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Rethinking Productivity: Why We Need to Normalize Idle Time

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Idle time should be embraced by organizations and individuals. Many workers, even when not at work, can't stop thinking of ways to make their time more "productive."

Idle time should be embraced by organizations and individuals. Many workers, even when not at work, can't stop thinking of ways to make their time more "productive."

When was the last time you did nothing?

Seriously, ask yourself that question—when was the last time you deliberately decided that the time you currently had in your hands was going to be spent on complete idleness? Not on planning for work, not for organizing material to study, not chit-chatting, not even passively binging on passable streaming shows.

It turns out that it actually takes some energy and focus on bringing ourselves to do absolutely nothing. The messaging and propaganda ever since knowledge work took a big leap post-industrial age has been that you should “maximize” whatever free time you had the luxury of owning by converting those minutes and hours into something beneficial.

It was the owning of time that came to be an issue—who really owned your time at a particular point of the day? Was it your employer, Ph.D. adviser, or supervisor—was it ever you?

Being productive and producing results has become an overstated point of emphasis in the modern age. Workers are being assessed, rewarded, and promoted based on the results that they produce or based on hitting success metrics, or via the overused term “key performance indicators.”

But is the hyperfocus on being productive all the time such a good thing for both workers and businesses alike? Are businesses better off with having more balanced, mentally-well individuals as opposed to employing non-stop, hundred-miles-an-hour types who are always on the brink of burnout?

The Trouble With Productivity Addiction

Early in my career, I subscribed to the idea that it was bad to waste free time by spending too much of it on leisure. That the very idea of leisure itself was hard to come by, something earned (such as when probationary employees have to render a few months without paid time off before ‘earning’ the privilege to go on vacation), and something that is always under your work’s or boss’s command.

In order to maximize my own productivity, I turned to books such as The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. These were two of the more practical self-help pieces in the market which held some modern-day relevance. And with such enlightening and empowering literature in hand, I was sure to accomplish as much as I possibly could with my abilities and finally be satisfied with my work life—right?

Except that my thirst for doing more, accomplishing more, and attaining goals was a thirst that dried up as quickly as the price of Bitcoin changes. It was not only an unquenchable thirst; it had a way of being itchy and annoying.

Chris Bailey defined productivity as “doing what we intend to.” But being a modern-age worker himself, he adds that “there’s a disconnect between our time and how much we accomplish when we do knowledge work for a living.” If only I had paid more attention to his own definition more closely, then perhaps I wouldn’t be such a productivity nut all the time? Wrong.

Now that I had freed up more time by being more efficient with my tasks, I could squeeze in more things to do. This was textbook productivity addiction. Despite gaining a deeper understanding of productivity and knowing that it didn’t equate to the amount of time allocated for the work required, I was still having a hard time detaching my productive side from the part of me that was more human.

Even during periods of recuperation—weeklong work breaks that sometimes stretched into two weeks—I was still doing these in the honor, or for the ultimate benefit, of becoming more productive once I had mentally recovered.

PsychCentral poses six questions to find out for yourself if you’re a productivity addict:

  1. Are you critically aware of when you are “wasting” time?
  2. Do you heavily depend on technology to optimize time management?
  3. Is your usual topic of conversation on how super busy you are? Do you think “hustling” sounds impressive, while “doing less” sounds lazy?
  4. Do you compulsively check your email inbox?
  5. Does work stress keep you awake at night, or because of the guilt of accomplishing so little?
  6. Have you ever rolled your eyes when someone says he’ll finally get started on that side project which he’s been mentioning for months, yet you do the same thing but rationalize it by thinking you’re too swamped?

Chances are, if you answered most, if not all, of these questions in the affirmative, you’re a textbook productivity addict yourself. But should you blame yourself entirely for considering the productive state as the normal, default condition that a person should be? Do organizations and our society as a whole need to start normalizing not doing any work?

Most of us living and working in a post-modern world are told productivity is the most important thing. But maybe, we should be taking the time to do the opposite. Nothing.

Most of us living and working in a post-modern world are told productivity is the most important thing. But maybe, we should be taking the time to do the opposite. Nothing.

The Need to Normalize Taking Time Off—"Real" Time Off

The movement to normalize taking time off isn’t anything new. A proponent of the “Do Nothing Revolution,” Celeste Headlee published her polarizing work just before the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed its wrath throughout the whole world, a global crisis that drove people inside their homes and let the luckier ones bring their work with them.

The release of the book was good timing, as people who were locked inside their homes suddenly found a surplus of time because of many things, such as the elimination of work commute, the lack of leisure activities to do (everyone was anxious and tourism was basically dead), and the reduction of work hours or removal of jobs entirely.

You’d think that a majority of people would push themselves to become even more productive now that there was more free time. But the opposite started happening. People started growing weary of the overwork that was happening, now that their employer could reach them anytime while there wasn’t much they could do outside of their jobs.

In Headlee’s own website, she argues that we human beings “strive for the absolute best in every aspect of our lives, ignoring what we do well naturally, and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher.”

“Why,” she asks, “do we measure our time in terms of efficiency instead of meaning?” In Do Nothing, Headlee argues that productivity “is a byproduct of a functional system, not a goal in and of itself,” and she believes that we “work best when we allow for flexibility in our habits.”

The need to normalize time off in a world obsessed with productivity is long overdue. As Headlee notes, we have to allow for more flexibility in our habits in order to bring out our best. But as long as organizations and businesses incentivize habits that encourage an always-on culture, people will never stop to self-reflect and think about changing their workstyle. When less time off taken means more chances of reward, what’s going to motivate people to shift their mindset?

Suggestions for Changing the Approach Toward Productivity

As long as organizations around the world keep sticking to the old paradigm of squeezing as much productive work as it can from workers per unit of time, there won’t be much change when it comes to the approach towards productivity.

When rewards, incentives, and promotions depend heavily on the quantity of productive time or on time-heavy metrics, workers will keep sticking to the old formula and drive themselves to overwork and burnout at the expense of being able to live a more balanced life.

The change needs to start beyond the individual, and so here are five simple suggestions for organizations on how they might help change the way we view productivity.

Suggestion No. 1: Reward extra effort, not extra hours.

The nature of overtime pay is that it punishes the employer for extending an employee’s work hours beyond what is considered “normal.” However, some organizations are notorious for normalizing the working of overtime, expecting it, especially from younger workers who want to prove themselves and stay competitive with their peers.

The extra expenses incurred by these organizations are often factored in, knowing full well that overworking employees costs less than hiring more people. What’s more, the top performers (who are usually the ones who log the most hours) get rewarded handsomely and are most likely to be promoted—all in all creating a work culture that proliferates overexertion and job devotion.

The change that therefore needs to happen is rewarding extra effort, not necessarily extra hours. It’s a bit tricky to think about because normally, you’d associate more effort with more time.

But really, more effort in this sense means more thought, attention, energy, and efficiency in the actions taken by the worker. More efficiency means more expertise, and by executing a task with more expertise, more time and resources are saved.

The approach in incentivizing workers, therefore, needs to change from “rewarding more work done in total” into “rewarding more work done in less time.” This is probably harder to do in businesses such as corporate law firms and consultancies, which earn more by the billable hour.

Suggestion No. 2: Back off metered work breaks, and acknowledge unique work pace.

It’s not just certain businesses that meter their worker’s breaks, but entire industries such as logistics, retail, and customer service. It may be extremely difficult for businesses within these industries to stop measuring and capping work breaks entirely because of service level agreements (SLAs) that are contractually binding and therefore need to be met at all costs.

That said, for impractical reasons, some organizations that don’t need to meter their employees’ work breaks choose to do so just because they can, and maybe because they’re stuck with the old belief that doing so will enhance efficiency.

When it comes to knowledge work, allowing for more flexibility is one of the keys to improving a worker’s well-being. Businesses that employ mostly knowledge workers have to acknowledge the fact that people have varying, unique paces of working. For some people, they need to go through periods of idleness for them to ‘reset’ back into productive mode.

For many, having the freedom to go about their work breaks as they please (as long as it doesn’t deliberately impact others’ work, such as intentionally missing meetings) is something essential to how they work. Workers should be trusted more, that even when they sometimes go over a 1-hour lunch break, they know how to catch up and deliver the results they’re paid to produce.

Reducing expectations for workers once the required output is achieved will create a work environment that is both less competitive and stressful and also more equal.

Reducing expectations for workers once the required output is achieved will create a work environment that is both less competitive and stressful and also more equal.

Suggestion No. 3: Taper off performance incentives as output exceeds expectations.

This is similar to instituting a commission cap when it comes to sales—overperformers will no longer be incentivized once they hit the ceiling. But my suggestion is to go even further, to give the worker an earlier hint that doing more will produce diminishing returns.

Companies want their workers to exceed expectations—whether it’s getting past the sales quota, finishing a project ahead of schedule, etc. But at the same time, workers are wired to want to go beyond what is considered ordinary because they know of the rewards in-store, or they’re probably lobbying for a promotion.

But aren’t organizations better off when all workers are trying to exceed expectations but there aren’t many outliers who churn out Herculean efforts? Shouldn’t organizations be happier when most workers are performing well instead of having a few select employees who are exceptional?

By tapering off incentives as output exceeds what’s expected, more equality and inclusiveness are promoted within the workplaces. This type of business is one interested in having a handful of ‘all-stars’ rather than having a scarce number of ‘superstars.’ Which is good for business because superstars are harder to keep, easier to poach (by competitors), and a nightmare to replace.

Suggestion No. 4: Recognize and praise workers who do an ‘OK’ job, especially if they’re going through personal challenges.

It’s easy for managers and bosses to praise their subordinates who do a fantastic job. But what about when a worker does an ‘OK’ job during a particularly difficult time in their lives? It’s not intuitive for the leader to praise his team member for doing what was expected of him or her in the first place because we live in a society where “getting your job done no matter what” is the default.

Companies seem to have lost all empathy—they’ve removed the humanity that comes with the package of hiring a human being to work for them, and if given the choice, they’re likely to prefer automating a person’s job.

This suggestion is very timely for the world we currently live in. Workers today have a harder time separating their work life from their personal life. Mobile technology and fast internet have made it near impossible for workers to disconnect from their jobs. As such, employers should fully accept the other side of the coin—workers are expected to carry some personal baggage.

When a worker still submits reports on time, prepares for meetings, delivers what’s needed—even if they’re the bare minimum expected and during a difficult period such as a death in the family, marital struggles, financial hurdles—he or she should be given due recognition. Life treats people unfairly, and thus organizations should strive to be more empathetic and be mindful of their workers’ personal struggles.

Suggestion No. 5: Embrace a workplace culture of patience, balance, and openness.

Lastly—and this deals with the core values of an organization—embrace values such as patience, balance, and openness. It’s an easy thing to declare these as “core values” but it’s a completely different mountain to climb to actually exude them. In an age where startups who think fast and break things are overly romanticized, it’s counterintuitive to value patience.

When eccentricity is often correlated with innovation (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk), balance just sounds too boring. And in a time when promoting a brand and building a fortress around it is what matters in order to increase the stock price, openness doesn’t sound very sexy.

But patience, balance, and openness are important in order to change our society’s approach to productivity. To know that you don’t always have to finish things fast to be considered good at what you do, to know that there is more to life than just work, and to know that you can be transparent about your wanting to be idle to goof around—these are things we just don’t have much of in our productivity-obsessed world.

Knowing When to Leave a Workplace Obsessed With Increasing Productivity

More and more companies are turning towards creating a more balanced work culture for their workers. You may be tempted to leave, especially if you work for someone that still values the same old dogmas that aristocrats in the early ’90s have kept around to benefit only those who are on top.

But when you work for someone who’s acutely aware that the tides are starting to change in favor of the worker, and one who acknowledges that workers are finally taking back their time (and taking control of their lives), then maybe you are in the right place. Normalizing idle time has been a long time coming, and productivity gurus could be running out of work soon.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz