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If you think you read that title wrong—you didn’t.

The BIG IDEA—In order to be wildly productive, you need designated periods of being wildly unproductive.

At the beginning of this series, I asked you a question—If you were so productive that you gained back more time, what would you do with the time you gained back?

It is absolutely essential that you know the answer to this question. If you don’t know, stop right now and write down your response.

The reason is this—If you don’t definitively know how you would answer, you will be doomed to keep filling that time with more work, and you are on a trajectory for exhaustion and burnout.

The odds are good that it will have a negative effect on your health, happiness, and family. Moreover, research shows it will even lower your odds of workplace success—the very thing you might think you are achieving by working more.

You need a plan for that re-claimed time, or it will be far too easy to just lengthen your to-do list. 

That time needs to be earmarked for life-giving rest and replenishment.

There is a point at which doing more yields diminishing returns—where being more productive actually makes you less productive.

Rest is the Yin to the productivity Yang. You cannot have one without the other. There is so much scientific research on this topic now, it’s hard to wade through it all, so I will cite some of my favorite studies for you in this article.

But do we really need research to tell us that rest and recovery are important?!

One of the most important books I have ever read is Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. It is written from a perspective inclusive of many spiritual traditions.

“In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost our rhythm between work and rest. Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing. And for want of rest, our lives are in great danger.”

–Wayne Muller

He goes on to elegantly describe that all life reveals a rhythm of rest and activity. Day and night. Waking and sleeping. Inhale and exhale. The heart rests perceptibly after each beat. Even the ocean gives our entire planet a surging, rhythmic heartbeat.

The effects of rest on performance and longevity

In the world famous Blue Zone Studies by National Geographic, researchers looked at communities around the world where people regularly lived past age 100, and they isolated contributing factors. Astonishingly, they only found five communities worldwide that met criteria! One of the communities they identified was the 7th Day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California.

The residents there live about 10 years longer than the average American (average is age 79). Interestingly, one factor they recognized was that Loma Linda residents practice a regular Sabbath day—or one day of rest each week.

Sports psychologists emphasize the importance of rest routines to enhance performance. In their landmark Harvard Business Review article, The Making of a Corporate Athlete, performance psychologist Jim Loehr and his partner Tony Schwartz took their experience working with world-class athletes and applied this formula to high level executives.

They found that the highest performing leaders need the same intermittent and disciplined recovery routines as those of world class athletes. This is what allows them to sustain high performance over the long haul—an optimal rhythm between work and rest.

When people feel strong and resilient—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—they perform better, with more passion, for longer. They win, their families win, and the corporations that employ them win.”

(Loehr and Schwartz, 2001)

Here is some more of my favorite research on this topic:

  • The Data Driven Case for Vacation (Harvard Business Review 2016)55% of Americans don’t use their vacation time, that’s 658 million unused vacation days annually. In this article, the data shows that people who take 11 or more vacation days a year are 30% more likely to receive a raise! When you take vacations you improve your odds of a promotion and a raise, your health and family relationship get better, and your stress goes down. Why wouldn’t you use your vacation then!?
  • You Probably Like Working Crazy Long Hours, But Here Is Why You Should Stop (CNBC 2018)—Data shows that employers often can’t tell the difference between someone that works 80 hours a week and someone that works a lot less. They can’t see what you are doing much of the time, they only see the result you produce. Data shows that longer hours usually lead to fuzzy thinking and more mistakes. Worse yet, you might miss out on the most important things in life. 
  • A well-known study conducted by the Draugiem Group used computer software to establish that the optimal work-rest ratio was 52 minutes working with a 17-minute break. If you want the super simple version, just take a short break about every hour.

How many hours should I work?

Generally speaking, once you get past 45 or 50 hours, you don’t have much time for other important things in life that require your time (think health, marriage, spiritual life, kids, and friendship). But most elite leaders and entrepreneurs recommend you redefine your work in terms of results you produce, not hours.

If you can’t stop working long hours, there are some common psychological drivers for this. So you may need to ask yourself some tough questions and spend some time reflecting.

Some people feel more important when they are really busy and get too much of their validation from their work identity.

Some believe they have no choice and can’t set boundaries with their boss.

Some escape family or marital problems because they feel like they get more respect at work or have more control.

I want you to be wildly productive, but I also want you to have endurance over the long haul. So, if you take nothing else away from today’s lesson, just reflect on this:

When you’re on, be on. When you’re off, be off. —Cal Newport

Many of us live as if the best way to achieve success is to push through exhaustion and work around the clock. We mistakenly believe we can oppose the natural rhythms of nature.

When I see people living or working without ceasing, I take great comfort in the wise words of Wayne Muller—Remember, no living thing lives like this.

Your homework—Turn information into action

Here are 6 simple research-based strategies you can use to boost your productivity by being wildly unproductive:

  1. Take a 15-minute break every hour.
  2. Take one day off per week completely and don’t do anything productive. Do replenishing activities instead.
  3. Take 2-3 weeks of continuous vacation per year (not just a long weekend here and there, research shows that is not enough to really recharge).
  4. Make sure you do a digital detox daily and once per week. Turn off your devices and hide them away. Lock them away if necessary.
  5. Set and stick to clear start and stop times for work (most of the time).
  6. Do I really need to mention 8 hours of sleep? 

Have a great weekend!


Suggested Resources

  1. Sabbath by Wayne Muller
  2. Blue Zone Research (just Google it)
  3. The Making of a Corporate Athlete—Harvard Business Review
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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