Let’s get one thing clear. You are probably not a true slacker. True slackers are work- and school- averse. They couch surf. They eat copious amounts of foods ending with –itos. You know, Cheech and Chong. Ferris Bueller. Or the character Jeff Spicoli in the film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” who proudly declares, “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine."
The problem is, we are all working so hard, we view any down time as a slippery slope to Total Inertia, a rest stop on the way to Complete Loserville. Yet relaxation is crucial for creative thinking. “Studies show that for knowledge workers—people who are producing things using their brains, which is much of the workforce these days—productivity goes down after 50 to 55 hours a week,” says Maura Nevel Thomas. Thomas is an expert on attention management and productivity, and an author whose latest book is Work Without Walls. On her blog, she wrote that “sometimes the best thing you can do for your work is NOT WORK.” Intrigued, I asked her to elaborate.
“You can’t get a fresh perspective on something you never step away from,” Thomas says. “If the ‘products’ are what comes out of your brain, you have to think about optimal brain functioning. Your brain is the raw material for your job.”
Why are people so resistant to the idea of time off? “We are bombarded by the message that you have to work hard to get ahead,” says Thomas. “I resist the message that working hard means working a lot. What does hard work even mean for a knowledge worker? For most people, they think, ‘lots of it.’ I reject that idea. It’s better to do things in moderation. Today’s communication is like the 21st century equivalent of an assembly line, but you can’t work like a machine.”
Here are four ways to slack off for more creativity.
- Vary what you do. If you’re using your brain for knowledge work—such as reading, writing, processing, computing and communicating—make sure your down time isn’t more of the same. “This idea of diversifying your brain is important,” says Thomas. People will understand they need to take a break from the Excel spreadsheet, but they turn to Facebook.” Instead, switch it up. Draw or take a walk, or run up the stairs. “Are you painting, playing games, laughing with friends? Engaging in hobbies? All of those things contribute to the quality of your work,” says Thomas.
- Put down your phone when you’re slacking. It doesn’t matter from what device you’re reading work emails; checking email from your smartphone still counts toward those 50 to 55 work hours. Thomas notes that people make several errors in judgment here. One, they think they aren’t working, but they are. Two, they think they’re fine because they are simply reading the email rather than responding. But they are using up their willpower to not respond, and upping their anxiety about work in general.
- Embrace the slack! “Slacking off is not a bad thing,” says Thomas. “It’s only bad if you slack off all the time. If you’ve put in eight or nine hours at work, you’re entitled to rest and have opportunities to do whatever you want to do—go to the gym, spend time with friends, have game night, binge-watch ‘Downtown Abbey.’ The measure is, what kind of person are you? If you are sitting on the couch all day eating chips and have no job, yes, that’s a concern. If you have goals in your career and are working, you’re not slacking.” Or maybe your goal is to work eight hours and go home to be with your family. Also not slacking. “Are you living a life of choice? Are you living a life of design? Or are you feeling exhausted? Are you abandoning your hobbies?” says Thomas. “I often ask people about hobbies and they look puzzled. I hear, especially from entrepreneurs, ‘I love my work. It’s energizing to me.’ You will still be better off taking time off.”
- Remember what counts. “When people talk about time management, it’s all about making the best use of your resources, but those aren’t time or money,” says Thomas. “It’s your physical and spiritual health. Your fitness and your sanity. We have to look at our lives holistically. We have physical and mental well being. We have pursuits that satisfy us. I’ve rarely met someone who has all that in balance. Look at your life holistically and see what part is suffering.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some hobbies to pursue, a movie to watch, and I just might open a bag of something ending with –itos.