It’s probably the opposite of what you expect

Matthew Kent
Dec 1, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Black Jiracheep on Unsplash

We all get the same 24 hours each day.

Some of it is taken up by sleep, some of it by previous commitments, but there is still plenty of time to get important work done.

Obviously if you can, you want to set aside big chunks of time for working on the things that move you closer to your most important goals. But often there are little slivers of time throughout the day that are too small to engage in deep work. What should you do with them?

I have at least three good answers but I think that one is the overwhelming winner. First, the honorable mentions:


It’s no secret that developed nations are becoming less healthy and more sedentary.

It’s also important to remember that you are a body and not just a brain, and that the capability of your brain isn’t entirely disconnected from the state of your body.

If you have 10 minutes to spare, there are worse things you could do than some calisthenics.


I read 59 books last year and so far this year I’ve read 50 (as of 11/28/18). It’s pretty safe to say that I wouldn’t be writing on Medium without my reading habit.

Writing requires input and output. You need to feed your mind and then use it to produce valuable thoughts. The higher quality your inputs, the higher quality your outputs.

Reading books is a great way to increase the quality of your inputs. A spare 10 minutes every day can lead to an additional 15 books every year, even at fairly average reading speeds.

Imagine how much you could grow by reading an additional 15 books a year.

The Real Winner

While I’m completely sold that you should be adding exercise and reading to your list of daily habits, I actually have a different suggestion for what you should do with 10 spare minutes alone:


That’s right, I think the most productive thing you can do if you find yourself with ten minutes to spare is to do nothing.

Now, obviously I need to do some explaining, and I’ll start by clarifying what I mean.

I don’t mean that you need to lie perfectly still and not move a muscle, I just mean that you give your brain a chance to relax for a bit. That you give your mind time to wander.

Every athlete knows that rest is one of the most critical components of elite performance, but no one seems to bother to apply this lesson learned from the body to the mind.

Your brain essentially has two modes that it can operate in. Psychologists often call these modes system one and system two, taking their cues from Nobel prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman.

System one is effortless and swift. It’s what you might call intuition. System two is slow and effortful and where real thinking happens. If you were walking next to me and I suddenly asked you what 228 divided by 38 was, you would probably stop in your tracks. This is an outward expression of the inward switch from system one to system two.

Neuroscientists call these two modes diffuse mode and focus mode. Diffuse mode is something like a pinball machine: there’s a lot of mental space for your thoughts to bounce around and make connections. Focus mode is like a bowling lane with bumpers. Your thoughts are locked in on one goal and there’s not a lot of wiggle room.

Neither of these is better than the other and they both have their uses, but the important point is that you are most effective when you are able to alternate between these two.

Deep work happens in focus mode, but it is quite taxing. Sooner or later you need to let your mind relax again. Not only does this rest allow you to be more effective with your next focused session, it also allows you to be more creative as it gives your mind time to make connections that you miss while in focus mode.

This is why many people find the famous pomodoro technique effective, it provides a system for alternating focus and diffuse mode.

Real vs. Fake

Here’s a key point though: your mental rest needs to be real rest.

There are lots of examples of you “checking out” or “unwinding” that are counter-productive.

For instance, what do most people do with ten free minutes? They check their phones. In some cases this is even somewhat justified, they have businesses that in part revolve around their ability to connect socially.

Here’s the problem though, when you are looking at your phone (or any screen), your mind is not free to wander. Instead, as MIT professor and Harvard alum Sherry Turkle points out in her excellent book Reclaiming Conversation, your attention is captured and divided.

It’s almost like a third mode for your brain to exist in has been created: reactive mode. In reactive mode you have the illusion of control, but your attention is more often than not under the control of an algorithm. It sort of looks like focus, but there’s no deep thinking. It sort of looks like mental relaxation, but your mind is not free to wander and proactively determine what it will think about. You are stuck reacting to someone else’s agenda.

There are many ways to let your brain relax and your mind wander, but one of the most classic is going for a walk.

There are good reasons behind this. If you are a knowledge worker, chances are that you were quite stationary during your bouts of focus. A walk is a good opportunity to add some much needed movement to your routine. There’s nothing about the mechanics of executing a walk that requires any concentration, and the while some of the visual stimuli you encounter might be interesting, there is nothing that demands your attention the way a screen does.

Of course, a walk is just one method. You can lie on your bed and throw a football at the ceiling if that is your thing. You can pace back and forth as I often do if you wish.

Whatever you do, you will be more effective and more creative if you regularly give your mind time to wander.

Final Thoughts

If the title of this post was at all appealing to you, chances are you are too busy for your own good. You need some time for your mind to unwind.

Fortunately, there might already be time in your busy schedule that can be repurposed and used intentionally and the best part is, you don’t even have to do anything. Stop scrolling and spend some time idly daydreaming.

Sometimes doing nothing really is more productive than doing something.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +394,714 people.

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Matthew Kent

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Done settling for average. Now I have my sights set on awesome 😎 Get “The Ultimate Daily Checklist,” my free ebook on productivity:

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