Used properly, ‘idle time’ isn’t wasted time

Creativity has had more impact on the world than any other human trait. We all have it, but some nurture it better than others. Creativity blossoms when we give ourselves ‘idle time’, says Peter Hughes.

Used properly, ‘idle time’ isn’t wasted time
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When last did you take a long walk? Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to love walking; he believed his most creative ideas came while he was on a walk.

He often held meetings while walking, and whenever he wanted to have a serious conversation he’d suggest a walk.

Bill Gates tells of a time when there was tension between himself and Jobs, and during a meeting, in an attempt to resolve it, Jobs suggested they go for a walk.

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It threw Gates completely.

“Taking a walk was not one of my management techniques,” he says, but admits that while they were walking and talking, their tempers cooled, and they made progress in resolving their disagreement.

Jony Ive, the brilliant and long-serving designer at Apple, was frequently seen walking with Jobs as they dreamt up new ideas. The famed iMac G4 desktop PC was conceptualised on one of their walks.

There is plenty of evidence that regular walking, apart from dramatically decreasing a range of health risks, energises the brain, reduces stress and boosts creative thinking.

The easiest way
Walking quietly on your own frees you from distractions and interruptions, some of the main killers of creativity. Walking with someone else creates a bond, builds communication, and boosts mutual creativity.

The benefits of walking are not new. Many of the world’s most creative people, among them Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin, were great walkers. It’s the easiest way of creating ‘idle time’ for yourself.

Note: idle time is not wasted time! That’s a fallacy of my generation, who were brought up on the saying, ‘The Devil finds mischief for idle hands’, perpetuating the myth that hard work automatically makes you a good person.

Free to roam
It has been proven that certain vital brain functions require downtime. Jonathan Schooler, professor of brain sciences at the University of California in the US, says: “Our research has found that mind-wandering fosters a particular kind of productivity. When people’s minds are free to roam, creativity is facilitated, impasses are overcome and ‘aha moments’ are triggered.”

As well as building creativity, ‘idling’ the brain improves memory and recall. The brain is just like the rest of one’s body: a balance between exercise and rest is crucial to keeping it in good shape.

Archimedes is said to have come up with his principle of buoyancy while in the bath. These epiphanies bubble up from nowhere when one’s mind is in idle mode.

You’ll have experienced moments like these yourself, although perhaps not quite at the Archimedes level! A solution to a problem you’ve been mulling over pops into your mind while you’re in the shower or trying to fall asleep. These insights, or ‘eureka moments’, often happen when your mind is wholly free and not preoccupied with the minutiae of your job.

Make time
We need to consciously schedule idle time in our daily lives. Like Jobs, we need to walk, cycle, fish or simply do nothing. And once again, this doesn’t mean loafing! It’s ‘creative idleness’, and it’s a skill just as important to hone as the many other skills you need to do a great job.

I too have made the mistake at times of allowing myself to be overwhelmed by work, and neglecting the need for idle time. These periods in my life had a negative impact on my colleagues, the company, my family, and me personally.

It takes self-discipline to keep a balance between getting things done, and scheduling idle time.

So, the next time you feel like being idle, be idle! Watch the sun set, read a light novel, lie on the couch, listen to music, eat your favourite food.

Don’t feel guilty about your idleness. It will make you a better manager.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.