March 18, 2022

Doing nothing could be the key to productivity…
By Jayne Warwicker

Reintroducing daydreaming into your everyday life can increase productivity…really? In these days of ‘time is money’, ‘there are not enough hours in the day’ and the belief in many companies that the last person out the door must be the hardest working and most productive, does not always stand up as true. The key is definitely to work smarter, not longer.

Rarely do we just let ourselves stare into space these days. We feel uncomfortable when not doing something, consider ourselves “wasting time.”

We humans have become multi-tasking machines. We can work from anywhere. We can do more, and at a greater speed, than we ever have before.

Our new technologies mean that it can sometimes be difficult to see the boundaries between work and personal time. Whereas there used to be a very clear line where we would finish work, ‘clock off’ and we wouldn’t think of work until the next day; now because of being able (and sometimes expected) to check and answer emails and calls 24/7, it is easy for these lines can become blurred. This flexibility should enhance our work/life balance, so why do most of us always feel starved for time?

The obvious answer is that expectations about what we will accomplish on a good day have expanded. However, the number of hours in that day have stayed the same. Lunch breaks are becoming a thing of the past, those who used to go for a coffee with workmates or go for a walk to recharge their batteries are now staying at their desks, eating as they type, feeling they are too busy to take a break.

Also, there is something else at work: We have gotten really, really bad at just doing nothing.

A series of studies where the research subjects were put alone in a room, with nothing to do had surprising results:

In 11 studies, they found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think. They enjoyed doing mundane activities much more, and incredibly many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves (67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women) instead of being left alone with their thoughts! Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

So what do we need to change…

The answer is actually quite simple and completely free. We need to practice Stillness, yes just sitting and doing nothing is a skill. When we can’t tolerate stillness, we feel uncomfortable when we have downtime, and so we cancel it out by seeking external stimulation. Instead of just staring out the window on the bus, sitting in the park in silence, lying in the bath eyes shut, we read through our Facebook feed instead. We can also be seen checking our email waiting in line at the supermarket. Instead of enjoying our dinner, we mindlessly shovel food in our mouths while staring at a screen.

We human beings need stillness in order to recharge our batteries. The constant stream of external stimulation that we get from our televisions, computers and smartphones, can cause “cognitive overload.” This state of feeling overwhelmed impairs our ability to think creatively, plan, organise, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily, and control our emotions. In other words, it impairs basically everything we need to do on a given day.

In an effort to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that stillness can produce (such as the panicky feeling that we aren’t getting anything done, negative thoughts and emotions that may pop into our heads etc), we also numb ourselves to the good feelings in our lives. Giving ourselves space to actually feel what it is we are feeling, allows us to be present to what we’re experiencing in the moment, good or bad, is better for our mental well-being and happiness.

Here’s the main takeaway; If we want to be high-functioning and happy, we need to re-learn how to be still. When we feel like there isn’t enough time in the day for us to get everything done, when we wish for more time… we don’t actually need more time. We need more stillness. Stillness to recharge. Stillness so that we can feel whatever it is that we feel. Stillness so that we can actually enjoy this life that we are living.

So if you are feeling overwhelmed and time-starved…STOP. Remember that what you need more of is not time, but stillness and less stimulation.

As a society, we don’t just need to learn to tolerate stillness, we actually need to embrace and welcome it. Fortunately, it’s not complicated:

  • Try driving in silence, with your radio and phone off. (Encourage your children to look out the window while you drive them, instead of down at their devices.)
  • Eat meals out of the sight and sound of your phones and televisions.
  • Take a walk outside every day, preferably in nature, without a phone or music player. If it’s hard, just try a few minutes at a time, adding a few minutes each day.
  • Move away from your desk/laptop regularly during the day and definitely at lunch time. If possible, spend some of this time alone rather than in a busy staff room or café where there is too much stimulation.
  • Many have a TV or radio on as it blocks out the ‘monkey mind’; the endless self-talk and chatter that goes on our brain without our bidding. Turn it off. The silence will feel deafening at first but persevere, the silence will become ‘golden’ with practice.

Finally, forgive yourself the next time you find yourself staring blankly into space. Congratulate yourself instead. You aren’t wasting time. You’re catching up on your stillness and ‘recharging’.

Jayne Warwicker BSc

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