I’ve been thinking a lot about focus lately. How badly we need it. How it’s getting harder and harder to drop into it. How we need to protect our attention more than ever, so we can maximize our time spent doing things that really matter, and minimize the time we spend frittering it away.
But as I get older — and this is probably part of becoming a parent — I’m beginning to appreciate in a new way the hours I spend not focusing, not producing, not making money.
This, of course, is the world that children live in. A mode where time is just experienced, rather than used as a currency to do something more important.
More and more, I’m finding that those moments are the ones that actually give me my best ideas, my highest level of functioning, and the greatest pleasure in my life. They’re not just enjoyable; they’re productive — only in a different way from recording an episode, negotiating a partnership or writing an article like this one.
But I also find that carving out those moments still feels indulgent. And that’s largely because we live in a culture that glorifies productivity. Too many self-help experts these days discount — and often outright shame — people who spend time on so-called “useless” activities.
Yet the more I looked into it, the more I found that these “wasteful” moments are actually some of the most additive. The things we do when we’re not doing what we’re “supposed” to turn out to play a crucial role in our mental and physical health. And they actually make us more effective during the hours we spend heads-down at our desks.
So why are we trying so hard to eliminate those intervals? And what would happen if we encouraged ourselves to participate in them in a way that made us healthier, happier, more effective human beings?
That’s what I’ll be talking about in this piece: a handful of everyday activities that seem like a waste of time, but actually aren’t — and how you can harness them to level up in your own life.
In our get-sh*t-done productivity culture, any second that isn’t spent grinding on a task or making money can feel like a waste of time. At least that’s what hustle bros peddling nootropics on Instagram will have us believe.
But a huge body of research now shows that daydreaming — far from being an indulgent habit — is actually essential to our happiness and performance.
Consider one fascinating study, which looked at how mind-wandering tendencies relate to large-scale brain networks.
To understand whether daydreaming and brain network connectivity were related, researchers used fMRI to measure participants’ default mode network (DMN) — a cluster of interacting brain regions that is active when a person is not focused on the outside world, and the brain is at wakeful rest or engaged in an external task. The default mode network plays an important role in imagination, spontaneous thinking, and brainstorming — critical functions in our creative and strategic lives.
What the scientists found was that there is a positive correlation between mind wandering and increased DMN connectivity — as well as activity in two other major brain networks — at rest.
What’s more, the researchers found significant positive correlations between mind wandering and fluid intelligence and creativity.
So it’s no surprise that some of the greatest products and experiences have come out of mind-wandering states.
Director Andrew Stanton, for example, got the inspiration for the Pixar robot WALL-E’s face while at a baseball game. Arthur Fry was singing in the church choir when he realized he could turn a special adhesive into what eventually became the Post-It note. And we know from experience that many of our best ideas occur when we’re not actively working on them.
(In fact, I got the idea to write this article while I was staring off into space in the shower. So much for wasting time in there, eh? #environmentalism)
Now, lots of self-help experts preach the importance of focus. And it’s definitely true that focusing in a world full of distractions might be our greatest competitive advantage.
But a lot of research also shows that not focusing as rigidly might actually be the key to meaningful creative breakthroughs.
One key study, for example, revealed that divergent thinking (a thought process that generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions) was actually associated with the ability to filter out stimuli, such as external sounds, from the environment.
But real-world creative achievement was a different story. Researchers found that practical creativity was associated with “leaky” sensory gating — a fancy term for a reduced ability to screen out stimuli that we’ve previously experienced as irrelevant. That is, not focusing.
They ultimately found that people with high creative achievements inhibited — or didn’t “gate” — as much of the sound compared to people with fewer creative achievements.
According to the researchers, “real-world creative achievers appear to have reduced filtering of sensory information, which may be the mechanism for their wider focus on a larger range of stimuli, and their ability to make connections between distantly related concepts or ideas.”
In other words, real-world creative achievers enjoy more creative breakthroughs and insights not just by buckling down and tuning out, but also by easing up and inviting in.
And this reduced filtering is precisely what happens when we’re in a state of openness and permeability — in other words, when we’re daydreaming. It seems that when our minds wander, we expose ourselves to the stimuli and tap into the functions that deliver some of our best ideas.
Which explains why the brain’s “executive network” — which is associated with high-level, complex problem-solving — also becomes activated when we daydream, as another fascinating study found.
So the next time you’re looking for a great idea, a clever solution, or a new approach, you might want to stop thinking and try daydreaming.
Giving your mind the gift of wandering might end up becoming a secret superpower — which is actually the idea behind bestselling author Chris Bailey’s concept of scatterfocus, or time to unfocus productively.
When he was on the show, Chris actually talked about the importance of being bored and letting his mind wander, which he does deliberately, in order to solve complex problems.
“There are certain half-dreaming moods of mind,” wrote Washington Irving, “in which we naturally steal away from noise and glare, and seek some quiet haunt where we may indulge our reveries and build our air castles undisturbed.”
It’s one of the oldest human impulses, and it’s probably more important now than ever.
In fact, I think I’ll take some time to zone out before I continue writing this article. If the research is any indication, that’s my best bet for coming up with more things that seem like a waste of time but really aren’t.
Wait… what was I doing again? 🙂
Meeting Random People.
Connecting with unexpected or disparate people — a salesperson from a random industry, a grad student from a different department, a distant cousin from another country — can seem like a waste of time.
What, after all, do you really stand to gain from these relationships? And how can they blossom if you’re coming from such different worlds?
These are fair questions to ask. Networkers — even strong ones — tend to build most of their relationships within their industry, objective, or region. Why spend hours talking to a Portuguese software salesman if you’re a couples therapist in Detroit? Why be friends with a cartoonist in London if you’re working on artificial intelligence in Shanghai?
When you only have so many hours in a day, it’s hard to justify spending precious time building a far-flung network that doesn’t serve your immediate needs.
But that’s actually a very limited view of relationships. Because the upside to meeting people outside of your sphere — whether it’s professional, personal, ethnic, socioeconomic, philosophical, or geographic — is actually huge.
For one thing, maintaining a diverse network exposes you to new perspectives and crucial data.
Networking only within your sphere leads to the kind of confirmation bias and groupthink that stifles innovative ideas and critical thinking. The best ideas tend to develop when you have access to different minds with different experiences from your own — people who aren’t conditioned by the same beliefs or experiences that you are.
Another powerful reason to meet random people is to have access to different opportunities.
People who build relationships across industries, for example, have a much easier time making major career transitions. (In fact, they tend to consider new careers at a much higher rate in the first place.) Their friendships put them in direct contact with new leads, and give them access to the resources they need to achieve their goals — whether it’s ongoing education to level up, company insights to ace an interview, or just some much-needed confidence along the way.
These folks then end up building their talent stack in unique ways, creating a virtuous cycle.
Because they have access to a wide range of people, they benefit from understanding multiple perspectives, so they tend to identify problems and create solutions that draw on different skill sets and experiences. That compounds their social capital even further, which allows them to keep deepening those relationships by sharing that knowledge and making meaningful introductions across their network.
And they can do all this because they take the time to get to know people who, at first glance, seem too far removed from their immediate circle to be valuable.
Of course, the opposite is true: It’s the fact that these people are so far removed from their immediate circle that makes them so valuable.
But this isn’t just about creating opportunities for yourself. There are also very real physical and mental benefits to having a diverse group of friends.
One fascinating study — one of hundreds like it — found that social relationships create short- and long-term effects on health, including a reduction in mortality risks and an increase in overall well-being.
That finding is echoed in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, perhaps the most important look at the impact of relationships of our generation. Researchers who worked on the study found that the friendships we make literally determine the quality of our lives across the board.
“The surprising finding,” explained Robert Waldinger, director of the study, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.”
So investing in wide-ranging relationships isn’t just a smart networking strategy. It’s intimately connected to our physical and mental wellbeing.
Or, as Waldinger puts it, “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
Of course, there are tons of other benefits to building a diverse network. Planning exciting trips, practicing foreign languages, bonding with other human beings, increasing your empathy, having a more nuanced view of the world — all of these experiences become possible when you make friends outside of your immediate sphere.
And spending time with random people around the world is also one of the greatest antidotes to loneliness and alienation — something we’ve all come to appreciate in a new way during the Panny D.
So if you ever feel that you’re wasting time with people you won’t see very often — or you’re wondering whether to invest in a friendship with someone who isn’t in your immediate sphere — remember that these relationships often pay the greatest dividends (in both directions).
And you can make them pay dividends, by becoming more curious about what these different people can teach you, and finding ways to connect those dots across your network.
In fact, in a certain way, meeting random people is to networking as daydreaming is to activating the DMN. If you think of it that way, making unexpected connections is one of the most powerful inputs we can enjoy.
I know that going for a walk has become something of a joke during the pandemmy, since power-walking around the block was the most exciting thing to do for about six months last year.
And like the other activities we’ve been talking about, walking seems like a huge distraction — especially when you’re doing it to muddle through a mind-numbing lockdown.
But the truth is actually the opposite: Walking, far from being an indulgence, is actually a highly productive and powerful activity.
And the science bears this out.
Multiple studies have shown that walking reduces the risk of all-cause mortality; protects against dementia, peripheral artery disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and certain cancers; and demonstrably improves memory and cognitive function.
But the benefits of walking aren’t just physical. Walking also appears to be a highly underrated way to come up with our best ideas.
One Stanford study, for example, found that taking a walk actually leads to more creative thinking than sitting — both in real-time and shortly afterward.
The researchers conducted studies involving 176 people, and found that those who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests commonly used to measure creative thinking, such as thinking of alternate uses for common objects and coming up with original analogies to capture complex ideas.
What’s more, the researchers believe that future studies will probably find a complex pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to the cognitive control of imagination.
“Incorporating physical activity into our lives,” explained one of the researchers, “is not only beneficial for our hearts but our brains as well.”
So if you’re trying to crack a technical problem, hoping to finish your novel, or just trying to come up with more useful ideas, you’ll probably have more luck on your pins than in your chair. Plus you’ll be burning calories, getting sunshine, and interacting with the world — which, for a guy who spends all his waking hours working on his podcast indoors, is a gamechanger.
But not all walks are created equal.
It’s actually purposeless walking — walking for the sake of walking, with no specific destination or predetermined route — that seems to deliver some of the greatest benefits.
And new research confirms this, too.
One fascinating study found that “incidental ambulation” — a weirdly fancy term for moving around as part of a routine, but not specifically to exercise — clearly facilitates positive emotions.
The researchers discovered that walking creates those good vibes even when participants were blind to the purpose of the activity. They also found that this boost had the ability to override people’s expectation of their mood worsening.
They concluded that incidental ambulation — I mean, uh, walking — systematically promotes positive effects regardless of people’s focus on such movement.
Walking can even override the effects of boredom and dread — two feelings we’ve all become very familiar with this past year.
(At least I have. Maybe you didn’t spend half the Panny D doomscrolling on your phone while worrying about inhaling the wrong respiratory droplet at Trader Joe’s. In which case congratulations, you won the pandemic, and you don’t need to go for a nice walk!)
What’s even more interesting is this: The scientists in that study believe that these findings hold the key to understanding the role of movement in shaping our emotions. They point to the idea that feelings might be “embodied,” or based in our perceptual, motor, and somatosensory systems.
So going for a walk isn’t just about having great ideas and seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Walking might literally help us process and develop our emotional life.
It’s no surprise, then, that great minds from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Cheryl Strayed favored long, meandering walks to generate ideas and make sense of their lives.
The composer Tchaikovsky actually walked for two hours every day, even in severe weather, before he sat down to work. Beethoven walked three or four hours in the afternoons, always taking a notebook with him. In fact, he apparently composed “Symphony No. 6” while walking through the woods of Vienna, which is good enough evidence for me that going for a stroll really does work.
In fact, I think I’ll go for one now. Because I don’t know what the next section is going to be, and I’m hoping it’ll come to me while I’m incidentally ambulating around my neighborhood, saying hi to random people, and letting my mind wander — the trifecta of “useless” activities.
(Update: I came up with the next section!)
We tend to think of vacations as an escape from our normal lives, or as a nice reward for the hard work we’ve put in.
In reality, though, traveling for pleasure is essential to our health, mood, and quality of life.
Consider one new study, which found that travel and tourism affect how people evaluate their overall quality of life. Specifically, the researchers found, frequent travel makes people seven percent happier.
But getting out of town on the regz also seems to keep us alive.
A University of Massachusetts study concluded that the frequency of annual vacations by people at high risk for coronary heart disease is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality.
Specifically, men who take a vacation regularly are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack. Those men who go on vacation regularly are 21 percent less likely to die of such an attack, while women who go on a vacation only once every six years are eight times more likely to suffer a heart attack.
In other words, hitting the beach, going on a cruise, or checking into a countryside motel isn’t just enjoyable. It’s also health-promoting. And it could literally save your life.
But like all the activities we’ve been talking about, travel delivers benefits across the board.
Yet another study, this one conducted by the AARP, found that Americans who travel reported better emotional and physical health and improved relationships and productivity at work.
According to the study, the health benefits that most improve during a trip include improved emotional well-being (54 percent), connection with loved ones (52 percent), amount of energy (35 percent), intellectual curiosity (34 percent), and mental clarity (30 percent).
So just like walking and daydreaming, traveling has a profound effect on our emotional life, our creativity, and our cognition. We don’t just help our bodies and our minds restore by chilling on a beach or cutting loose in a cottage somewhere. We also improve our affect, our relationships with friends and family, the quality of our ideas, and the way we experience the world.
What’s more, most participants in the study reported boosts to their physical or mental health not just during and after a trip, but also before one. I always assumed that that pre-vacation high was all those dopamine hits from looking at travel inspo photos on Pinterest. But apparently just knowing you’re about to go on vacation is enough to lift your mood.
So if you tend to be “disciplined” about taking vacations, or you don’t think traveling for pleasure is a “wise” use of time, or you’re concerned about spending money on an “unnecessary” indulgence, remember how important travel is for your mental and physical wellbeing.
Know that when you jump in the car or hop on a plane — whether it’s for a short weekend getaway or a three-week vacation — you’re not just letting yourself off the hook. You’re actually adding to your happiness, mood, and mental acuity across the board.
In fact, if you want to perform even better at work, the research suggests that you should take an extended break periodically. Not only are you more likely to perform at a higher level when you get back, you’ll be able to work for a longer period of your life. Ironically enough, you have a better chance of leveling up in your career by stepping away from it from time to time.
I know that talking about the importance of a good night’s sleep is pretty hacky at this point. Ever since Arianna Huffington wrote a book about it and Google started putting those nap pods around campus, sleep has become the secret superpower of some of the most successful people in the world.
Which isn’t really a surprise, since, you know, humans literally need it or we’ll friggin’ die.
Still, hustle culture podcasts and productivity gurus like to glorify people who don’t sleep much. Needing to rest is still treated as a bug, a flaw in the design, something we need to hack or power through if we have any chance of succeeding in life.
But once again, the research suggests the exact opposite. And it shows that the anti-sleep movement is probably doing massive harm to people.
Let’s dispense with the obvious benefits first. Without a doubt, sleep plays an important role in our physical health.
Sleep is involved in the healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Getting enough sleep also decreases the risk of obesity, helps maintain hormonal balance, supports healthy growth and development, and changes the way your immune system responds to infections.
Sleep also directly affects our cognition. People who are sleep deficient are less productive at work and school. They take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes.
But it’s the role sleep plays in our inner life that might be the most profound.
One study, for example, found that sleeping poorly increases the risk of having poor mental health. Depression, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, negative affect — all of these experiences are closely related to how much rest we get each night.
(Of course, these can also cause us to lose sleep. So I’m not saying that if you have a mental health issue, you’re just not getting to bed early enough. Obviously, these things are highly complex.)
Crucially, that study also found that there’s no universal answer to the question of how much sleep a person needs — which pretty much flies in the face of any advice that prescribes a certain number of hours per night (whether it’s low or high). Anyone who tells you exactly how much sleep you need is almost certainly wrong. Every person is different. And the amount of sleep we need changes as we age, and in response to a variety of lifestyle factors.
So the next time you skip Netflix to hit the sack early or you raincheck brunch to catch some extra z’s, know that you’re actually investing in your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. That isn’t time wasted. That isn’t a sign of weakness. That’s time put toward a higher quality of life during your waking hours.
And a lot of those benefits come from napping, too — another activity many of us view as an indulgence. Far from being a hedonistic pastime, napping has been proven to actually boost our performance, without many of the downsides that nap skeptics fear.
In fact, sleep researchers at the Weill Cornell Medical College concluded that neither long nor short naps disrupted nighttime sleep or led to daytime sleepiness.
They found that napping actually increases time spent in slow-wave and rapid-eye-movement sleep, which play important roles in learning, memory, and mood.
The proof was in the pudding: When participants started napping, they showed significant improvement on a cognitive assessment battery.
And you see those benefits in study after study.
One of them, in the Journal of Sleep Research, found that even for well-rested people, naps can improve performance in areas such as reaction time, logical reasoning, and symbol recognition.
Meanwhile, another study discovered that after waking from a 60-minute midday nap, people were less impulsive and had greater tolerance for frustration than people who watched an hour-long nature documentary instead of sleeping.
(So if you want to improve your emotional stability, you might want to skip those David Attenborough clips on YouTube and take a cat nap instead. No shade on Sir David — he’s an absolute ledge, obviously — but drifting off to sleep for a little while seems to be the escape we truly need.)
And yet another team built on previous research showing that people perform better on a visual texture-distinguishing task after a night of sleep than they do immediately after learning it. The researchers concluded that people performed just as well on the test after a 60- to 90-minute nap as they did after a full night of slumber. From the perspective of behavioral improvement on tasks like these, a nap was as good as a night of sleep.
So napping isn’t just for the idle. It isn’t an indulgence or an escape. It’s an activity that demonstrably improves our performance, mood, and overall well-being.
Given all of that, I’m always amused when people downplay how often they nap. I squeeze one in whenever I need to recharge — just like John F. Kennedy, Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein were fond of doing. Although I obviously get a lot more important stuff done than those guys ever did 🙂
Tidying up is a chore we usually put off or frequently outsource — to family members, to roommates, or to professionals. Wiping down a countertop, cleaning out a drawer, or organizing a desk doesn’t seem like high-impact work. But it turns out that cleaning is another activity that actually fulfills a powerful psychological function.
For starters, there’s a close relationship between tidiness and mental health.
One study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, for example, measured the way 60 people discussed their homes. It turns out that women who described their living spaces as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” were more likely to be depressed and fatigued than women who described their homes as “restful” and “restorative.” The researchers also found that women with cluttered homes expressed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
(And yes, I know that study sounds extremely 1950s, but I’d venture to guess that it applies to men just as much as it does to women. Guys whose desks, cars, and closets look like a hurricane just hit are probably equally depressed, stressed and fatigued. These are the spaces we occupy, the spaces we rely on. When they’re a mess, so are we. And I speak from personal experience there.)
That study also reflects the findings of a team of Princeton University researchers, who found that clutter can actually make it more difficult to focus on a particular task.
If you’ve ever struggled to finish a report, dig into a data set, or even take a call at a messy desk, then you know the effect that clutter has on your ability to dial in. That’s because the visual cortex is easily overwhelmed by task-irrelevant objects, making it harder to allocate attention and complete tasks efficiently.
But there’s another benefit of cleaning that might be even more powerful: the ability to operate in a different way. We tend to think of cleaning as a “mindless” activity. But it turns out that the mindlessness of cleaning might actually be one of its greatest benefits.
Check out this fascinating study, which investigated whether washing dishes could be used as an informal contemplative practice, promoting the state of mindfulness along with emotional and attentional phenomena.
In the study, a sample of 51 college students engaged in either a mindful or control dishwashing practice before completing measures of mindfulness, affect, and experiential recall.
The researchers found that mindful dishwashers demonstrated greater state mindfulness, increases in elements of positive affect (namely, inspiration), and decreases in elements of negative affect (for example, nervousness).
In other words, cleaning — whether it’s scrubbing a dish, power washing a driveway, or straightening up a desk — offers the potential for a meditative experience. But we have to consciously approach those tasks with a mindful intention. We can’t just quickly rinse a dish, point a hose, or straighten up. We have to engage meaningfully with the task at hand.
There’s a close connection here to daydreaming and walking, as well. Just as letting our minds and our bodies wander creates all kinds of benefits, cleaning seems to create a similar meditative experience.
Focusing on one, simple, concrete task activates the default mode network, that cluster of brain regions we talked about earlier. The DMN also plays a role in memory and mental stimulation, and probably functions as part of unconscious free-association — which helps explain why we have some of our best ideas in the shower, drying a dish, or taking out the trash.
So doing some housekeeping might not just be an obsessive-compulsive impulse or a clever way to avoid doing work. (Although I’m sure it can be in some cases. I hear writers on a deadline love cleaning out their drawers.) In reality, cleaning seems to be one more activity that improves our well-being, facilitates ideas, and leads to some of our best work — benefits we miss entirely if we avoid cleaning or delegate it to someone else.
Time Well Wasted.
“Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general,” said the visual artist Ann Hamilton, “but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between.”
But it turns out that those “in-between” experiences — what most people would consider “killing time,” “burning daylight,” or “faffing off” — are actually crucial. Far from being wasteful, they play a powerful role in our physical health, emotional lives, and creative pursuits.
So the next time you find yourself feeling stuck, stressed, or burned out, try stepping away and doing something “less useful.”
Stare off into space for 20 minutes. Let your mind wander. Notice where your daydreams take you, and feel the cognitive benefits of de-focusing for a short period of time.
Meet and stay close with people from different walks of life. Listen to their stories, appreciate their experiences, and find connections among them. Let those conversations give you new insights, better solutions, and a great sense of connectedness.
Go for a walk. Not to make your Apple Watch happy or to arrive at a certain location, but just for its own sake. Let your incidental ambulation (walking! just say “walking!”) stimulate new thoughts, connections, and observations, while also decreasing any negative thoughts that might be lingering in your mind and body.
Every so often, plan a trip. It could be two days to visit a friend in a nearby town, or three weeks backpacking through the jungle. Step outside the Matrix. Disengage from your usual tasks and concerns. Capitalize on the physical and mental rejuvenation of getting away now and again.
At the same time, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Protect your nightly routine, and try to keep it consistent. If you need some extra rest, don’t be afraid to nap, as long as it isn’t throwing off your sleep hygiene. Know that you’re not wasting time when you pass out. You’re investing in your health, mood, and effectiveness when you’re awake.
And while you do all that, take care of your physical space. Know that keeping things streamlined has a direct impact on your ability to focus, destress, and stay alert. As you clean, focus on each movement. Without thinking too intently about it, dip into the everyday meditation of the task at hand, and allow your brain to engage in the kind of mindful wandering you also find in daydreaming and walking.
When you do, you’ll find that the very activities that seem like a waste of time are actually the ones that allow us to make the most of it.
As bestselling author and recent guest on the show Cheryl Strayed put it, it’s these moments that make us who we are.
“The useless days will add up to something,” she wrote. “These things are your becoming.”
[Featured Photo by Juan Gomez]