Our constant busyness prevents us from entering the associative mental state in which unexpected connections and insights are achieved.
“Leisure is the new productivity.”
That counterintuitive slogan emerged from a panel I attended last week at the annual conference of the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank where I am fortunate to be a fellow. The panel was anchored by Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter and the author of a new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.
Time and the way we spend it was Schulte’s focus, and she argued that we spend too much time working, logging more hours at the office than employees in any other developed country save Japan and South Korea. As a result, “we have a lot of unproductive, sick, unhappy, burned out, and disengaged workers,” Schulte noted. Ironically, we are less productive, creative, and innovative than we would be if we had more time off.
Our continual state of busyness, she explained, prevents us from entering the loose, associative mental state in which unexpected connections and aha! insights are achieved. Schulte was drawing here on the research of psychologists and neuroscientists, one of whom, Northwestern University professor Mark Beeman, was also on the panel.
Beeman and his collaborators have found that although we may appear idle while daydreaming or mind wandering, the brain is actually working especially hard in these moments, tapping a greater array of mental resources than are used during more methodical thinking. This unfocused “default mode,” Schulte has written, “is like a series of airport hubs in different and typically unconnected parts of the brain.” When activated, it “puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.”
If we don’t allow our minds to have this kind of downtime—because we’re always under stress and on deadline, always making calls and checking email—such connections and insights won’t materialize. “At work and at school, we expect people to pay attention, to focus,” Beeman observed. “To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things. Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”
Schulte and Beeman contend that we need to make room in our lives for two distinctly different kinds of mental activity: the directed, focused attention usually expected of us at work and at school, but also a more diffuse and leisurely state in which we’re focusing on nothing in particular. “Oscillating” between these two modes—a kind of interval training for the mind—is the best way to reap the benefits of both kinds of thought.
“As we move ever further into a knowledge economy, in which ideas are our products, we have to think about where ideas come from,” Schulte concluded. Where they come from, she argued persuasively, is not only from conventional work, but from productive leisure.
Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.