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The Importance of Being Unproductive


“I’ve been tracking my time. I worked 9 hours every day last week,” she said.

“That’s not bad, but I think I can do even better if I optimized my mornings.”

I continued to listen, but I wasn’t too sure what to say. Pretty much every conversation I have about productivity leaves me with mixed feelings.

On one end, I can appreciate people wanting to improve how they manage their time so that they can get more out of their day. We all have our goals and our ambitions, and for many of us, these are worthy pursuits.

That said, we are now at a point where the cult of efficiency and output is doing more harm than good. It’s no longer about getting more out of your day, but it’s about getting everything out of it.

This mentality is fundamentally counterproductive.

Not all work is equal. As author Cal Newport points out in Deep Work, humans are programmed for about 3 to 5 hours of high-quality work a day, and if these hours are used well, they’re enough for most of us.

Beyond that, there are actually quite significant benefits to forgoing the structure of rigid routines, “wasting” time, and being unproductive.

Let’s break them down.

You Need a Sense of Autonomy

Humans are creatures of habit. We automate routine behavior so it can be done without us thinking about it. It conserves brain power and energy.

There are many benefits to this, and when it comes to productivity in particular, the importance of building automated habits can’t be overstated. Good routines help bypass needless decisions and they inspire consistency.

The only problem is that if you’re working so much that every minute of your day is a routine, you’re overlooking the other side of the equation.

We didn’t learn to thrive in our surroundings by doing the same things over and over again. We crave a sense of autonomy, and routines strip that away from us because they possess a degree of control over us.

In 1997, Richard Ryan and Christina Frederick conducted an extensive meta-analysis of six different studies to measure the effect of subjective vitality (a positive feeling of energy and aliveness) on general well-being across a multitude of factors.

They found the correlation, but they also drew on established theories of human motivation and noted that autonomy, in particular, played a large role in energy levels of the subjects across the studies.

There is a degree of liberation that comes from being unproductive, and in healthy doses, it‘s something that contributes to our well-being.

Leave some time to do nothing. Take things as they go. It’s important.

No Serendipity, No Creativity

If you’re a knowledge worker, no matter what you do, your work relies on creativity. This is as true for painters as it is for developers and scientists.

At its core, this is just a process of connecting previously unrelated thoughts and using them to come up with something new in a different context.

Structured productivity is necessary for new ideas to arise. Relying on inspiration alone is a dead-end. That said, for new and unrelated concepts to connect with one another, there needs to be new and unrelated input.

If you’re producing 9 hours of work every day, then you’re not leaving nearly enough room for the work that goes on behind the scenes.

Truly great work relies as much on what you absorb as it does on what you put out. It requires exposure to diverse environments and mental states. Random serendipity and unfocused downtime are necessary ingredients.

A growing body of research has shown that a degree of idleness and a change in environment allow us to better process the connections between ideas.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most famous writers — Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and J.R.R Tolkien among them — spent about half as many hours taking daily leisurely walks as they did writing and producing.

Day-dreaming and letting go of structure are better for you than you think.

There’s More to Life Than Output

In 1932, the great 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell published an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. The name sums up much of the message.

He envisioned a world with less work and more downtime. He didn’t ignore the importance of a job, but he did feel that our days could be used better.

We need to produce, we desire basic structure, and we crave a sense of accomplishment. A life without work of some sort would likely be a dull one.

That said, there is so much more to live for. Our time is finite, and if we spend all of it doing one thing then there are a whole lot of other things that we are by default neglecting. The world doesn’t work without trade-offs.

You can’t spend 80 hours of your week at the office or in your studio while still making each and every one of your daughter’s soccer games.

You can’t prioritize your career at the expense of your relationships and still hope that all of your old friends will be around when you need them.

That’s the cost of optimizing every hour of your life for productivity, and it’s a cost that’s not visible until your kids are all grown up and you’re left alone.

There may not be a tangible output that comes out of the days you spend randomly rediscovering your city or taking that spontaneous road trip, but those are preciously the days that tend to stick out in memory.

How do you measure that?


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