I’m a lazy person. This surprises some people, especially considering that I write productivity books for a living. Take a day off, for example. Forget adventures — my preference for that free time is to lie on the couch, watch Netflix documentaries and read. And a week off? I’m the kind of person who prefers to stay home and eat pizza rather than travel the world. Luckily for me, this laziness is precisely what makes me so productive. And that’s a fact backed up by science.
Laziness is a lost art. I don’t mean laziness in the sense of filling each moment with mindless distraction. I mean proper idleness, when we choose to do nothing. In a world of constant distraction, we rarely put our mental feet up. Instead, we spend our spare time bouncing between novel distractions — going from checking our email, to reading the news, to surfing Facebook, and so on — activities that often make us even more tired.
In any given moment, our attention is either focused or unfocused. Focus gets all the attention — it’s what lets us get work done, have meaningful conversations and move our lives forward. But as it turns out, research shows that unfocusing is just as powerful, albeit in different ways. While focusing makes us more productive, unfocusing makes us more creative.
Think back to your last creative insight — chances are it didn’t happen when you were focusing on one thing. In fact, you probably weren’t focused on much at all. You may have been taking an extra-long shower, walking, visiting a museum, reading a book or relaxing on the beach with a drink or two. Maybe you were sipping your morning coffee. Then, like a flash of lightning, a brilliant idea struck.
There’s a reason why your brain chose this moment to connect these swirling ideas. When our attention is at rest — like during bouts of idleness or laziness — our mind wanders to fascinating places. One study, which periodically sampled people’s thoughts while their minds were wandering, confirmed this. The places our mind wanders to include the future (48% of the time), the present (28%) and the past (12% of the time). For the time that remains, our mind is typically dull or blank. The exact percentages don’t matter much — instead, it’s worth highlighting that this wandering isn’t as unproductive as we may think. An idle mind allows us to do three critical things:
- Rest. When our attention is at rest, we’re at rest. When we choose to let our mind wander — I call this state of deliberate mind wandering “scatterfocus” — we don’t have to regulate our attention. This makes the mode energy-restorative, which helps us focus more deeply later. To extend these energy benefits, it helps to do something pleasurable, effortless and habitual while you rest your attention, such as investing in a creative hobby, running without music or walking to get a coffee without your phone to distract you. Doing something habitual has also been shown to lead to more creative insights.
- Plan. Research shows we think about the future 14 times more often when our attention is scattered, compared to when we’re focused. We also think about our long-term goals seven times as frequently when our attention is at rest. Acting upon these goals is another matter, naturally, but strategic laziness allows us to set intentions and recall our goals in the first place.
- Unearth ideas. Our wandering mind connects all three mental destinations: the past, the present and the future. This allows us to experience significantly more creative insights than when in a focused state. For example, you may recall an idea you read a few weeks back and connect it with how to solve a current work situation. Our most counterintuitive, insightful ideas come when we’re unfocused.
The best productivity tactics are the ones that, for every minute we invest in them, we make that time back and then some — they allow us to accomplish that much more, and work that much more efficiently. I include laziness in this category. When we’re idle, it doesn’t look like we’re doing much. But mentally, the exact opposite is true.
Chances are you should be lazy more often. Whether it’s to give your brain a rest, dig up insightful ideas or plot future plans, sometimes the best way to make stuff happen is by doing nothing at all.
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