The idea that busyness equals productivity has been around since the Industrial Revolution. (Ever noticed how ‘business’ is only one letter away from ‘busyness’?!) The logic goes that the harder, faster, and more frantically we work, the more we can produce, and therefore the more valuable we are as employees.
However, ‘work’ these days often means a lot more thinking and computing, rather than producing physical goods. It requires focus, self-organisation, concentration, and brain power, none of which are possible for eight solid hours every day. In fact, research by Voucher Cloud revealed the average UK office worker is productive for only 2 hours 35 minutes a day!
A change of scene?
What if instead of trying to force yourself to sit in front of a computer screen, the answer is to sit yourself on a sun lounger instead?
Because whilst it might look as if you’re just kicking back, lazing in the sun, if you can tap into the power of ‘background thinking’ you’re working in one of the most efficient ways possible.
In her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Barbara Shulte says:
“Neuroscience is finding that when we are idle, in leisure, our brains are most active. The Default Mode Network lights up, which, like airport hubs, connects parts of our brain that don’t typically communicate. So a stray thought, a random memory, an image can combine in novel ways to produce novel ideas.”
But the type of idleness we’re talking about here comes with a caveat; it does not include mindless scrolling or checking your phone.
Journalist and podcast host Manoush Zomorodi delivers a fascinating TED talk on the importance of being bored and allowing our brains to do nothing.
Zomorodi quotes neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin who says every time we shift the brain from doing one thing to another, i.e. scrolling through our phone or switching tabs on our computer, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that depletes our limited supply of neural resources.
The bad news? ‘A decade ago we shifted attention at work every three minutes,’ says Zomorodi, ‘now it’s every 45 seconds…The average person switches tasks on computer 566 times a day.’
An international Lexis Survey emphasises Zomorodi’s point. The survey found that the average employee spends more than half their workdays managing information rather than using it to do their job. Nearly two thirds of respondents said the quality of their work suffered because they couldn’t sort through the information quickly enough.
Can you see how a quiet, relaxed brain might be beneficial when tackling an important work task?
So how do you practise background thinking?
Background thinking is really an active form of musing. You float some ideas around in your head for a few days, giving them room to breathe, before acting upon them and completing the requisite task.
Let’s say you have an important speech to write for work. So you start with a bit of research, naturally on that sun lounger, or the beach. Begin by reading a couple of related articles, listen to a podcast, search hashtags across social platforms. Drop in on Facebook groups or listen to a Clubhouse conversation. Allow information to flow gently into your brain, absorbing it as you would the Sunday papers, not exam revision.
Next do a little brainstorming. Drink in one hand, pen in the other, write down everything that comes to mind, about the topic. Don’t force it, and put the pen down when you’re done. But be prepared for the fact that as soon as you put the pen down, another idea will pop up, a bit like Splat the Rat. Note them all down. Then forget about them.
Leave your thoughts on the topic to gently percolate. For the next day or so, every time you have an interesting or useful thought on the topic jot it down, but don’t try to pursue it. The aim is to give your brain space to work on the problem in the background, and for insights to quietly bubble up to the surface.
Then, a couple of days after your initial brainstorm and research, begin writing the speech. To refocus your mind, start by writing down the title of your speech…and then write it!
You should find writing it easier, faster and more successful.
This is because you’ve gifted this important issue some valuable time. If for example you leave everything last minute, and only start tackling the speech two hours before you deliver it, you only have two hours of brain time to work on it. But if you give yourself an hour to work on it, plus a few days’ percolation, plus another hour to work on it before delivering the speech, you’re still only focusing on the issue for two hours, but the task is being given the benefit of an extra 48 hours inside your brain.
See you at the pool…!