Productively Idle, or Idle Productivity

Oliver Burkeman from The Guardian has a piece about how trying to work smart can backfire:

When it comes to “working smarter”, the same kind of problem arises: what if doing things more “efficiently”, in a superficial sense, results in doing them worse? There’s evidence to suggest that we need to daydream; perhaps we also need those moments of afternoon lassitude and aimless conversations by the office microwave. Creative work, especially, depends on a kind of inefficiency. Inevitably, the scandal and schadenfreude surrounding Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine has all but drowned out its fundamental insight, but it’s a good one: creative breakthroughs depend on being stumped and feeling frustrated. Make the path to them too smooth, and you get lower-quality breakthroughs.

It relates to the studies showing about how we don’t multitask like we think we multitask.

This is something I have been struggling with. With my smartphone and audiobooks, I have cut down on downtime considerably. When I am in line, or moving stuff, or whatever, I am listening to an audiobook. It makes the time fly by. There does seem to be a price being paid here, however. My mind doesn’t get as much time “to itself” as it used to. It’s hurt me creatively, I think. It’s made me more scatterbrained than I used to be. During the times of boredom, I have come to the conclusion that the boredom was serving a purpose. Sort of like how our mind defragments in our sleep, there is something going on during the day, too.

Google is famous for allowing its employees 20% “do what you want” time. Rather than being a loss for the company, they see it as a gain because idle minds are where good ideas are developed. Bumper-to-bumper work may be good by some productivity metrics, but something is lost along the way.

Knowing all of this, though, I can’t seem to act on it. Boredom sucks. Downtime feels non-productive when there is always something to be done. While ideas are maybe lost when I am listening to John Sandford rather than thinking vaguely about things as I am taking care of some brainless task, it makes the brainless task go by so much quicker.

And yet I find myself enjoying my shower as the only time that I can’t be doing anything else. It also contributes to my smoking, since I bar myself from listening to anything while I smoke, it is an escape for “me time.” Why can’t I just do that at various other points, when I am so intent on maximizing my time by consuming stories rather than just moving the dang box?

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. I don’t people really multitask much at all. Trying to do many things at once is typically a recipe for doing them poorly. Being constantly busy is more a function of desire to be busy or to avoid thinking. Human brains are not complelty linear processing machines, we need some time to let our thoughts wander aroudn to differnt solutions or ideas.

    Our wonderful Internet/media world can lead us to overwhelm ourselves. I have a somewhat bad habit of turning the tv on muted to some game i am slightly paying attention to, playing a video stream or Pandora on one computer while reading blogs on another computer. Sometimes this works fine, i can check on the game if its interesting, but don’t need the announcer blather, can hear an interesting program while checking all my blogs. But other times its just a lot stuff i’m not devoting much attention to so i’m really only reading while ignoring all the other crap.

  2. I used to work for a place that wanted everyone to spend one day a week working on self-directed projects. Saturdays.

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