The Value of Downtime

Last night, some friends and I were having a conversation, and one person said that she needs some downtime to recover. The response from someone else was, "You don't need any downtime. Look at our friends who work for X Company, who work 7 days a week and just keep going." Unfortunately, I've found this to be mostly an illusion. Sure it looks like they can do it for now, and maybe it will work for months or years, but even the best will eventually burn out (or at least need a rest at some point). First of all, a lot of people find that they aren't at optimal productivity when working that much, and that they can often accomplish more by working less (and being more focused). But, additionally, working 24x7 puts a toll on your body, and pulls you out of the natural work/rest equilibrium. If you love and are engaged by your work, you can manage to push the biggest consequences off for months or years, but eventually you will need to pay off the debt you've accumulated.

I used to have this dream that I would find the holy grail of 100% productivity. In my vision, I would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work, and progress down my task list for 10 to 12 uninterrupted hours. Then I would go home, read a book for a few hours, and then go to bed (hopefully having lucid dreams where I would figure out answers to some of the problems that arose during the previous day). By doing some controlled experimentation where I got rid of nearly all distractions in my life (more on that in another post), I figured out that this is mostly possible (ok, except for the lucid dream part). And it worked great for about a month or two - I achieved probably 1.5-2X my normal productivity level at work. At 2 or 3PM every day, I would comment that I had already knocked off a full day's tasks, and I still had 3-5 hours left at work. And when I left the office, I have plenty of time to go on a date or read 50-100 pages of a really dense book before finally getting into bed (and I slept great). In the span of a month or two, I knocked off "A People's History of the United States," "The Singularity is Near," "No Logo," and a bunch of others. Basically my entire reading list at the time.

The problem was that it all fell apart at some point. I found myself drifting towards distractions more and more regularly. First I started losing focus at work, and then at home, until I was basically back to where I started (my productivity was essentially random on a day-to-day basis). While this was somewhat depressing, I had a number of interesting realizations about the value of downtime. First of all, it is important for recharging your "focus batteries." Just like sleep recharges your body and brain, downtime recharges your attention and willpower. It's like there is something that you are using up when your brain operates in a structured way, and at some point you will use it all up. If you can regularly go down in a planned and scheduled way, you can make the "uptime" even more productive.

Additionally, unstructured time allows your brain to operate in a much more freeform and creative way. My most creative ideas always come on the tail of a long break. When my brain is too focused on the here-and-now productivity mindset, it doesn't have an opportunity to focus on what could possibly become in the future. However, when I allow it to wander in a controlled manner, it magically use its power to generate all kinds of new things. Which is why, when I hit a roadblock, the best thing to do is usually to take some time off and think about nothing in particular (or take a nap). Strangely, the solution usually emerges relatively quickly.

So we all have two different modes, one that is structured, and another unstructured. If we engage only the structured, then we can't accomplish our highest and most creative purpose, and if we engage only the unstructured. then we probably won't get much done. The challenge is figuring out creative ways to allow both to emerge. In the end, I don't want to be 100% productive. I just want to be happy and fulfilled with what I have in my life. And, while I probably won't complete the maximum possible amount of work at every moment, I can build a life that allows me to hit a fulfilling balance. At least that's the goal.