Turns out, boredom is good for you
5 min read posted 20 December 2022
In 1605, William Camden introduced the case against idleness, declaring that ‘the early bird catches the worm’. Benjamin Franklin argued that ‘time is money’, and Shakespeare’s King Richard agonised over wasting it. Before humans had even discovered gravity, we’d determined that busyness sat next to godliness. We reacted by filling every available minute – because no one wants to find out what work the devil could make for our idle hands.
While television, computers and the internet have been given well-deserved credit for changing the world, the humble clock is an overlooked game changer. The mass production of timepieces was intrinsically tied to the industrial revolution, synchronising transport and labour, bringing precision to ocean navigation, and inspiring the above quotes. Clocks separated us from the organic schedules that had us waking, working and sleeping with the sun and, instead, orchestrated our lives around the movement of two hands. And we’ve never looked back.
Work work work work
Welcome to hustle culture and how we define success in modern society. We’ve collectively fallen into a Busy Trap, with countless books, articles and podcasts glorifying productivity and finding new ways to cram more activities in less time.
All this despite an evolutionary advantage uniquely positioning humans to embrace idle time. Scientists believe humans are the only creatures on earth able to detach themselves from our surroundings and daydream. Rather than embracing it, studies have found people will do almost anything to keep their minds from wandering – even giving themselves electric shocks.
If you need more evidence, think about the unofficial experiment we’ve all participated in during the pandemic. When many of us were presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decrease our number of hours in motion, most of us didn’t take it. In fact, for knowledge workers, the average workday increased by 48 minutes.
The joke’s on us
Not only is it likely that women were behind some of the world’s most famous quotes about time, but the passage of time has also made those quotes irrelevant. In a knowledge economy, it’s no longer hours swapped for money; it’s performance. And the thing about performance is that it’s directly correlated with idleness. Watch any elite athlete, and there’s one thing we should mimic – their ability to do nothing. You might have noticed top tennis players putting their heads in their hands during breaks. They’re not despairing but rather switching off – a technique widely embraced to supercharge their game.
Work a different kind of muscle
Your brain is a high-performance athlete. It’s not your muscles or lungs you’re conditioning – rather, your prefrontal cortex. Responsible for everything that makes us highly functioning, organised individuals, your frontal lobe is doing a big job. By the end of the year, that little lobe is probably telling you it’s tired.
But far from the visions of curling up with a good book over the break, many of us will take on the mental load of Christmas shopping, organising family meals, and planning trips. The outcome? Less holiday and more just a different kind of workday. So if you need permission to get down with downtime, this is it – gift-wrapped in a newsletter from your two new leadership besties. And we’ve experienced its benefits. On gardening leave after our last startup, we realised that while we’re tough enough to never, ever need a break 😉 – idleness really is life-changing. It’s how Powrsuit came about.
True downtime doesn’t mean taking up a new task like walking, meditating or reading; it means doing nothing. And ironically, doing nothing takes planning, so here are five simple steps to making sure you actually stop. If you ever catch yourself falling into old habits, remember that we’re not birds, worms are gross, and the devil couldn’t care less what you do with your time. Far from plotting how to fill idle hands with work, we hear she’s happily perusing Prada. 👠
Our guide to nothing
Schedule your last workday
Approach this ‘wind down’ day to get on top of work admin and put a full stop to the year. This is your chance to clear your plate and make sure you can mentally walk away from the office.
Recognise that you’ve finished. You made it through a full year! Have a wine and cheers yourself. Far from a feel-good moment, this acknowledgement helps your brain realise that it’s rest time! 🥂
Embrace manic mode (for a limited time)
You’ll likely be unable to genuinely relax for a few days. Do small tasks while in manic mode – clear out a cupboard, light gardening, or get to that photo album you’ve been meaning to complete. It’s natural for your mind to unwind like this; we all do it.
When you think, “I should…” or “I must…” – shut it down! You shouldn’t. Remember, it’s essential for productivity that you recharge, even if it means being a mediocre parent!
Give yourself proper do-nothing-at-all downtime – even for a few minutes (or 30 seconds) at a time. It takes practice, so start small!
30 second action
Set a timer for 30 seconds and lie down with your eyes closed. Do nothing but listen to your breathing. 🧘