Making the most of waiting time

I’m a sucker for productivity blogs and life hacks. Not that I routinely follow their advice, but I do like reading them. I keep reading them because I keep thinking one day I’ll stumble on The One Thing that will transform my life and make me super productive and ultra efficient.

The fact is, though, and without bragging, I am already pretty darn productive and efficient. I get stuff done. A lot of stuff. In spite of periodically having a day in bed because fatigue has overtaken me.

I’m something of a machine at work. I have well-honed powers of concentration, and can tune out most of the noise from around me when I need to get things done. (Worth nothing, though, that this comes at a cost: tuning out noise and distraction depletes mental energy, a total waste of it.) I work from home one day a week and usually devote it when I can to ‘deep work’, the kind that requires uninterrupted immersion for serious thinking.

Reading those blogs and life hacks makes me realise that I have a lot of good productive habits already. No real surprise there. But there is one oft-repeated tip that I totally disagree with: that is the tip that advocates doing email or making phone calls or checking whatever on your phone when you are waiting.

I believe this is counter productive to the pursuit of greater productivity. Instead, waiting time is best used as “free-range thinking” time. Don’t check or respond to email, don’t make calls, don’t run through your to-do list: spend this precious time thinking about nothing, daydreaming, just letting your mind wander. Take a break.

We can’t work in a focused way all the time. Half of the other tips in your typical “how to be more productive” list are about chunking work, using things like the Pomodoro technique to concentrate work into 90 minute blocks. Crucially, techniques like that work because in between blocks of work you take a break. The breaks are vital. They are what make the technique work.

The point of the breaks is to give your brain a rest. Switching from reading up on constitutional law in the 1800s to checking your email is not the kind of break your brain needs. Take a proper break. Go for a cup of coffee, stand in line and just look at the coat of the person in front of you, or out the window at the passing cars, or the rain, or the sun, or the leaves, and give your brain a rest. Stop beating it to within an inch of its life.

THAT is how you make the most of waiting time.