In today’s society, we’re made to feel that there’s something wrong with us when we’re doing nothing. We imagine the efficient, effective person we want to be, always on top of what’s going on in our workplace and in the world. We multitask, balancing project deadlines with the ever-increasing need to keep up. So when we need a break, it comes with a dose of guilt. Inactivity can’t be good, right? That’s what we’ve heard, at least, from others and from ourselves. That doing nothing is so… unproductive.
And so a whole field of time management has emerged: How to get more hours out of the day. How to be more organized. How to maximize every second.
But wasting time might not be as bad as it sounds. Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about time management, at least when it comes to tasks that require creativity and idea generation. In fact, it can get in the way of creativity, and there is some scientific data that supports this.
In AutoPilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, Andrew Smart, a human factors research scientist, argues that the brain needs down-time. Citing recent neuroscience research, he explains that while it’s important for the brain to tackle complicated tasks, it’s just as important to let the brain rest. The brain is very active even when it is “idle.” Indeed, Smart argues that daydreaming can lead to a more productive life because the “down-time” gives one’s brain the time it needs to do some important things.
In 2001, Marcus Raicle of the Washington University in St. Louis was studying MRI scans of subjects doing cognitive tasks, and discovered that there was a specific network that deactivated while doing tasks but became busy during rest. He called this the “default mode network.” It’s an interacting network of brain regions that are highly correlated to each other, and that comes alive when we seem to be doing nothing.
It turns out that associations, thoughts, perceptions, and memories depend on this resting state to make new connections. That’s when the default mode network is most active. And this network, Smart notes, comes alive when “you are lying in the grass on a sunny afternoon, when you close your eyes, or when you stare out the window at work.” It activates when your mind is wandering and daydreaming.
When the brain is busy responding to emails, phone calls, meetings, errands, and other demands of the moment, it doesn’t have the time it needs to make new connections between seemingly unrelated things, which means it can’t be creative. To be more creative, our brains need more time in the resting state. Doing nothing lets the default mode network do its job.
So we need to give our brains unstructured time to make those unexpected connections. That was the idea behind a course offered at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, called “Wasting Time on the Internet”. According to the course description, students were required to stare at their screens for three hours, and “distraction and aimless drifting was mandatory” during this time. The course author, conceptual artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith, noted that artists routinely waste time as part of the creative process. The time-wasting was intended to provide the spark for creative writing. And, after teaching the course, he found that “something magical happened when my students wasted time together. They became more creative with each other.”
But it can be difficult to find this opportunity in our workplaces. And some work cultures prize activity, with little down-time. For example, an investigation by The New York Times into the work culture at Amazon found that many employees have been pushed to their limits. They reported work weeks beyond 80 hours, and employees that feel they are “about to combust.” According to psychologist Dr. Robert Solley, beyond 40-50 hours per week the additional returns are minimal and negative effects ensue, such as sleep deprivation and family stress.
One way to put the brakes on is to allow time for the brain to rest during the work day. Taking a walk, ignoring emails and your phone for a few minutes, or daydreaming and letting your mind wander can regenerate productivity. When inspiration, creativity, and ideation are needed, we can help ourselves, and others, by encouraging downtime to allow us to be our most effective.