Doing nothing gives us the space to develop focus, process our experiences and find the signals hidden amid the noise of our everyday lives. Cultivating a healthy amount of downtime on our teams can make us happier and more creative.
When was the last time you had a really great idea, one that elegantly solved a problem or tackled it from an entirely new perspective? It’s likely that it seemed to come from out of the blue. Maybe you were in the shower, walking the dog, or doing some other mindless activity. Or maybe it was there in your mind, seemingly ready and waiting for you, when you got back to work after taking a nap or talking with a friend.
However you got this idea, it probably wasn’t while you were slumped at your desk, drained and weary after hours of wrestling with the problem or juggling several urgent requests. And yet these are precisely the circumstances that modern work culture forces on many of us. Demands on our attention never seem to stop coming, deadlines are always looming, and we face social pressure to keep as busy as our co-workers and leadership. With COVID-19 lockdowns blurring the line between work and home life, and the growth of gig work and “side hustles,” even our “off hours” are being mined for productivity. The result is a chronic lack of time to relax and unwind – and to think creatively.
Neurologists have come to understand the way our brains generate new ideas while seemingly not engaged with anything in particular. When we turn our attention to a task, related structures in our brain synchronize their activity to form a network oriented around that task. For instance, if I asked you to describe the house you grew up in, the parts of your brain related to memory, emotion, language, and spatial thinking might form such a network.
When the task is complete, though, this brain activity doesn’t just stop. Instead, as Andrew Smart describes in his book Autopilot, it moves to form a new network. The regions responsible for memory, self-reflection, metacognition (thinking about thinking), and self-monitoring (bringing information to conscious awareness) begin to work together. This network starts processing the knowledge already in your brain, comparing disparate bits of information and seeming to test for hidden connections between them, then elevating the result to a conscious thought once it uncovers an “aha” moment.
Neurologists call this the default mode network because it seems to be active whenever we’re not consciously working on something. Once you turn back to a task that requires your attention – facilitating a meeting, responding to an email, even checking Twitter on your phone – the network breaks apart as brain activity shifts to new regions. This is why it can seem more difficult to solve a complex problem the longer you spend focusing on it. It’s possible to think of a new idea by racking your brain and putting the pieces together through conscious effort, but it’s much more effective – and pleasant! – to let the default mode network do it for you while you, say, stare out the window and listen to birdsong.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our current obsession with constant activity is the exception, not the norm. Cultures around the world build structured opportunities for downtime into their daily routines. Think of afternoon tea in Britain, niksen in the Netherlands, or smoko in Australia and New Zealand. And lest you think of taking a break as some exotic import, an 11 a.m. whiskey break was once common in the US. (I recommend this technique only to advanced practicitioners.)
Reclaiming time to do nothing can be difficult for the uninitiated, but as with anything else, it gets easier with practice. It’s best to deliberately set aside time for nothing with activities like taking a walk, listening to music or sipping a coffee. You can even seek out spaces that cultivate quiet contemplation, what the artist Jenny Odell describes as the “architecture of nothing.” But even small steps, like resisting the urge to check your phone while walking your dog or waiting for the train, can be fruitful ways to incorporate nothingness into your day. If all else fails, you can use this website to practice. In all these cases, you’re exercising the default mode network and strengthening your creative muscles.
These “self-care” approaches are valuable, but consider also our role as Agile practitioners in designing the systems our teams work in. Too often, we consider slack time to be a problem, an unfortunate byproduct of Agile methodologies. Skeptical managers are quick to ask what happens when a Kanban team reaches its WIP limit or a Scrum team finishes its Sprint Backlog early, and overeager Agilists just as quickly recite the list of “non-work” work that a team can fill its free time back up with. We assure doubters that slack time is, compared to overwork, a lesser evil, one that can be engineered away as the team matures.
I believe that approach gives nothing short shrift. Where creative work is required, teams succeed because of their downtime, not in spite of it. We can help nurture our team’s creativity with group activities, by encouraging teams to honor their WIP limits, or by modeling behaviors like using our vacation time and eating lunch away from our desks. By building a healthy amount of slack into the system, we can turn our teams into lightning rods for inspiration.
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