Why sometimes the most useful thing to do is nothing at all

For me, the “factory” approach to writing defeats the whole point of being a writer. 

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Last week I submitted the manuscript of a new book to my publisher, and I’m still exhaling in relief. It won’t be long before I have to resume work on it, and of course there’s the one after to think about, but for a few weeks, at least, I can relax a little. I will not be worrying, every hour of every day, over whether I should be working on my book instead, something I managed to do even when I was actually working on my book.

One great advantage of being a writer is that you get to decide how to allocate your time; one great disadvantage is that you have to decide how to allocate your time. I shouldn’t complain, but what the hell: when you’re not compelled to perform certain tasks on certain days, it’s really hard to stop questioning whether or not you’re focusing on the right task. It’s like being stuck in an endless debate with a passive-aggressive boss who wants the best for you, and doesn’t wish to be a pain, but is just wondering if you’re absolutely sure you should be doing this right now, instead of that?

If only so that I arrive prepared for these draining internal meetings, I have had to ponder the meaning of productivity, a concept that seems straightforward as long as you don’t think about it too much. The question I struggle and fail to answer is this: on any given day, how do I know if I’m doing enough work?

Writers have different approaches to productivity. Some pretend that they work in a factory, aiming to meet a regular quota of words every day. I have tried this, but found that it defeats the whole point of being a writer, which is not to work in a factory. Besides, there are, inevitably, days when it is impossible to write sentences that aren’t painful to read, and inspiration strikes only in the sense that it refuses to turn up for work. I used to force myself to keep writing through these dark tunnels, but instead of feeling virtuous I’d end up discouraged, which made it harder to resume work the next day.

That’s when I learned something weird about productivity; something employers will always find hard to accept: sometimes the most valuable activity is none at all. The mind needs time to recuperate and to rediscover its love of the game. When I stop trying to make progress, I often make great leaps forward. A chapter I’ve been struggling to organise will fall into place; a movie I’m watching will give me an idea that has nothing to do with the movie at all. Sometimes, the most productive hours are ones spent doing nothing useful. Sometimes, one must nap.

An economist would tell you that productivity refers to the rate of output per unit of input, which works fine as long nobody asks what exactly constitutes an input or an output. For people who work in factories or warehouses, this may be easier to answer than for the office worker, who does not have to clock on or off but instead endures an ever-present low-level anxiety that he may not be doing anything at all (does tweeting about imposter syndrome count as output, if it happens during office hours?).

When Microsoft surveyed office workers from around the world in 2005, it found that people work an average of 45 hours a week, and consider about 17 of those to be unproductive.

Anyone who has worked in an office knows that the correlation between hours spent there and work done is tenuous. People spend the first third of every meeting talking about what they watched on TV last night, the middle third talking about upcoming meetings, the final third talking about where to go to lunch, and all thirds catching up on Instagram.

That makes meetings sound like an enormous waste of time, which is mostly true, but then, wasting time is what makes most jobs bearable. The curse of the gig worker and the call centre salesperson is that their productivity is measured down to the nearest micro-unit. Most of us need to do quite a lot of nothing in order to get anything valuable done; our unproductive time is paradoxically productive. I grant you this is not the easiest case to make to the boss when she wonders why you spend so much time online. But if you’re reading this at work, I want you to feel good about yourself.

At its conference last month, the Labour Party promised to implement a four-day working week, on the basis that everyone can get the same amount done in fewer hours, thus freeing up time to write poems about Jeremy Corbyn. This ought to be a popular policy, although it may meet resistance from parents, who would have to spend more time with their children, and from freelance journalists, who stand to lose 20 per cent of the satisfaction they gain from knowing that the rest of the world has to get up and go to work while they bumble around the house in pyjamas.

But the bigger problem is that when you cut the slack, you cut much of what makes jobs enjoyable – and if anything correlates with output, it is enjoyment. I never get more writing done than when I’m writing about something that fascinates me, and I suspect the principle is universal.

The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-98) published 58 books during his lifetime, making highly influential contributions to his field. The secret of his remarkable productivity, he said, was never forcing himself to do anything he didn’t want to do: “Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.”

Instead of devising ever more ways to extract maximum value from their employees, perhaps employers should focus on making jobs more pleasurable to perform. Hey, maybe there’s a book in that. 

Ian Leslie is author of “Curious” and “Born Liars”, both published by Quercus

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain