The importance of doing nothing

Last week I was trying to master a new skill in a short space of time as well as deliver on my task list and deal with all the business as usual. Despite my up-and-at-‘em attitude, my to-do list and a locked down diary, getting through the ever-expanding task-list became an exercise in futility. The result? Sore shoulders, stiff neck and a headache that I couldn’t shake.

My brain was pleading with me to take a break.


They say that if you want to know what your priorities are look no further than your calendar and your bank balance. I’m pleased to say that my calendar has a reasonable mix of work time and me-time.

What is does not have is any white space.

This is the primary contributory factor to the constant low-level brain strain and busyness which leads to compulsive phone checking that many of us are afflicted with.

Research shows that important mental processes require down time during the day as necessary as your sleep cycle. Motivation, creativity, attention and drive all require down time.

Importantly for those with the leadership agenda, factors affecting our relationships with ourselves and others – sense of personal identity, emotional intelligence and the development of our moral compass – all require down time to function effectively. *

Great leadership comes with self-awareness, self-knowledge and emotional intelligence which grows with time, quiet and space. Down time, the essence of doing nothing, is essential to leadership development.

With this in mind I made three changes designed to up my down time quotient.

  1. Take a 10-minute break every hour. We all know this is good practice, but I actually did it. In this break I was not to check my phone.
  2. Put my phone in a drawer in another room for the time I was at my desk. Sure people might call, but chances are people would post, or message, which can wait. Phone checking times were set for first thing, lunchtime and last thing in the working day.
  3. Close my working day 30 minutes earlier than normal, with absolutely no agenda for that 30 minutes except that it should not contain any tech or telly.

The result? For a start, no aches and pains. I’ve done three times the writing I normally would in a week and haven’t felt the strain in doing so. According to my smart watch I’m waking up around 25% less than my monthly average during the night. Those are winners all by themselves. The least expected and most valued difference has been my general mood which has been lighter and more open-hearted around other people which speaks to the Immordino-Yang research.

Has it been difficult? Heck, yes. But it’s made enough of a difference for me to want to keep the changes going. In fact, I’ve set myself the goal of adding two more changes to increase my down time.

  1. Cut out multi-tasking (writing an article whilst listening to a pod cast would be one example.)
  2. Create one additional white space in my calendar every day of an hour or more during which time I could do tasks I would normally try to squeeze in whilst doing something else. This could be any type of task at all on the work or domestic agenda.

Value your down time to improve your leadership capability. Go to your calendar and sprinkle it with white spaces.

* Check out Helen Immordino-Yang’s research here.