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. Not enough people believe the compelling evidence which shows that "doing nothing" is required for optimal brain functioning.
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, Facebook and 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.
Leaders in organizations are much to blame. Work addicts are highly encouraged, supported and rewarded. Yet, study after study shows there is not a causal relationship between working hard and working smart. In fact, a workaholic environment can actually not only contributes to significant personal and mental health problems but productivity can actually decline.
We seemed to have forgotten a long history of belief and practice that doing nothing is a valuable opportunity to stimulate unconscious creative and innovating thinking. We need time to incubate our thinking. Doing nothing can be one of the best ways to deal with complex issues.
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 team is 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.
Writing in the journal Science, researcher Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia reported that almost no studies had been done on “simply letting people go off and think.” Wilson conducted 11 experiments with more than 700 people. The results? The majority of participants in the experiments found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with just their thoughts for only 6-15 minutes. In one of Wilson’s experiments, the participants were left alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves with an electric shock if they wished. The results were surprising. Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict a shock on themselves, rather than just sit there quietly and think.
Wilson assumed that the participants would find it difficult to entertain themselves with their thoughts and would like it. He contends that people may have exhibited mixed signs of boredom and issues controlling their thoughts: “I think [our] mind is built to engaged in the world…So when we don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do.”
Although daydreaming and random thinking may be spontaneous and can be enjoyable, Wilson argues, the pressure to focus thoughts when there is nothing to do may be the reason it is difficult and unpleasant for many people. Wilson found that some of the study’s participants enjoyed the thinking without doing more than others. People who were more agreeable or cooperative were more likely to enjoy themselves as did people who enjoyed having daydreams, which put them in a happy state.
Kate Murphy, in her article in the New York Times reviewing Timothy Wilson’s research speculates that when people are left alone they tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives, and until there is resolution, they ruminate and worry. Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan says, “one explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative thinking…[and] it doesn’t’ feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”
There’s an irony here. You can’t fully resolve your problems or let go of worries if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them.
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.
There is plentiful research to show that working too much leads to life-shortening stress and disengagement at work, as pointed out in Rebecca Rosen’s article in The Atlantic.She cites Alexandra Michel of the University of Pennsylvania professor a former Goldman Sachs associate who found in her research that two well-known investment bank employees were working an average of 120 hour weeks, which led workers, Michel says, to not only “neglect family and health,” but also to work long hours even when their bosses did not ask them to. Michel concluded that these hardworking individuals put in long hours not for “rewards, punishments, or obligation,” but rather “because they cannot conceive otherwise even when it does not make sense to do so.”
Part of the explanation for overwork can be found in North American beliefs about work—that work is an inherently noble pursuit and desirable personal trait. Yet, the widespread belief that happiness and life satisfaction can be found exclusively through hard work is more of a management motivation myth than it is a philosophical truism. Some, but not many companies believe that overwork is not a sign of dedication but a marker of inefficiency.
In my work as an executive and leadership coach, I stress the importance of developing the important habits of reflection time, energy renewal, “doing nothing,” and working less which can actually result in greater productivity and certainly a more fulfilled life.
Follow me on Twitter: @raybwilliams