Resting to be productive

When I think of productivity I think of all the usual things that many people do. And I love many of those things and use them regularly. I make lists and love crossing things off. Routines are my friend and help me make sense of my day. And I use tools to track what I’ve finished and what I haven’t to make it towards goals.

But in the last several years it’s been one thing, more than any other, that has increased my productivity and helped me get shit done. Rest. Probably not what you were expecting, was it? Many people are looking for the magic tool, the one silver bullet that will help them get things done faster. But it isn’t a tool, it’s just something I have to do: rest.

I think I can safely say that we’ve all been there, working on a problem of some type and you can’t get it solved, the answer isn’t coming. You walk away, take a break, or you stop for the day and go on to your evening and when you start work in the morning you solve the problem in a matter of minutes. That’s the power of rest.

But rest does other things for me as well, when my brain is rested I tend to come up with ideas, writing ideas (such as for this piece) come to me in the early morning half awake hours. Or as I’m reading a book, usually for pleasure and not work, an idea for some piece of code or a fix for a work project may be triggered by something I’ve read.

This is fairly normal, Steven Johnson talks at great length in Where Good Ideas Come From about how disparate pieces of information come into our lives and we put them together to form new things. And that happens through rest and boredom.

Rest doesn’t just mean getting enough sleep, although that is part of it and I do sleep a lot, but it also means taking time to do things that have nothing to do with my work. Since I stare at screens all day and think about web sites, for me that’s meant finding activities I love to do that have nothing to do with the web. I read, I draw, and I do yoga. These breaks equal rest for me just as much as sleeping or napping does.

So try it out, instead of constantly looking for the right tool, slow down, take breaks, relax, and see if when you are working you’re able to focus and get more done in less time. I’ve found it to be true.

This piece originally appeared on The Human Machine Project on January 2, 2107.