I recently asked an executive I coached how many emails she received each day. “Five hundred,” she replied. “But I don’t read any of them. If I did, I wouldn’t really be doing my job. Given the work I do, my challenge isn’t obtaining information but figuring out how to push information away so that I don’t suffer from information overload. I need time to think.”
Helen (as I’ll call her here) did have an assistant who slugged his way through all her emails, and she spent a few hours each week discussing the more problematic ones with him. But what I liked about Helen’s comment was her realization that she needed a considerable amount of time-out to reflect, to be really creative.
As she said, “I am not paid for doing this kind of work. If I’m so busy doing what people expect me to do, there will be no time left for what I ought to do. You can’t do creative work at a cyber pace. Creative work has its traditional rhythms. To be creative, you need to possess a more serene state of mind. Over the years I have learned the hard way that technology sometimes encourages people to confuse busyness with effectiveness. I need quiet time to be able to function.”
It’s an important point. If Charlie Chaplin were to make Modern Times (his caricatured portrayal of frantic survival in the modern, industrialized world) today, you wouldn’t see mechanical wheels crushing the little tramp. Instead, it would show instead him drowning in a flood of email. The outcome would be the same, however: a nervous breakdown.
The biggest problem we have in contemporary society is not that we do too little but that we try to do too much. All the pressures in the workplace and in the social domain are about collaborating, speaking up, stepping forward, leaning in —doing practically anything to be noticed and to get ahead. When all is said and done, doing nothing does not get much press. In fact, in our cyber age doing nothing has become almost impossible with all the distractions our iPhones and iPads provide. People fill their downtime surfing electronic devices in the subway, in the line at Starbucks, and even in meetings.
More and more, the balance between activity and inactivity has become seriously out of sync. But slacking off — making a conscious effort not to be busy — may be the best thing we can do for our brain’s health. It is the incubator for future bursts of creativity. Being able to balance activity and solitude, noise and quietness, is a great way to tap into our inner creative resources. It is invaluable in nurturing whatever creative sparks we possess.
To some extent, we do understand in theory that downtime is good. But we also get conditioned to be busy early in life. How many times did your parents or teachers ever suggest you do nothing? As an adult, have you ever found anybody at work telling you to do nothing — to just take your time and reflect? Frankly, people who encourage nothingness are very rare; it isn’t really acceptable in today’s society. Instead, what you’re usually told to do is to work harder, to be diligent, to be on the ball. For most of us, doing nothing is associated with being irresponsible, with being on the wrong track, or even worse, with wasting our lives. As a result silence and stillness terrify us and we protect ourselves from these terrors with noise and frantic activity.
I have learned from experience that the most effective executives realize that doing nothing is good for their mental health. They can take a step back and consciously unplug themselves from the compulsion to always keep busy, the habit of shielding themselves from certain feelings, and the tensions of trying to manipulate their experience before even fully acknowledging what that experience is. Turning down the volume on life can be extremely beneficial and brings them to regions of the mind that they are otherwise busily avoiding.
And while they’re in these regions of the mind, they’re more likely to generate novel ideas. By inducing unconscious thought through reflection they modify the very nature of their search for innovative solutions to complex issues. They understand that doing nothing is the best path to productivity.
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