy weekends with no guilt whatsoever? It may indeed be time for you to do that. You work hard and you deserve it. 

And remember, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” More apt to this case, “all work and no proper relaxation makes Jack a dull and tired boy.” And science agrees.