At Google, goofing off is the way to go. In fact, it’s encouraged. Engineers at the tech powerhouse’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters are told to spend 20 percent of their work hours — whether a couple of hours a day, or a full day a week — doing exactly what they please. They can sit and stare into space, take a nap, or wander the corporate campus and let their minds roam free.
At first glance, this looks like a clever (though potentially costly) ploy to retain finicky employees. But Google’s 80/20 concept taps some of the most reliable research on employee productivity. Wide-ranging studies show that taking time out at work or at home to rest, daydream, be silly and pursue amusements of various kinds has physiological and psychological benefits that can bolster well-being, improve concentration, boost problem-solving capability and enhance creativity.
Google’s approach has given rise to some amazing innovations. Gmail, Google News and Mars — an add-on map of the Red Planet’s terrain in Google Earth — are just three of the successful products employees have created during their “free” time. Software engineer Michael Weiss-Malik, who created Mars, says the time his employer allows him to just have fun with ideas is crucial to the creative process.
“I got to stretch my wings and do something out of the ordinary that also happens to benefit the public’s understanding of science,” says Weiss-Malik. “And because these are ‘side projects’ that don’t always benefit initially from full-support resources, you’re forced to get creative and scrappy, which means you sometimes come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of before, but that in hindsight wind up being superior to what you probably would have done had it been a ‘real’ project.”
Of course, most of us don’t work for companies quite as forward thinking (or as richly resourced) as Google. But it’s not just corporate policy that prevents us from taking breaks and goofing off. It’s our own mistaken notions about the best ways to wring the most from our busy days and our addled brains.
For the most part, we think of off-task idleness and play as indulgences or distractions from what we “should” be doing. These apparently low-productivity pursuits can yield surprisingly pragmatic benefits, though, helping us become more effective thinkers, more productive workers, and healthier, happier, more resilient individuals. All of which means that pursuing random moments of “unproductive” time might be a lot more productive than you think.
Making Space for Monkey Business
Even for those of us who really enjoy what we do for a living, our jobs are first and foremost about getting work done — and done well. That’s why we often relegate what we see as less productive pursuits (say, staring out the window, sharing laughs with a coworker or showing around pictures of our kids in their Halloween costumes) to the back burner.
Even at home, it seems we’re forever on a mission — to stay on top of the laundry, the kids’ extracurricular activities, the bills. It can keep a person running 24/7, making it feel nearly impossible to find time for purely enjoyable or relaxing engagements.
“Lots of individuals have that sense of eternal responsibility. They feel bound to the demands of work and the pressure to pay for their mortgage, their car, their kids in college,” says Stuart Brown, MD, a psychiatrist in Carmel Valley, Calif., and coauthor of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery Trade, 2010). “The American way — starting with the dualism of good and bad in Judeo-Christian tradition, the survival demands of a frontier society, the grinding workload fostered by the industrial revolution — has not always prioritized the experience of playfulness. And that’s a huge loss.”
It’s a loss, in part, because of the key ways in which downtime and self-renewing activities can help us upgrade our overall levels of happiness, creativity and mental clarity. It’s a loss, too, because when emphasis on productivity is unrelenting, we experience diminishing returns that truly diminish us: Accumulated stress spills over into all areas of our lives, lowering our overall happiness, robbing us of pleasure, and adversely diminishing both our health and personal effectiveness.
It’s for this reason that Stephen Covey, the late author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 2004), dedicated the seventh of his famed Seven Habits to “sharpening the saw,” insisting that only a consistent, continuous dedication to self-renewal (rest, play, exercise, personal exploration) can empower an individual to maintain the sharp mental and physical edge necessary to properly execute the other six habits.
“Without this renewal,” wrote Covey, “the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish.” You can renew and better yourself through appropriate rest and relaxation, he notes, “or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything.”
So how does one begin to build more self-renewing breaks and amusements into everyday life? And what benefits can one expect from investing a little more energy in simply powering down, chilling out, and even goofing around now and then? The answers are nestled right between your ears.