Productive non-productivity

Productive non-productivity
Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

I love the show Mad Men. I'm not sure any artistic work has so accurately captured the "feel" of an era - from the positive to the negative, from the real to the imagined, from the glamours to the errors in judgment. And to top it off, I love a good Old Fashioned.

There are many recurring themes in the series, but a seemingly innocent occurrence that happens a handful of times in the run has always gnawed at me. Don Draper - the main character - goes to the movies in the middle of the workday, multiple times.  He expresses once that this is something he needs to reset his thinking - as Creative Director, his persuasiveness and creativity are the main value he brings to his firm. And that always has left me thinking: is this another one of Don's many character flaws, or one of the signs of his creative genius?

In today's fast-paced work culture, productivity can come from non-productivity. Busyness is often mistaken for productivity, but true productivity may come from periods of apparent non-productivity, and there is evidence to back this up. But two preconceived notions have always been a challenge for me, personally, in accepting this idea:

  • The belief that relentless effort guarantees superior outcomes: burnout is merely a phase to "persevere" through.
  • While others may justify moments of inactivity, I often hold myself to a stringent standard, valuing perpetual busyness over genuine downtime.

Yet, despite those two thoughts occupying my immediate attention, the notion of how non-productive time influences an individual's overall productivity, particularly in the realms of creative or knowledge work, continuously simmered in the background. In an almost self-referential moment, I realized I had been crafting this article mentally while being engaged in other tasks.

Through extensive research and introspection, I've delved into how taking breaks or allowing our minds to drift can indeed foster heightened creativity and improved performance. Let’s take a look together.

The Enigma of the Resting Creative Mind

In a study by Quentin Raffaelli et. al.,  "Creative Minds at Rest," there's a fascinating correlation between originality and one's state of mind during periods of rest. Individuals with higher originality scores (divergent thinking, and thinking “outside the box”) showcased specific characteristics during their idle or resting state. For instance:

  • Associative Thought Patterns: These individuals exhibited more freely moving thoughts and a higher percentage of associative transitions.
  • Semantic Similarity: A greater semantic similarity was observed between their thoughts, suggesting a richer tapestry of interconnected ideas.
  • Engagement: There was a heightened engagement with their resting state thoughts, evidenced by decreased levels of boredom and an increased total word count in expressing these thoughts.
  • Curiosity: Higher originality was also linked with greater curiosity, further underscoring the idea that a wandering mind is not an idle one.

But what does this tell us? Simply put, when our brains are "at rest", they're far from inactive. Instead, they're potentially cultivating the next big idea or solution to a problem that our 'busy' selves haven't yet solved.


Small Pauses, Big Impact

While the wandering mind holds secrets to our creative potential, there's also power in intentional rest. Enter micro-breaks. A recent meta-analysis titled "Give me a break!" delves into the role of these short, deliberate pauses taken between work tasks.

The findings? Micro-breaks, though small, have a tangible impact. They've been shown to:

  • Boost Vigor: These breaks significantly enhance our sense of energy and enthusiasm
  • Reduce Fatigue: They also play a pivotal role in reducing feelings of tiredness and fatigue 
  • Performance: While the overall effect on performance is not statistically significant, it's intriguing to note that the breaks had a more positive impact on tasks with lesser cognitive demands. Plus, the longer the break, the greater its impact on performance, suggesting there's an optimum break length for different tasks.

At a foundational level, the cognitive load theory underscores the limits of our mental capacity in working memory. When we exert too much cognitive effort on a single task, it naturally impedes our learning capabilities. With finite cognitive resources at our disposal, allocating them towards one activity leaves less available for others. Through this lens, micro-breaks appear as an organic counter-response, allowing our minds to recalibrate from potential cognitive overload which can dampen performance.

So, while we've known anecdotally that "taking a break" can help, it's now backed by science. These short pauses can rejuvenate us, preparing our minds for the next bout of intensive work.

Not All Work is Created Equal

The Balance of Mindful and Mindless Work

In our quest for productivity, there's a tendency to pile on the tasks, assuming that filling every hour with challenging work will yield the best outcomes. However, a study titled “Enhancing creativity through “mindless” work: A framework of workday design” offers a different perspective. It contends that an overdose of mindful tasks might be the very thing inhibiting our creative juices. When professionals are subjected to an incessant flow of high workload pressures, their workday shifts from a balanced state of mindful work, which fosters creativity, to an overwhelming state of "relentlessly mindful work". Such an environment not only drains the individuals, but can lead to an actual decrease in creativity. So, how can we break this cycle? 

In the study, researchers found that rather than inundating ourselves with a ceaseless barrage of challenging tasks, we should consider designing workdays that strike a balance between mindful and mindless work. By deliberately incorporating bouts of "mindless work" – tasks that don't demand intense cognitive processing – into the daily routine, professionals might find moments of respite, where their minds can wander and perhaps stumble upon creative insights. This approach, as the study's framework suggests, is not about promoting lethargy but strategically alternating between different types of tasks to maximize both productivity and creativity.

It’s evident that the value of pauses, breaks, and even seemingly "mindless" tasks cannot be overlooked. Just as micro-breaks rejuvenate the mind and boost well-being, periods of lighter, less demanding tasks can serve as fertile ground for innovative thoughts. By appreciating and integrating these moments of "mindless" work, we might find that they hold the key to unlocking some of our most creative ideas.

Marrying Creativity and Productivity

As we pull these insights together, a coherent narrative emerges: The path to greater productivity and creativity might not always be through relentless work but rather through intentional periods of rest and unstructured thought. Our brains, when allowed to meander, can tap into reservoirs of creativity that structured environments might stifle.

For organizations and individuals striving for innovation, recognizing the value of these periods of 'non-productivity' is crucial. Whether it's encouraging daydreaming, fostering environments that allow for non-linear work days and downtime between tasks, or even embracing the entirety of remote work culture, organizations would do well to not create systems that stifle this kind of creativity.

The journey of unraveling the intricacies of the human mind never ceases to astonish. While our society often equates continuous work successfully, the science suggests a nuanced view. The rhythm of our productivity is punctuated by moments of "productive non-productivity" — where our creative minds wander, and we find respite in brief pauses. By recognizing and honoring these moments, we nurture our well-being and pave the way for unexpected sparks of creativity and innovation. So, the next time you find yourself taking a step back or daydreaming, remember: it's not just a break; it's a bridge to a more vibrant, creative, and efficient self. Maybe take in a movie or, if it’s the poison you’d pick, have an Old Fashioned. I wouldn’t recommend doing much else that Don Draper did in his life.


  • Quentin Raffaelli, Rudy Malusa, Nadia-Anais de Stefano, Eric Andrews, Matthew D. Grilli, Caitlin Mills, Darya L. Zabelina & Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna (2023) Creative Minds at Rest: Creative Individuals are More Associative and Engaged with Their Idle Thoughts, Creativity Research Journal, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2023.2227477
  • Elsbach, Kimberly D., and Andrew B. Hargadon. "Enhancing creativity through “mindless” work: A framework of workday design.” Organization science 17, no. 4 (2006): 470-483.
  • Amabile, Teresa M., Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer. "Creativity under the gun." Harvard Business Review 80 (2002): 52-63.
  • Fox, Michael D., and Marcus E. Raichle. "Spontaneous fluctuations in brain activity observed with functional magnetic resonance imaging." (2007).
  • Hammond, C. (2015, November 6). "Why we should stop worrying about our wandering minds." BBC. ​​
  • Drew, Liam. (2023, August 30) "Relax to the max." New Scientist, 32+. Gale General OneFile (accessed September 28, 2023)