INSEAD

The Benefits of Doing Nothing

Technology has enabled people everywhere to do more with less effort, yet most people find themselves working just as much as ever – and it could be hurting them more than they know.

Keeping busy may help you feel productive, or even accomplished, but idly occupying yourself has its costs. It can negatively impact your health, your relationships, and yes, even your work.

While it might sound counterintuitive, there are benefits to doing nothing.

In Praise of “Doing Nothing”

Doing nothing. That great oxymoron is called “La Dolce Far Niente” in Italy – literally translated as “the sweetness of doing nothing” – and it could be the key to a healthy and happy life.

“More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less,” reports the New York Times. “A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

Why are People Always Busy?

Even aside from work, modern technology makes being idle difficult. Most people have a source of unlimited entertainment and distraction within arm’s reach all day long. Smartphones and tablets help people be connected from anywhere, at any time of day. Unplugging is difficult. In many ways, it is easier to stay busy than to do nothing.

There is also a matter of perception. People think that doing nothing is a sign of irresponsibility or wasting time. As such, many people feel guilty when they are idle – so they just keep working, even when they don’t have to.

Quantifying the Problem

Right now, roughly one in three people eat lunch at their desks and even vacations are not sacrosanct. Over half of all people who work admit that they expect to work while on holiday. Long hours might seem like a good way to climb the corporate ladder – how could you not succeed when you do the work of two people in a single day, right? – but it also leads to burn out. A survey from Harvard Business School found that 94% of professionals work 50 hours per week or more and nearly half of all people surveyed work at least 65 hours every week.

Sometimes those long hours pay off. According to The Economist,“Since the late 1990s, this long-hours premium has earned overworkers about 6% more per hour than their full-time counterparts.” People who work longer hours are also less likely to be laid off and more likely to be promoted – but at what cost?

Working Too Much

There are costs to working too much. Spending more time working means having less time for the people in your life and less time to sleep. Researchers have found that getting less than six hours of sleep each night is one of the best predictors of burn out. Working too much is also associated with low morale, depression, substance abuse, sleep deprivation, relationship breakdown, and disengagement at work. Over time, your productivity suffers.

Instead of working harder, work smarter. Take time off. Accounting firm Ernst & Young studied the issue of vacations and found that yearly employee performance improves by 8% for each 10 hours of vacation time they take. These frequent vacationers were also less likely to quit the company.

Working Hard vs. Working Smart

The key to being mentally sharp, productive, and emotionally healthy is to allow your brain time to rest. “To maximize gains from long-term practice individuals must avoid exhaustion and limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis,” explains Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University and an expert in performance

When you allow yourself time to do nothing, you give your brain a chance to process experiences, consolidate memories, and reinforce learning. Your resting state is a powerful tool for regulating your emotions and maintaining the ability to focus. Rest will also help you make better decisions and be more productive. Downtime benefits your creativity too. Letting your brain rest can trigger more imaginative thoughts and ideas.

“Many people would be better off if they did less and reflected more,” says Professor Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change. “While most of us find it hard to tolerate, in many instances boredom can be a prelude to something. It can trigger our imagination and creativity. In a sense, boredom can be seen as a liminal space, a critical resource that pushes us to seek the unfamiliar.”

La Dolce Far Niente

Doing nothing can involve remaining still, but there are other ways to let your mind rest. You just need an unrelated activity. Taking a walk, going for a drive, or reading a book each provides opportunities to shut your brain off. Having regular breaks helps as well. When you oscillate between focused work and relaxation time (e.g. 45 minutes of work, then 10 minutes of break), you can come back to your tasks renewed. You can set a timer if it helps, but sometimes the biggest challenge is simply to learn to say no to unimportant tasks and having the right priorities.

About the Author

As one of the world's leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD offers participants a truly global educational experience. With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and Middle East (United Arab Emirates), INSEAD's business education and research spans three continents. The school’s 145 renowned faculty members from 40 countries inspire more than 1,400 students in its degree and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD's executive education programmes each year. INSEAD’s EMBA programmes are highly ranked by Financial Times, and ranked #1 by Ivy Exec in 2018.