A grey cat, sleeping.

Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash

During the first couple of years of my career, I was preoccupied with “doing enough work”. I was afraid that if I didn’t produce working code fast enough, I would be found to be insufficient, lacking “what it takes” or, worse, lazy. I would come to the office on Saturdays and Sundays to put in some extra hours. It felt good. I’m checking things off the list! I’m so productive!

Over time, I started to notice some awfully unproductive work days. These were days when I struggled to get anything done. I would get easily distracted, or find myself staring blankly at the screen and wonder for how long I had been sitting that way. I tend to hyper-focus, so this state was something I had rarely experienced before; now it seemed to be a regular occurrence.

It took me a little while, but finally I saw a pattern: if I worked on a weekend, I would be likely to be unproductive on Monday and Tuesday. “Ah,” I thought, “maybe this is what people talk about when they talk about taking breaks and recharging?”.

After some trial and error I figured out that I can only do my best work if I am taking enough time to, well, not work. When I spent my weekends recharging, the next work week would yield more “things done” than if I had worked through the weekend. This felt like a major discovery at the time, even if it seems obvious in retrospect.

I’ve had to re-learn this lesson over and over again. I’m still often tempted to stay at work later, or to “do a little thing” on the weekend.

Over the years I’ve developed some habits to help me “do nothing” more consistently:

  • Set a day or time of the week during which you will not do any work. (Define what “do work” means for you — maybe some kinds of side projects help you get relaxed or energized. Experiment!)
  • Make a habit of staying away from the environment and tools that might lure you into working. For me this means having periods of not using a computer at all, or going to a coffee shop to read.
  • Schedule non-work plans in advance. This can be to hang out with others, just on your own. Future you will be grateful I’m a fan of massages as a way to block off time for myself (and they also help me keep my RSI in check).
  • Put “do nothing for X hours” on your to-do list. Then check it off the list when you’re done. You accomplished something!
  • Shift your mindset. Instead of thinking of this time as “doing nothing”, “taking a break” or “being unproductive,” think of this as an active investment in your future productivity and the quality of your work.
  • If you need to work at a pace that is not sustainable (this is unavoidable sometimes), try to set a time limit on this period. If you can, schedule days off after that time is over.

Above all, remember that this time is for you. Experiment, learn what works best for you, and keep iterating. And enjoy!

This post was inspired by Minna Markham’s powerful keynote at Write / Speak / Code 2018, where among other things she spoke about learning to be “productively unproductive”.