In 2017, US workers let 705 million vacation days go to waste, effectively donating $60 billion to their employers. The top reason? They dreaded the prospect of returning to a mountain of work, a 2014 survey showed.
Other reasons included thinking of themselves as irreplaceable (35%) and wanting to show complete dedication to their company or job (33%). Lower down the list but still significant was the fear of being passed over for a promotion (19%).
Yet those who do go on vacation report feeling 20% happier in their personal relationships and 56% happier in general, according to a study cited in Do Nothing: Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, by Celeste Headlee.
Research shows that vacationers are also more likely to get a raise—34.6% more likely if they take fewer than ten days, and 65.4% if they take more.
Why we suck at doing nothing
If taking time to rest is good for us, why are we so bad at it? One reason, according to philosopher Brian O’Connor, author of Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, is that we have come to see idleness as immoral—an obstacle to self-realization and a threat to the greatness of humanity.
Another is that we equate our self-worth with professional and material success, and believe that working more will help us do better, even though studies say otherwise.
There are other, more practical reasons. Earning by the hour makes us acutely aware of how much our time is worth—the higher our hourly rate, the more we think of how much we’re losing, financially, by not working.
Also, the rise of working from home has blurred the lines between work and home life, making it harder for many of us to achieve a work-life balance.
How to do nothing
In spite of the challenges, we can re-learn how to do nothing to reap the benefits of mind wandering and relaxation, which include better overall health and increased happiness, creativity, and yes, productivity.
Giving ourselves permission to “waste” time can even help us feel less lonely. When we’re not so focused on being efficient, we become more compassionate and better able to connect with other people.
Here are Celeste Headlee’s recommendations for de-swamping our schedules and giving ourselves more breathing space:
- Track your time.
To understand how much time you have and how you use it, track your time for at least three weeks. A simple way to do this is to get a notebook and create 30-minute chunks for each day. Every few hours or so, take a few minutes to write down what you did.
- Create your ideal schedule.
Now that you know how you’re spending your days, think about whether you’d like to use your time differently and if so, how. Start by listing all the things you have to do, as well as those you’d like to do, on a daily basis. Then, create an ideal schedule to serve as a reference for how to spend your days. (Be careful not to schedule too many activities, and make sure to leave breathing space between each one.)
- Work fewer hours.
If possible, experiment with reducing the number of days or hours you work—you might discover that you can do just as much in less time! Parkison’s Law says that “work expands so as to fit the time available for its completion,” so giving yourself less time to get work done can make you more efficient.
- Make time for leisure.
Make time for, schedule, and protect your leisure. Experiment with disconnecting after a certain time or one day a week. (Tip: Create a status message on Slack or set up an email auto-reply to let coworkers know you’re unavailable and when you’re likely to respond.)
- Schedule social time.
Connecting with people keeps us happy and healthy. Make socializing a priority by joining clubs or cultivating a habit of calling and meeting people. Talk to strangers—research shows that brief interactions are good for us.
- Stop multitasking (including outside of work).
You may be familiar with the benefits of monotasking and even apply it to your work life, but if you’re like most people, you probably eat while watching videos on YouTube, listen to podcasts and audiobooks while going for walks, and read emails while waiting in line. Consider doing nothing and engaging with your surroundings instead. Cultivating mindfulness—which Headspace defines as “the ability to be fully present”—can help you live a fuller, healthier life.
And our own recommendation: Use TextExpander to free up your time. TextExpander can save you up to forty working days a year, which you could spend doing nothing, guilt-free.
Give yourself permission to do nothing
In the 1920s, Henry Ford had already figured out that, when employees worked too much, they performed worse and made more errors, which is why he changed their work schedules to give them more free time.
Multiple studies since then support the idea that having free time that isn’t polluted by work or expectations of productivity makes you calmer, happier, more creative, and more productive.
Try it — learn how to do nothing and see how it makes you feel. As you prepare to work less, read this article on how to set up your Slack so it doesn’t cause you anxiety.
While you’re at it, check out these tips for reducing the time you spend in front of screens—they’ll help you ensure your leisure time remains your own and doesn’t get “polluted” with work, social media, and other people’s demands.
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