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Doing Nothing Is The Secret To Productivity: Here’s Why And How

7 min

Let me ask a dangerous question: when was the last time you did nothing? I know what you’re thinking, “I barely have time to breathe, let alone stop and do nothing.”

Believe me, I feel your pain. Ambition, expectations, and technology have all conspired to create a uniquely 21st century plague: busyness. The more to-dos we cram into our lives, the more accomplished we feel… and the happier we think we will be. But is that true?

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness,” writes Tim Kreider, an essayist and cartoonist. And yet, despite our racing levels of activity, today’s global population reports higher levels of personal dissatisfaction than previous generations.

What’s more: busyness kills productivity

Of course, that goes against everything we’ve been taught. The “hustle” mentality holds monopoly over the entrepreneurial mindset. Against this tide, doing nothing sounds sacrilegious.

The truth is doing nothing (1) at night, (2) at home, and (3) even at work is the secret to productivity. Here’s why… and how.

Do nothing at night

Deep sleep is the foundation of a long, healthy life. It even beats food. And on the productivity front, it’s non-negotiable.

Sleep deprivation leads to a substantial dip in concentration, cognition and confidence. To put some data behind this claim, consider the stats from Arianna Huffington’s massively researched The Sleep Revolution:

“We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but, ironically, our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280.”

“This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the US economy of more than $63 billion, in the form of absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused).”

You might happily nod along with Bon Jovi as he croons, “I’ll sleep when I am dead.” But if you take his advice to heart, that fate will actually come much sooner than you think.

Long-term effects of sleep deprivation include hypertension, depression, anxiety, heart attack, obesity, cancer, and (you guessed it) death. Despite the dire consequence, we don’t think twice before sacrificing it in favor of other tasks. We’d rather down caffeine and candies to boost our alertness than restore our bodies naturally through sleep. That’s why the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes insufficient sleep as a “public health problem.”

A 2013 Gallup poll concluded that in the U.S., 40% of us sleep less than the required number of hours. The average is 6.8 hours, which is lower than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation of 7 to 9 hours.

A 20-minute deficit might not seem like a big deal. But every minute you lose is tacked onto your sleep debt, which is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and amount of sleep you get. The greater your sleep debt, the higher your chances of suffering from physical, emotional, cerebral, and psychological ailments.

The good news is that you can negate the effects of sleep debt by choosing to prioritize sleep. Do nothing at night.

Following a few simple pre-sleep routines are vital:

  1. Go to bed at the same time every evening.
  2. Eat meals at least two hours prior to bedtime. Avoid heavy and oily foods right before bed.
  3. Shut down your devices at least 30 minutes before and put them out of ear’s reach.
  4. Don’t consume caffeine after 4 PM.
  5. Refrain from daily alcohol use.
  6. Choose a calming bedtime activity: e.g., reading a book, listening to soft music, taking a bath, meditating, or journaling.
  7. Wear your favorite night clothes. This routine might sound shallow, but the habit signals day’s end to your body and brain.
  8. Adjust the room temperature to enhance comfort. Research suggests 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

And remember the words of Arianna:


Do nothing at home

“Balance” — especially “work-life balance” — is one of those buzzwords constantly in our minds… and notoriously out of reach. But that’s okay. As Dr. Ivan Misner, founder of the world’s largest business networking organization BNI, puts it:

“Forget about balance. It’s an illusion. Balance assumes that we spend equal amounts of time in each area of our life, which realistically, is impossible. I believe in harmony, in finding ways to creating synergy between the things you love to do and the things you’re paid to do.”

Harmony also means being present: when you’re at work, be fully at work. And when you’re at home, be fully at home. Our trouble is that we suck at disconnecting when we’re at home. Shiyang He’s — a designer at Ogilvy’s Beijing office — 2013 series of ads for the Shenyang Center For Psychological Research captured this vividly:

Image Credit: boredpanda

A busy mind — not to mention, busy thumbs — is not conducive to compassion, closeness, nor connectivity. It is inattentive, fearful, and egocentric. So instead of rushing to fill every moment, hit the brakes: sit, see, and savor.

How? By forcing yourself to (surprise, surprise) do nothing.

Develop the habit of disengaging from your widgets, from your work, and from the outside world at least for a few hours at home. This means carving out pre-set times to unplug and be present.

Look into the eyes of your loved ones and smile. Listen without assumptions, expectations, judgment, or discrimination. Sink into the warm comfort of genuine relationships. Hug. Spend some “alone time” amidst nature. Take your pet for a long walk. Come back to yourself.

“Not only are you more important than your list of things to do, so are other people in your life,” argues Dr. Lee Jampolsky in his book Smile for No Good Reason.

As morbid as this might sound, there is a reason why ‘working too hard’ and ‘not spending time with friends’ top the list of deathbed regrets. Our whole life, we pine for superficial achievements, all the while repelling what matters the most: peace of mind, love, relationships, health, and a childlike joy.

It’s never too late to stop doing and start being. Respect your soul and restore your mind by cherishing and connecting with yourself and your loved ones.

Do nothing at work

Clearly, this is most controversial suggestion on this list. Doing nothing at work is often confused with slacking, especially if you work at a company that is stubbornly holding on to Industrial Age ideals.

Research — and personal experience — has proven that regular breaks in between tasks raise concentration, replenish energy, reinforce cognition, revitalize imagination, and prevent workplace fatigue. “The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing,” writes Tony Schwartz for the New York Times.

Workplace fatigue has multiple symptoms: anxiety, boredom, disorientation, frustration, impaired reaction time, subpar decision making skills, poor judgment, increased moodiness, and reduced memory, to mention only a few.

Doing nothing at work is so powerful that I included it as the crown jewel of my own The 10 Counterintuitive Rules of Productivity over at the Huffington Post. As Emma Seppala — Science Director at the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education — said: “The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control: effortlessness, relaxation, and well-being.”


Here’s an easy technique to take a breather without losing your efficiency: work in sprints. From the often-cited Pomodoro timer to the increasingly popular 52/17 technique, working in sprints followed by short breaks allows you to be productive AND tend to your personal welfare.

The key is to remove all distractions during the “sprint sessions” and focus only on your work. Then, during break times, do something completely unrelated to your work. This could mean:

  1. Read a fiction novel
  2. Participate in a guided meditation using an app like Insight Timer
  3. Take a short walk
  4. Step out for lunch
  5. Play with your pets
  6. Make a fresh pot of coffee
  7. Cook an easy meal
  8. Listen to music
  9. Look out your window
  10. Soak in the tub … but only if you work from home

Doing nothing is the secret to doing great work

Our brains — regardless of its jaw-dropping powers — cannot work at optimal levels without the right ingredients.

It’s high time to realize and respect that relaxation — doing nothing — is not just a reward for doing great work… it’s what we need most to do great work.

A rested and refreshed mind is an aroused and resourceful mind.

Over to you

Got a favorite “do nothing” tip?  Share it in the comments… if you’re not too busy.

Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Business Insider, Content Marketing Institute, Copyblogger & more. Grab his Ultimate Content Creation Checklist at Follow him on Twitter @iconiContent.