Boost your productivity … do absolutely nothing

Gavin Esler, the broadcaster, says too many of us are drowning in digital stimuli but the best ideas come when we log off – take a trip on any London tube train to see the problem – take a nap after a good lunch to enjoy the oncoming wellbeing world

Gavin Esler author image

SHANGHAI, CHINA - September 16: An older man takes a nap in the Old Town district of Shanghai on September 16, 2008. The World Expo 2010 will be hosted by Shanghai. The theme of the exposition is ÒBetter City-Better LifeÓ highlighting the cityÕs newfound status as a major economic and cultural hub. (Randi Sokoloff / The National) For possible picture spread--Oasis. *** Local Caption *** RS002-SHANGHAI.jpgal28SE-oasis11.jpg

Be bored – be idle if you can – switch off – because that may be where some of the best ideas are born.

Sir Isaac Newton famously understood the idea of gravity by sitting under an apple tree watching an apple fall. He wasn’t scrolling Twitter, playing Candy Crush or ordering something on Amazon. He was presumably relaxing. And perhaps idling is the antidote to the fact that the world’s most valuable (and scarce) commodity isn’t gold, diamonds or oil. It’s our attention span.

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), English mathematician, physicist and astronomer, engraving by E Conquy after a drawing by T Richomme, from I benefattori dell'umanita ossia vite e ritratti degli uomini d'ogni paese e d'ogni condizione i quali hanno acquistato diritto alla pubblica riconoscenza (The benefactors of humanity, lives and portraits of the men of every country and of every condition who have acquired the right to public recognition), volume I, by various authors, 1843, Florence. (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images)

We are all bombarded and perplexed by the desperate race to attract our eyeballs to something startling, new, or fun – including an email which just pinged while I am writing this.

When I watch a group of teenagers (or, increasingly, adults) sitting together yet all separately looking at their phones, I wonder if we are missing the creative opportunities not just of conversation but of doing almost nothing.

In the 18th century that wonderful British intellectual Samuel Johnson wrote a series of essays under the pen-name “The Idler”. The idea of being idle as a virtue helped inspire the modern British magazine The Idler. It celebrates doing nothing very much, and doing it positively, returning (as they put it) a degree of dignity to the act of “loafing”.

I like this idea especially in the currently glorious British summer weather. Over the past six months writing a new book I discovered that “idling”, perhaps just staring out of the window on a long train journey or driving for an hour or two is a time when – if I am lucky – a solution comes to a problem I’ve been failing to solve. An idea appears as if from nowhere. A chapter of a book that I thought confused perhaps begins to take shape. What seems obvious is that our demand-your-attention-NOW economy is so pervasive that few of us ever take the time to be truly relaxed or even bored, emptying our mind of entertainment or work or personal problems.

We are all bombarded and perplexed by the desperate race to attract our eyeballs to something startling, new, or fun – including an email which just pinged while I am writing this


On a recent long and crowded train journey I walked through several carriages to get a coffee from the on-board restaurant. I must have passed more than a hundred people. A handful were reading books or magazines, but almost all the others were engaged with a screen, listening to something on ear buds, making a telephone call or tapping on laptops. I am usually doing the same. Suddenly I wondered what would happen if all electronic devices were magically switched off and all books and magazines confiscated. Would we – unusually on British public transport – begin a conversation with strangers on the train? Would we quietly contemplate some difficult problem in our lives and find a solution? Would we just relax and find switching off to be the most creative thing of all?

There is some research to back up the idea of creative relaxation.

The prestigious Johns Hopkins medical school in the US reports that older people taking naps perform better in cognitive tests than those who do not have a short sleep. The report noted: “Researchers looked at data from 2,974 people in China aged 65 and older. Nearly 60 per cent of participants reported napping after lunch for about an hour. Scientists found that people who napped for 30 to 90 minutes had better word recall – which is a sign of good memory – than people who did not nap or who napped for longer than 90 minutes. People who napped for that golden 30 to 90 minutes were also better at figure drawing, another sign of good cognition.”

These findings are interesting, but not conclusive. Another report in the journal Scientific American defined idling, loafing or relaxing as taking a “mental vacation” and described it as hugely important in boosting creativity and productivity. They put a time limit on it: “Our bodies benefit most from a 20-minute reprieve about every one and a half to two hours. If we do not allow ourselves this recovery time, our performance will begin to deteriorate, and we will start to feel worn down.”

While writing a new book, I adopted that kind of time limit. I don’t know if the book is any better for the repeated work breaks, but I am definitely better for it. And so right now I’m going to leave my desk, switch off this laptop and go for a walk in the sunshine. I’m not being lazy. I’m boosting productivity. It’s a deserved “mental vacation”. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

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