The Productivity Paradox

The secret to unlocking your best, most creative work? Doing nothing.

By Wesleigh Mowry

Our CXO Whitney Somerville recently presented our team with a unique challenge: to take time during our workweek to pause. She shared an article about soccer star Lionel Messi’s anxiety and how he spends the first few minutes of the game not playing, with this note: 

“We can learn a lot from his approach of coming into any situation fully prepared—but also remembering to pause and assess so we can give our very best. For me, it really underscores the importance of taking a thoughtful approach in all we do.” 

This immediately reminded me of my favorite quote from the hit drama Mad Men (I’m a graphic designer, of course I loved the show about 1960s ad agencies!). In this episode, the company’s financial chief is complaining to creative director Don Draper that his department seems to be lazing about, wasting time and the agency’s money. Draper, played by John Hamm, defends their socializing and dart-playing:  

It sounds counterintuitive, to ask that during a busy time full of important deadlines to slow down instead of speed up, but this approach is used by successful people in many fields.

Culture and technology encourages us to constantly fill the silence—listen to this podcast, flick through that video app, listen to these recaps of productivity books while multitasking to be extra productive—but science shows that taking a pause and letting yourself be bored is actually a springboard to action. According to Psychology Today, benefits of boredom include improving mental health, increasing creativity and curiosity, motivating the pursuit of goals and boosting self-control skills—all things that will benefit your productivity in the workplace. 

What Don Draper (and the Mad Men writers) knew, and Messi knows, and what Whitney was reminding the Slide Nine team, is that sometimes the key to doing your best work is to not work. Take a break, clear your head, be a little bored and let yourself be unproductive until you are.