A Counterintuitive Secret for Achieving Extreme Productivity

The awesome engine of American worker productivity has stalled. Company leaders have trimmed workforces to the bone and continually ask more from those who remain. But this strategy has run its course. The way to achieve greater productivity is by doing less.

The myth of hyper-productivity leads us to believe we are most effective with our faces glued to a computer. Since people naturally need occasional breaks, most employees spend this time pinging back and forth between work and social media while convincing themselves (and their bosses) that they’ve never lifted their noses from the grindstone.

In reality, distractions like these shred thought processes. Constantly checking and responding to email results in a loss of mental acuity similar to what we experience after skipping a night of sleep; it also causes double the drop in IQ observed after smoking pot, according to a study by TNS Research and Hewlett Packard.

Resting allows us to connect with our own compelling thoughts and intuitions—this is where the sparks of genius reside. Workers who take the time to let their minds wander are more productive and creative. They show improved problem-solving skills, enhanced innovation, and even have better interactions with co-workers.

Escaping Boredom

We are wired with the tendency to run from boredom. Whether it’s listening to the radio on the way to work or answering emails while standing in line at a coffee shop, we’re so used to being busy that we’re not comfortable being still. This affects us at work, too. We deceptively think we’re taking a mental break even while checking online sites or updating our social networks.

Although we think of kids as the ones who complain about boredom, it’s adults who actually abhor it: In moments of restlessness, kids turn dirt into castles and sticks into swords. Likewise, if we increase our boredom competence, we can tap into our own creativity for inspiration and innovation.

When we stop the onslaught of information and allow our minds to wander, we begin to listen to ourselves. This is a productive resting of the mind—a time to meditate and make sense of the steady barrage of information we are confronted with every day. It’s not focused problem solving as much as allowing thoughts to naturally rise to the surface.

Encouraging a Creative Culture

Leaders who want to increase productivity must encourage their employees to create blank space in their days and in their minds. Here are a few steps to get you started in leading the way for your team:

  • Have “the talk”: Urge your employees to embrace mind-wandering as a way to boost their productivity. Explain that relentless face-to-computer time can be counterproductive.
  • Shut down social: Whether it’s LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter, make it clear that visiting these sites doesn’t count as taking a break. Breaks should be used to empty your brain, not to fill it up with flame wars about angry cats.
  • Model mind-wandering: Show your employees it’s OK to look like you’re not doing anything. Take a walk or read a book with everyone watching. Encourage guilt-free gazing out the window.
  • Be courageous: Embracing mental blank space is uncomfortable for us. It’s against our professional culture to take seemingly useless timeouts, yet the pressure to appear constantly productive isn’t working. It’s time to change, and our leaders must be the ones to start the shift.
  • Set times for mind-wandering: As part of building a culture that sees resting as a productive activity, give your employees specific times when they need to take a breather.

In my experience, these are the most productive times to pause during your day:

  • Right away: Our instinct is to rush in and respond immediately to voice messages and emails at the beginning of the day. Instead, give yourself time to sit and think. Allow your mind to wander and reflect on imminent work with the perspective that being fresh on the job gives you.
  • The mid-afternoon slump: Instead of pounding another cup of coffee, why not take a nap? Give your brain a rest in the slow time after lunch. Studies have shown that a 10- to 15-minute power nap is more effective at improving cognitive ability than caffeine and can provide clearer thinking and enormous gains in productivity. If you’re someone who has despised naps since preschool, try taking a walk to get that fresh dose of productivity right in the middle of your day.
  • After hours: In our hyper-productive culture, taking work home is considered a good way to get things done. However, responding to emails and calls after work is an energy drain that affects your performance and productivity. Resilience resides in recovery, and recovery is time spent with work turned off.

Learning Productivity from the Germans

While the instinct is to blindly rush into a task and get it done, we’re better served by pondering first, considering our options, and allowing our minds to wander into creative, more effective ways of working. As leaders, we must learn to be encouraged by seeing our employees gazing out the window.

I learned this lesson firsthand while working at Deutsche Telekom’s German headquarters. My boss asked me one day why he was more productive than American managers. Germans are notoriously efficient workers who love their month-long vacations. He smiled as I fumbled for an answer.

“When I come to work every day, the first thing I do is sit at my desk and look out the window,” he said. “I start my day by thinking, not blindly jumping in and doing. I gather my thoughts and consider the perspective that my hours away from work have provided me.”

As an executive coach, I’ve helped top leaders achieve better results by doing less for a decade. In the years since receiving that powerful advice, I’ve discovered my deepest periods of productivity flow from my most “useless” activity: allowing my mind to wander.