Wasted office time is not always a waste

It depends on the task that is to be accomplished. Taking breaks off research or long creative endeavours can prove beneficial.

An increasingly larger body of research shows that cognitive-intensive tasks, if not rewarding enough in their scope or as a process, drive people away from completing them. It’s not unusual for psychology to confirm obvious conclusions - if you don’t like doing something, you’ll do anything in your power to avoid doing it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In a seminal essay, James Webb Young talks about how producing ideas is as much about the breaks as the work itself. He’s by no means saying you should slack off - on the contrary, you should power through your task. And then pause. Unwind, cool down. See, when you’re trying hard to come up with a new solution, or a better alternative to one, you are engaging your analytical prowess. You are solving a problem with your wit and logic, thus eluding lateral ideas. For unusual concepts to come to you, that is - creative thinking - you need a small hack: exhaustion.

Say you are tasked with driving more sales via in-house pitches. You need to optimize the way you generate leads, present, follow-up and close the deal. The first step is to do your homework - flesh out your current process, just as it is. Then, try to do the same for other businesses (do some research, make some calls). Get 1-2 good books on selling, lead-generation, marketing and go through them, taking notes as you go along. Take part in some meetings and see how they go, what works brilliantly and what could suffer improvement.

This will be somewhat fun, so you might not be tempted to waste time. But you are soon to be faced with a terrible foe - the blank page. You must take all that knowledge and forge a couple of solutions. Panic and woe ensue… “Maybe I can do this tomorrow”, you say, and put it off while you nip off to grab a sandwich, browse facebook, tweet a bit… You know, procrastinate. You go home and feel bad that you haven’t done anything towards your goal.

Time to put the Work Breakdown Structure to good use, in the form of a mental exercise. As said before, your task is to optimize a process. Start with that. Use the process-sheet you drafted before and see what you can cut from it to make it simpler. Then add your notes from the meetings, books and research - make it big and pretty. Ask someone to take a look at your mindmaps and offer opinions - you’re still not technically working, so procrastination isn’t all that bad. Do a quick facebook Q&A about a topic into which your friends might offer some insight.Tweet about a small part of your task, seeking opinions/ testing out theories. Read up on that famous friend you met in college.

Then go on a rampage and just waste time for 15-20 minutes. Come back to your notes, with a clear head - do they still make sense, would you still use them in any way?

Split your big tasks in smaller, more achievable ones and tackle those, interspersing them with off-periods where you simply waste time.

Why go through all this trouble?

Creativity is nothing but a new combination of old elements, as mr Young so aptly said. To find that, you need to both expose yourself to a lot of relevant information AND consume seemingly useless junk. Think about it - painters have been creating stills of food for ages, but when someone made an app that allowed you to snap pictures of your lunch, everyone went wild. Old elements (passion for sharing good-looking food & camera apps) reimagined into something new.

You can read more about procrastination as a phenomenon in this Illinois State paper: http://my.ilstu.edu/~dfgrayb/Personal/Procrastination.pdf - maybe while putting off some work, eh?

Adrian, MO, YArooms

Written on Monday, 25 Jan 2016



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