Even if productivity is your ultimate goal, sometimes the best way to speed up is by slowing down
Productivity is highly valued by humans. Most countries, for example, use productivity as a measure of their national success. But the human obsession for productivity goes far beyond governmental objectives to keep our economies strong. Humans have a fundamental desire to make something meaningful out of their lives, to accomplish great things, to leave a legacy.
We are all goal-oriented creatures and we don’t like to sit still. With time as our most precious resource, it is no wonder we want to use every second to be growing, learning, accomplishing, connecting or experiencing positive sensations.
This aversion to doing nothing was highlighted recently by a study from the University of Virginia that found that people “would prefer electric shocks to being alone with their thoughts.” Many people feel so uncomfortable being idle that we would rather experience something negative than nothing at all.
The problem with our inability to do nothing is that we have built the entire fabric of society around our yearnings for productivity. Modern culture has evolved by filling in every available second with more opportunities for accomplishment. New technologies allow us to work anywhere, and we continue to come up with new and innovative ways to multitask. Even sitting on the toilet in today’s world is a chance to catch up on texts or emails!
The problem with all of this productivity is that humans also need time for rest and recovery. We need time to rest our eyes from staring at screens. We need time in silence for personal reflection and contemplation. And we need time to allow our physical and psychological systems to replenish and recuperate from intense use.
In earlier times, we had more forced moments of “downtime.” Imagine our ancestors, taking long walks for food or water, or spending hours grinding grain into meal. Even in recent decades, there have been moments of forced idleness on morning commutes or waiting in line in banks or supermarkets.
But no more. Mobile devices have allowed us to turn every minute of every day into an opportunity for productivity.
What we need to realize is that productivity doesn’t come from nonstop work and energy. It comes from having the right mix of intermittent periods of activity and rest. If we forget the rest part of the equation, our minds and bodies are not prepared for the energy demands we place on them.
If you find yourself on a nonstop productivity treadmill, try these strategies to bring some more downtime into your schedule:
- Don’t fill every gap You know those lulls in your day where you immediately try to fill the space with your smartphone? Just allow the lull. Maybe this is while you are on the train to work or standing in line at the bank, or (dare I say it) sitting on the toilet. Embrace these moments of reduced productivity as an opportunity to rest.
- Cherish silence When you find that rare pocket of silence somewhere, don’t reach for your headphones. Immerse yourself in it. Listen to the nothingness and see what happens.
- Schedule time for mindfulness It’s great to look for moments of downtime where you can find them. But even better is to schedule time in your day to sit and do nothing. You can meditate, breathe, practice thinking loving thoughts or wrestle with your existential anxieties. Just don’t do anything “productive” for five minutes. You may find you will be better prepared for whatever comes next.
It is hard to resist the urge to get something done. But even if productivity is your ultimate goal, sometimes the best way to speed up is by slowing down. Give yourself permission to take a break. Teach yourself to enjoy the void that comes from doing nothing.
Jeremy McCarthy is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing and hosts a blog at psychologyofwellbeing.com.