Management & Leadership

The psychological importance of wasting time

Dec 14, 2017
Wasting Time

Time off for family, friends, outdoor activities and even old-fashioned daydreaming has clear benefits for productivity and mental and physical health.

Key takeaways

  • Time off for family, friends, outdoor activities and even old-fashioned daydreaming has clear psychological benefits.
  • We perform best when we alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.
  • Research shows that downtime can even improve our physical health.
  • Scheduling your time, shutting off your smartphone, organising your tasks, and creating rituals and routines are some of the ways in which to better use downtime.

In the age of smartphones, laptops and global companies that are “always on”, the idea of leaving work at the office seems almost archaic. But psychologists have found that time off for family, friends, outdoor activities and even old-fashioned daydreaming actually has clear benefits for productivity, mental health and physical wellness.

What started as an experiment with a six-person team at The Boston Consulting Group – one of the world’s elite management consulting firms – triggered a global initiative that eventually spanned more than 900 teams in 30 countries across five continents. These teams confronted their nonstop workweeks and changed the way they worked, becoming more efficient and effective in the process.

“Employees were more satisfied with their work-life balance and with their work in general. And the firm was better able to recruit and retain employees,” says Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, who documents the process in Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work.

Similarly, Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, maintains: “Human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.”

Drawing on extensive work with a range of top-tier organisations, among them Ford, Sony, Ernst & Young, Shell, IBM and the Los Angeles Police Department, Schwartz makes a persuasive case for not neglecting the core needs that energise great performance, among them the need for rest and rejuvenation. “Rather than running like computers at high speeds for long periods, we’re at our best when we pulse rhythmically between expending and regularly renewing energy,” he says.

It turns out that downtime can also dramatically improve our physical health. Research conducted by Professor Brooks Gump of the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York and Professor Karen Matthews of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, found that going on holiday may be more than just a frivolous pleasure. The authors analysed data from a nine-year study of more than 12 000 men at high risk for heart disease. Those with regular annual holidays had a lower risk of death during the study period relative to those skipping their holidays, according to Gump and Matthews.

So how can you better use your downtime? Here are a five tips that might help:

1. Clearly schedule your time

Just as you would schedule a work meeting and stick to it, schedule evenings off, one or two days a week free of work, and weeklong chunks of holiday every year. Unplug, and stick to it.

2. Allow for ad hoc downtime when you need it

There’s a reason why Google’s headquarters has a games room and on-site massage. 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 a coffee with a friend to clear your mind.

3. Shut off your smartphone

Constant interconnectedness is a stressor. Leave your laptop at the office when you’re able to. 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 holiday. 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.

4. Free up your RAM

In Getting Things Done, coach and management consultant 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 organised list and physical folders containing all of the tasks that take up mental space. Feeling organised enables worry-free downtime.

5. Create rituals and routines

Scientists have long recommended developing routines for sounder sleep. Create rituals and routines that signal to your mind that it’s time to start work, leave work, meditate, or engage with family.

Find out more about the inner workings of the human mind by studying a course in psychology, which will not only teach you more about this fascinating subject, but will also provide you with a set of skills that can serve you well in a number of careers. For more information, enquire now.

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