The Upside of Downtime
January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
With Jackie Coleman
One of Jackie’s first jobs after graduate school necessitated that she be on call 24/7. That schedule tested her ability to leave work at the office and fully engage with the rest of her life. Similarly, John spent time in consulting where the sometimes hectic travel and work schedules forced him to think hard about how to guard personal time — to “punch out” from work and create downtime to recharge and rejuvenate.
Many modern workers find it hard to take downtime. The idea of leaving work so cleanly at the office seems quaint in a world of smartphones, laptops, and global companies that are always on to accommodate employees from Hoboken to Hong Kong. But drawing brighter lines between work and time off — family, friends, outside activities, and old-fashioned daydreaming — has clear benefits for productivity, creativity, and wellness. There’s an upside to downtime.
For one, creating the space for downtime increases productivity. Subject to heavy workloads and never-ending to-do lists, it’s easy to put our heads down and charge through tasks, thinking we have no time for days off, free evenings, or weeklong vacations. But driving too hard without breaks can make us less productive and less focused. One experiment conducted at BCG, for example, found that forcing employees to take days, nights, or extended periods of time off actually increased productivity. And other studies show that brief periods of downtime, like afternoon naps, can restore focus and energy. Taking the time to get out of the details and view of the larger picture can also help us better understand the purpose and priority of our tasks. As Tony Schwartz has written, “human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.”
Similarly, employing downtime — on a planned and ad hoc basis — unleashes creativity. 3M is one of the most innovative companies in history, and to feed their innovation engine, the company introduced “15% time” back in 1948 — giving employees 15% downtime to pursue their own projects, a practice that has since been replicated at companies like Google. Jonah Lehrer has written for The New Yorker about the virtue of daydreaming, and in his book Imagine notes the necessity of downtime for problem solving, saying, “While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs.”
Finally, downtime can dramatically improve mental and physical health and our personal relationships. One study, for example, found that employees who unplugged and took time off reduced serious health issues like coronary heart disease. Victor Lipman has written in Forbes that exercising midday can help to reduce workplace stress. As John has written previously, just six minutes of reading can reduce stress by 68%. John Tierney and Ron Baumeister state in Willpowerthat midday breaks can rejuvenate willpower and improve judgment and decision making in the afternoon. And as we have written before, cleanly taking time off from work to focus on your spouse, family, or friends can only improve your relationships. Downtime can be essential for mental, physical, and social health.
So how can you better use downtime? Here are a few tips that might help.
- Clearly schedule your time: Just as you would schedule a work meeting and stick to it, schedule evenings off, one to two days a week free of work, and weeklong chunks of vacation every year. Unplug, and stick to it.
- Allow for ad hoc downtime when you need it: Google’s headquarters have a game room and on-site massage. One of John’s former employers had arcade games, an on-site coffee house, and scenic hiking trails. If you’re feeling stuck on a problem, frustrated, or simply tired of sitting down, take 10 minutes to walk, read for fun, or grab coffee with a friend to clear your mind.
- Shut off your smartphone: Constant interconnectedness (like smartphone use) is a stressor. Leave your laptop at the office when you’re able. Carry two phones — one for work and one for personal use — and leave the work phone in your bag when you come home or in the safe at your hotel when you’re on vacation. If work requires you to be on call, mentally “shut off” the phone until it rings. Find ways to create clear boundaries between work and life.
- Free up your RAM: In Getting Things Done, author David Allen states that having tasks on our mind is like using up RAM on our personal computers because there is limited capacity in our short-term memory. Instead of going through the day on mental overload, distracted by those fleeting to-dos, it helps to keep an organized list and physical folders containing all of the tasks that take up mental space. Feeling organized enables worry-free downtime.
- Create rituals and routines: Scientists have long recommended developing routines for sounder sleep, and many professionals, like Stephen King, have routines that get them ready for work. Create rituals and routines that signal to your mind that it’s time to start work, leave work, meditate, or engage with family.
It can be hard to carve out space for downtime in a 24/7 world. But it’s precisely this chaos that requires the knowledge worker of the twenty-first century to be more vigilant than ever about cultivating the discipline to use downtime when the moment calls for it. Just as it’s healthy to focus at work — ignoring Facebook and personal email — it’s essential to occasionally leave work behind and make space for life.