Health and Wellness

Stop being 'so busy': The psychology behind why being lazy is actually good for your brain

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I'm a big fan of being lazy. Instead of planning a trip to some far-flung destination, my idea of the perfect vacation is snacking on the couch while playing Animal Crossing.

People are always shocked when I tell them this, because my job is researching, teaching and writing books about productivity. But laziness is what originally got me interested in productivity; getting more done in a less amount of time means more opportunity to relax.

These days, though, it may seem impossible to relax. The coronavirus pandemic has caused an insurmountable amount of stress. Many might even feel like they're on the brink of madness, partly because they're worried they're not doing as much as they think they should be.

But research has shown that giving yourself permission to be lazy might just be the perfect antidote.

A productivity mindset isn't always healthy

Most people are bad at being lazy. And when I say "lazy," I'm not talking about occupying your time with mindless distractions; I'm talking about proper idleness — or choosing to do nothing.

For much of the day, our goal is to remain focused so we can keep checking things off our to-do list. That's a good thing when, for example, we're in the office. It helps us develop a productivity mindset and accomplish more.

A productivity mindset at home turns our personal lives into a running checklist, rather than something that should be enjoyed.

During the pandemic, however, a productivity mindset can be a bad thing. That's because our brains are wired to selectively focus on things we find both novel and threatening. It explains why we do things like check the news (or social media) every 10 minutes or dwell on worrisome emails we received three weeks ago.

Being stuck indoors makes things even worse. A productivity mindset at home turns our personal lives into a running checklist, rather than something that should be enjoyed. We try to cram even more tasks into the day, thus eschewing slower (and healthier) activities that make us happy, such as taking a walk or reading a good book.

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Another cost of constantly trying to chase the satisfaction of getting things done is that the process of doing them becomes an increasingly miserable experience.

The magic of a wandering mind

According to a 2011 study, when our attention is at rest (i.e., during bouts of idleness or laziness), the places our mind wanders to include the future (48% of the time), the present (28%) and the past (12%).

This matters because, in the process, we can "literally become more creative and better at problem-solving," researchers found. In other words, a wandering mind allows us to do three critical things:

  1. Plan for the future. We think about the future 14 times more often when our attention is free to roam, compared to when we focus on just one thing. So without even realizing it, we're reflecting on long-term goals and setting intentions.
  2. Come up with new ideas. Try to remember the last time you came up with a creative idea or solution. Chances are it didn't happen when you were racing to beat a deadline. Instead, you may have been taking a long shower or sitting on a bench enjoying park scenes.
  3. Make time to recharge. When our brains are at rest, we're actually conserving our mental and physical energy so we can expend them on the right things. In a way, we're also investing in our mental health. 

Give yourself permission to be lazy

Hardly anything saps our productivity more than an anxious mind. Now more than ever, we need idleness and the calmness that it brings.

So stop being so busy and allow your brain to do nothing. Stop obsessing over the news. Forget about the value of your time. Detach yourself from the productivity mindset.

Wait for your mind to tell you what it needs, rather than what it craves. After a certain amount of time, you'll find that your brain has slowed. Then, go take that walk. Watch some Netflix. Listen to some music. Soak in a warm bath.

It might just be one of the most productive things you'll do today.

Chris Bailey is the best-selling author "Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction" and "The Productivity Project" (both have been published in 20 languages). He also teaches organizations about how to become more productive, without hating the process. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Bailey.

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