Being more productive by doing nothing

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:

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”.