Doing Your Best Work When You're Not "Working"

Rushing around with our devices leaves us no time to think. 

Here's the good news about our digital devices: We have convenient access to virtually limitless information. No matter how much we know, we can always get more information on any topic with another press of a button. But the good news is also the bad news: More is not always better. As I've argued in a previous blog, our brains don't handle too many choices well1, and  the capacity of our working memory is severely limited2. If we want to write an article or a memo or make a decision, we at some point have to stop getting new information and make sense of what we have and how it all fits together. Yet often, it seems easier just to get more information than to engage in the information-processing that's needed.

Research shows that taking breaks from input is important for learning. I have already blogged about the importance of sleep in consolidating memory3. In addition, more recent research shows that being at rest produces similar memory enhancements as sleeping, when compared to being involved in other pursuits for the same period of time4. Both sleep and rest allow the brain to process the information it already has and transfer it to long-term memory. This also "makes room" for new information to be acquired.

Research also shows that well-timed breaks to low-information environments not only restore our brain's efficiency, they promote creativity and problem-solving. Focusing on a problem is good, but to make that creative leap, to think outside the box, we need to relax that focus and allow ideas to come tothe fore that we didn't initially think were relevant5. After all, it wouldn't be a creative idea if it were right where we were looking for it in the first place. When we're working on a problem, that great next step often comes to us when we put that problem down and do something else. Like taking a shower or walking to our car. It's important, however, that the new activity not involve getting more information. Low-information activities like interacting with nature can attract our attention and disperse our focus "modestly," just strongly enough to allow creative ideas to pop into consciousness6.

But the problem is, we're never NOT receiving input anymore. We're virtually always connected to our gadgets, which are either giving us an alert or tantalizing us with something new. With most people today, the minute we finish inputting one thing, we're inputting the next. As we're walking out of a meeting, we're checking our messages. On the way home from work, we're listening to the news or a self-improvement tape. We don't have time to think anymore, to ponder, to mull, to integrate or to consider. 

You may think you don't have time to think-but you do! Here are a few suggestions:

(a) On your way to a meeting, take a break from your gadgets in order to think about what to expect and what your role will be.

(b) When you leave the meeting, give yourself a few minutes to mull over what just happened and what your next steps might be, rather than immediately checking messages.

(c) On your way home from work, mentally review your day and think about how it impacts tomorrow; then give yourself a moment for an attitude-adjustment for what's expected of you at home. Then check the radio if you want.

(d) When you get stuck on a project due to information-overload or brain exhaustion, take a break that involves exercise, nature or some other low-information activity. 

You'll notice that some of these tactics call for a change in organizational culture. The current always-on-call, workaholic ethic does not promote the most effective use of our brains. People who fully focus and then relax can contribute more than people who never let their nose leave the grindstone or their ears leave their earbuds. We need to rethink our work expectations to make the most of our time and our talents. 

Sometimes work doesn't look like working.

By Joanne Cantor Ph.D

This article originally appeared on

(1) Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.

(2) Klingberg, T. (2009). The overflowing brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory. Oxford University Press.

(3) Walker, M. P., & Stickgold, R. (2006). Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 139152.

(4) Mednick, S. C., Makovski, T., Cai, D. J., & Jiang, Y. V. (2009). Sleep and rest facilitate memory in a visual search task. Vision Research, 49, 2557-2565.

(5) Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2009). The Aha! moment: The neuropsychology of insight. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 210-216.

(5) Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.

Keenan Orfalea