Why Doing Nothing Can Make You More Effective

Why Doing Nothing Can Make You More Effective

Mike Armour

Recent brain research has given us valuable new insights into the process of creativity and innovation.

Has something like this every happened to you?

You're trying to solve a problem or remember a piece of information, perhaps a name. And it seems that the harder you try, the more elusive the answer.

Then you get distracted or drawn into some other activity. And suddenly, while you are busy with this new task, the answer that you were searching for pops to mind.

If you're like me, scenarios like this play out somewhat regularly. And believe it or not, the brain dynamic behind this process has significant implications for business success.

Mapping the Brain

To understand why, we have to look at recent findings in the field of neuro-science, the study of how our brains work. For over a century we have known that different regions of the brain have unique functions. There are specialized regions for processing thought, emotions, facial recognition, vision, hearing, motor skills, and what have you.

But brain-imaging technology now gives us a map of the brain in which these specialized regions are supporting actors in a series of networks which do the brain's true heavy lifting.

It's these networks, not specific regions of the brain alone, that give us the ability to process and respond appropriately to sensory data pouring into the brain. The preponderance of these networks are therefore externally oriented, attuned to tasks in the outer world.

But there is one notable exception, a network whose focus is on inner tasks. When other networks go into idle mode, this one remains active. And it does its best work while the other networks are quiet.

A recent Harvard Business Review article referred to this network as the "default network," since it's the network to which the brain defaults when externally-oriented networks take a recess.

The Default Network

What's amazing about the default network is how much responsibility it has for creativity and innovation. For instance, the default network empowers us to imagine events in the past or in the distant future. It enables us to detach from ourselves and look at a situation through the eyes of another person. It is the conduit through which we experience wonder and awe.

It's also the network that allows us to be introspective, to meditate, to be contemplative, or to get lost in thought. Moreover, it seems to take on the task of cleaning up unresolved issues which other networks left behind when they deactivated.

This is why that name you couldn't recall suddenly pops to mind when you're engrossed in thought about something else. Or why you wake up in the morning with a fresh insight into tackling a particularly thorny problem. The default network has been doing its job.

As a result, what we sometimes call "downtime" is not necessarily downtime at all. It is quite often uptime. It's the time that the brain is doing some of its very best creative work.

Our brains are most creative when we are not focused on external tasks.

But remember, the default network takes on this chore primarily when the other networks are quiet. (This is why meditative disciplines always talk about the need to "quieten the mind" as a prerequisite to deep meditation.) Our problem is that we live in such a hyper-stimulating world that networks which focus on external stimuli never take a break. They are firing all the time.

And this is especially true for those of us who are small business owners. There's never a shortage of problems to demand our focus. And of course there's the endless distraction of emails, phone interruptions, and customer issues.

Then add the fact that small business owners tend to work long hours daily, sometimes without a complete day off for weeks on end. Indeed, many of them feel guilty if they spend any time at all just sitting and doing nothing or simply going for a leisurely stroll. Those activities are seen as "wasting time."

Constructive Downtime

Far from being a waste of time, however, purposeful downtime is critical for keeping our creativity and innovation at a peak. As encore entrepreneurs, we need to be intentional in creating blocks of time for the default network to "do its thing" uninterrupted.

But take note of this. Constructive downtime is not quiet time devoted to working on long-range plans or writing policy statements. These types of activities are still externally focused and are activating the networks fine-tuned for external activity.

No, constructive downtime is sitting by a lake and watching the ducks. Strolling through a park and listening to the sounds of nature. Spending a few minutes in a porch swing on the back patio, just letting your mind wander where it may.

If you're more athletically inclined, jogging or biking is a great way to optimize the default network's energy. For years when I have hit a writer's block working on a book or lengthy article, I've found that a 20-minute jog brought me back to the keyboard with fresh energy and insight.

So don't be victimized by the American work ethic. As many have noted, success is not about working harder, but working smarter. And part of working smarter is finding time just to do nothing.

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