Why Quiet Solitude and Doing Nothing Enhances Productivity and Well Being

Ray Williams
Feb 14 · 9 min read

One of the biggest complaints I hear from my executive coaching clients, and also people in general, is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. The typical response from them about their life is often described as “crazy,” “too busy,” or “up to my neck in alligators,” often said with a mixed tone of desperation and pride.

Even in their time off, people are insanely busy exercising, texting, taking lessons, or attending social events. And when there are a few minutes in between all these activities, what do many people do? Check their smartphones for voice mail, email and troll their various social media sites.

Manfred Ket De Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership development and Organizational Change, writing in INSEAD Knowledge argues, “In today’s networked society we are at risk of becoming victims of interaction overload. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts as the temptation to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out that’ is often too great to risk.” De Vries argues that working harder is not working smarter and in fact, setting aside regular periods of “doing nothing” may be “the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.”

De Vries contends that “doing nothing” has become unacceptable. People associate it with irresponsibility, and wasting valuable time. It doesn’t provide the stimulation that busyness and distraction-inducing behaviors like constantly checking emails, Facebookand texting do. The biggest danger, he says, is not so much that we lose connection with each other, but with ourselves.

In our cyber age, where we have almost limitless selection of entertainment and distraction, it’s become easier to be in a constant state of busyness than it is to do nothing. The myriad of our activities and world of multi-tasking deludes us that we are actually being more productive. The problem is we have lost the knowledge of balancing action with reflection. And the result can be psychological burnout.

J. Keith Murnighan, a professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management and author Do Nothing: How To Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, contends that the most successful leaders delegate virtually all the regular work to their staff, freeing their own time so they can facilitate and orchestrate everyone else’s performance. Murnighan argues “leaders do too much…[and] are seen as micromanagers.”

Murnighan argues that many people are promoted into leadership positions because they have been very proficient at technical and organizational issues and processes. But, he says, “Successful leaders need to do less of what they used to do, even if they were good at it.” Doing nothing creates all sorts of benefits: a more satisfied work force, a better end-product, lower turnover and more relaxed managers, Murnighan argues. He summarizes with this: “If your teamis successful and see you [the leader] that you are doing nothing, they will not think you as lazy. Instead they will want to know your secret.”

In the scientific journal, Nature, author Kerri Smith reviews the brain research regarding the importance of downtime and doing nothing. In a resting “do nothing” state, the brain is not doing nothing. It is completing the unconscious tasks of integrating and process conscious experiences.

Neuroscientists will tell you that the brain uses a massive amount of energy while active just on one task — as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake. Resting state neural networks help us process our experiences, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, and keep us productive and effective in our work and judgments.

Tony Schwartz, writing in the New York Times makes the point that time is finite, but energy is renewable, which is at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies where downtime is viewed as time wasted. According to one study, more than 30% of employees eat their lunch at their desks and more than 50% assume they will work on their vacations. Schwartz makes the point that human beings’ physiology is not designed to expend energy continuously. We are built to pulse between spending and recovering energy.

Stephanie Brown, author of Speed: Facing Our Addiction To Fast and Faster — And Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down, argues we are addicted to busyness and accept it as a norm: “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way but it’s the opposite.” She argues, and most psychotherapists would contend that suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts which can prompt people to be even busier to avoid them.

Other studies suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs one’s ability to empathize with others. The more in touch we are with our feelings and inner experiences, the more accurate and compassionate we become about what others are experiencing.

Finally, researchers have found that resting minds are creative minds. Numerous studies have shown that people tend to develop more novel, inventive and innovative ideas if they allow their minds to wander rather than a narrow focus on one task. Some companies such as Google recognized this fact and provide professional growth courses such as “Search Inside Yourself,” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” and also mindfulness meditation where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than avoiding or repressing them.

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study in Berlin and found that the amount of time successful musicians spent practicing each day was surprisingly low — a mere 90 minutes per day. In fact, the most successful musicians not only practiced less, but also took more naps throughout the day and indulged in breaks during practice when they grew tired or stressed.

Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute, and Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at the Huffington Post, write in Harvard Business Review about how solitude helps drive creativity. “Great thinkers and leaders throughout history — from Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak — have lauded the importance of having a metaphorical room of one’s own,” Kaufman and Gregoire write. “But today’s culture overemphasizes the importance of constant social interaction, due in part to social media. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality.”

7 Reasons Why Quiet Solitude Will Enhance Productivity and Well Being

1. Creativity is enhanced. There is a time and place for working collaboratively. Being alone, on the other hand, must be valued equally, particularly if enhanced creativity is desired. Kaufman and Gregoire say that “it is often in solitary reflection that ideas are crystallized and insights formed.” Those insights are critical, famed Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov argues: “Creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.” He goes on to say: “When we’re not focusing on anything in particular — instead letting the mind wander or dip into our deep storehouse of memories, ideas, and emotions — the brain’s default mode network is activated.” Kaufman and Gregoire contend: “Many of our most original insights arise from the activity of this network, or as we like to call it, the ‘imagination network.’”

2. Self-awareness improves.

Do you have a high level of self-awareness?Most people do not. Spending more time alone can certainly give you a much better self understanding . You can discover more of your abilities, your passions, your interests and even your dislikes. This self knowledge helps you develop self confidence and a clearer picture of your purpose in life. In addition, you are abler to connect that self awareness to your values.

3. Relationships improve

Do you sometimes get irritated or angy with people? Are you frequently impatient and intolerant of others? Understanding that you cannot change others is an important realization. But you can change your perspective towards others. After some calm, peaceful time on your own doing nothing, you will find things and people who irritate you reduce dramatically because you are now relaxed and more tolerant.For example, a 1997 study found that alone time was important for teens. “Adolescents … who spent an intermediate amount of their time alone were better adjusted than those who spent little or a great deal of time alone,” explained the study, authored by emotional development expert Reed W. Larson.By spending time with yourself and gaining a better understanding of who you are and what you desire in life, you’re more likely to make better choices about who you want to be around. You also may come to appreciate your relationships more after you’ve spent some time alone.

4. Emotional intelligence improves

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that 90% of top performers are high in EQ. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and you can’t increase your EQ without it. Since self-awareness requires understanding your emotions and how you react to various people and situations, this necessitates careful self-reflection, and self-reflection happens best when you’re alone.

5. Productivity improves.

Productivity is directly correlated to our ability to focus our attention. Both meditation and alone reflection time contributes to enhancing our focused attention, which in turn can result in greater productivity in working with others. Group work, so valued and promoted and practiced has limitations in terms of creative productivity. For example, Researchers from Texas A&M found that group brainstorming hinders productivity due to “cognitive fixation.” Cognitive fixation is the tendency for people working in groups to get stuck on other people’s ideas, reducing their ability to come up with anything new, and the bigger the group, the more fixated everyone becomes.

4. Quiet solitude brings back the balance between “doing” and “being.”

The doing mode of life is highly developed in people, particularly in Western culture. Many of us are so accustomed to a state of motion, of getting things done, and believe in the Puritanical concept that busy work is a virtue by itself. We are all told that we should be terribly busy, so we can’t laze around without that nagging feeling that we need to be getting stuff done.

Guilt for doing nothing is artificially imposed on us by a Puritanical value system that wants us to work hard. But it hasn’t always been this way. In previous times and in other cultures, solitude is valued equally. Most of the great musicians and poets were spent significant time alone. In the being mode, we connect with the present moment every day; we acknowledge things as they are, rather than trying to relive the past; we are open to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral emotions without judgment; and we are conscious through reflection of our inner physical and emotional state. It seems that the secret to success in business and in lifeis actually in finding the ability to be comfortable just being.

5. Problem Solving Improves.

Our brains need to rest and recharge in order to function as well as we want them to. So even if you’re not an introvert, alone time is still important for processing and reflecting. “Constantly being ‘on’ doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself,” Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D. wrote in Psychology Today. “Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It’s an opportunity to revitalize your mind and body at the same time.”

And there’s fascinating research into the power of letting your mind wander that suggests that daydreaming can help “consolidate memories and synthesize disparate ideas and plans, yielding a greater sense of identity and personal meaning,” says Scott Barry Kaufman. Doing nothing or having nothing to do, are valuable opportunities for stimulating unconscious thought processes. Unconscious thought excels at integrating and associating information, by subconsciously carrying out associative searches across our broad database of knowledge. In this region of the mind we are less constrained by conventional associations and more likely to generate novel ideas than when we consciously focus on problem solving. The outcome of these processes might not always enter our consciousness immediately. They may need time to incubate.

The suggestion here is that as well as being the best thing for our mental health, doing nothing — or slacking off — may turn out to be the best way to resolve complex issues. A good problem solver continues to work unconsciously on a problem after abandoning the conscious work. Creative solutions can be found by working intermittently on the problem while attending to mundane activities, such as taking a walk, driving, reading or playing with children.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

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Ray Williams

Written by

Executive Coach/Author/Professional Speaker. President, Ray Williams Associates

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +581K people. Follow to join our community.

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