BY ROB SMENTEKIt’s no hard sell to extoll the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Virtually no one will argue that there’s anything better than a solid six to eight hours to recharge your batteries—not to mention the pure luxury of that impossibly rare 10-plus hours. But it’s generally considered unthinkable to take a little time during the workday to, well, do nothing. After all, idle hands are the devil’s plaything, right? Well, not exactly.
There are a number of recent studies showing that downtime—periods where you unplug and let your mind wander—doesn’t just offer you a respite from a busy day, it can also improve productivity and work performance in the long run. And in an industry that runs 24/7, and where most days are scheduled to the point where bathroom breaks need to be planned in advance, it may be worth taking a few minutes to step away from the world and clear your head.
Downtime in the professional space can have a lot of different meanings. It can be a minute or two for a drink of water, a walk around your facility, a few minutes of meditation, a short nap, or if you work for Google, it may mean visiting their game room or getting an onsite massage. Simply defined, downtime is a period when you can temporary unplug or disconnect from the demands of the workplace so you can get through your day without overloading. We are bombarded with stimuli everywhere we look, often more than humans can handle, so these moments are important.
Downtime presents a rare opportunity for reflection: It allows you to sort out what has been recently learned, to resolve problems in our lives, or just think about yourself. This type of thinking is integral for learning and processing new information as well as contemplating your actions and behavior. This all sounds heady and complex, but how does it apply to day-to-day activity? It helps if you visualize a bit. Picture yourself at a professional seminar: Even if you’re listening, taking copious notes, and fully involved, it’s not until you leave the classroom that you’re able to apply what you learned to your business. You need to take the time to absorb what you’ve learned before you begin to put it in action.
"I think every day all children should have three hours of daydreaming. Just daydreaming. You could use a little of it yourself, by the way. Just sit at the window, stare at the clouds. It’s good for ya."
— George Carlin
Let’s face it: The concept of downtime seems contradictory to the goal of getting things done. At one time or other, we’ve been told to pay attention or quit lollygagging by a parent, teacher, or someone in charge. Conversely, however, think of the times you’ve been taking a shower and had a breakthrough about particularly vexing project—or even just remembered where you put those keys you’ve been missing for a week.
How many times have you been alone in the car and mentally replayed a conflict or conversation from earlier in the day—or even years prior? While it’s not necessarily healthy to overly dwell on the past, mind-wandering during downtime can help us reconsider and resolve old issues or rewrite any verbal blunders as a way of learning to avoid them in the future. Also, downtime is ideal for crafting fictional dialogue or scenarios, which may serve as a practice run for an upcoming presentation, pitch, or meeting.
While downtime can be used to organize or manage ideas, it can also be equally effective to prevent overload and avoid burnout. There are days that seem to be a nonstop stream of difficulties: an affiliate needs immediate help; an employee is out sick; a potential new client wants to set up a meeting; bills are due; and the kids need a ride to practice—all while your email and cellphone never stop pinging. Even the most patient person is bound to have their circuits get fried, and when that happens, errors will inevitably be made, judgment can lapse, or there may even be an unnecessary outburst, all of which can negatively affect your business. On days like that, it’s vital to take some time away from the office, literally or metaphorically. Just 15 minutes of peace and quiet—whether it’s through meditation, a nap, or just staring out the window—may give your brain the reboot it needs to get things back on track.
This should also apply to your staff. If they are tethered to their desks and fielding repeated phone calls, for example, encourage them to take their breaks, or to get up a stretch frequently at the very least. If at all possible, have a breakroom where they can get a few moments of peace. Working through breaks may seem to be beneficial to the company, but even star employees need to walk away from their workstations to clear their mind. Your customers will be able to hear the difference, too. Training will also be more effective if you allow for that downtime between meetings so that the new knowledge can be processed, and then built upon in subsequent lessons.
Many professional experts suggest making downtime a regular part of your day, even going so far as to include it on your daily schedule—which is somewhat ironic. Just as you would plan weekly meetings and stick to them, you may want to try to schedule a quick break in the afternoon, set aside certain evenings as “no phone zones,” and, of course, family vacations every year. Unplug, and stick to it. Taking a respectful bit of time to yourself—that is, not to completely interrupt your daily efficiency—may just be the key you need to prevent burnout. [CD0517]