Busy executives and leaders constantly strive for enhanced productivity and greater success. We’re always looking for more ways to get more done in less time. However, the research is very clear: incorporating periods of doing nothing into your routine can have numerous benefits, positively impacting both your professional and personal lives. That’s right. You need rest.
Surprised? So was I. I’ve always been a very active, doing kind of person. I’m always doing something. Rest was something I thought of as strictly for nighttime only….until recently.
The Science Behind Doing Nothing
Recent studies have shown that engaging in activities that promote relaxation and stillness can actually enhance productivity, creativity, and overall well-being. When the mind is allowed to rest, it enters a state that rejuvenates cognitive function and promotes clearer thinking. This downtime helps reduce stress, anxiety, and burnout, enabling executives to perform at their best.
Doing nothing doesn’t necessarily mean being idle (though it certainly can involve naps!) It involves intentionally setting aside time for activities that promote relaxation and mental rejuvenation. Here are some suggestions:
Engage in guided or self-guided meditation exercises to quiet the mind, enhance focus, and cultivate mindfulness. Meditation has been linked to reduced stress, improved emotional well-being, and increased mental clarity. (Source: Harvard Health Publishing, “Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress”, 2014) I recommend the Insight Timer as one of my favorite apps for meditation – users can search by topic, style, and length, and it’s free!
Spending time in natural surroundings like parks or forests allows your mind to unwind and reconnect with the present moment. Nature walks have been shown to reduce cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and improve mood and concentration. (Source: Frontiers in Psychology, “Take a walk on the wild side: The effect of walking in nature on emotion and cognition”, 2015) The Japanese refer to this as “forest bathing,” and it’s well-known for its mental health benefits.
Unplug from technology, social media, and emails for designated periods to create mental space and reduce distractions. Research suggests that excessive screen time can lead to mental fatigue and decreased cognitive performance. Disconnecting from screens allows for mental rejuvenation. (Source: Journal of Behavioral Addictions, “Smartphone use, addiction, narcissism, and personality: A mixed methods investigation”, 2017) And of course you should be avoiding screen time for at least an hour or two before bed. However, if you’re like me, you might want to access the infinite library available on your phone or tablet as a means of winding down at night. That’s okay, as long as you use a black background and the darkest lighting setting in your reading app on your device.
Write down thoughts, reflections, and ideas to declutter the mind and gain clarity. Journaling can serve as a form of self-expression and emotional release, reducing stress and promoting self-awareness. (Source: International Journal of Writing and Creative Writing Pedagogies, “The therapeutic potential of journaling: An unpacking and enriching of socio-emotional self-regulation”, 2020) It’s also a wonderful way to create space for dreams, ambitions, and plans.
Engage in activities like painting, playing a musical instrument, or other artistic pursuits that provide an outlet for expression and relaxation. Creative hobbies allow for a state of “flow,” where individuals become fully engrossed in an enjoyable activity, leading to improved mood, reduced stress, and increased mental well-being. (Source: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, “Flow and meaningfulness as mechanisms behind the enjoyment of music”, 2018) Creative hobbies are also really fun!
“Nothing” hobbies are hobbies where you may be in flow – even a creative flow – but without creating anything permanent. For example, with a jigsaw puzzle, some might glue and frame the finished puzzle, but the puzzle can just as easily be taken apart and placed back in the box. Similarly, adult coloring books, which one can complete and then throw away, were recently shown to have a similar impact to a mindfulness meditation practice. (Source: Inc., “Neuroscience Says This Brainless Activity Reduces Stress and Quiets Your Mind (but Only If You Do It This Specific Way”, 2024.) Creating sandcastles and mandalas and building Lego sets that you intend to take apart also fall into this category. In an article by Well+Good, psychotherapist Melissa Lapides expressed the benefits of using things like Lego sets to reduce stress and anxiety. She says: “When you’re focusing on creating something, you’re pointing your mind in the direction of what you’re creating. This doesn’t leave room for unwanted thoughts to penetrate your brain.” (Source: Happiful, “What are the wonderful wellbeing benefits of Lego play as an adult?”, 2023)
Renewed Mental Energy
Allowing the mind to rest through periods of doing nothing replenishes mental energy, leading to improved focus, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. Research suggests that breaks during the workday can prevent cognitive overload and enhance productivity. (Source: Journal of Applied Psychology, “Recover faster, work better? Unraveling the relationship between breaks, recovery, and performance”, 2017) Want to be a better, more productive leader? REST.
Taking time for stillness fosters divergent thinking and sparks fresh insights, enhancing creativity and innovation. Research has indicated that moments of relaxation and mind wandering allow the brain to make connections and generate novel ideas. (Source: Frontiers in Psychology, “The dark side of creativity: Biological vulnerability and negative emotions lead to greater artistic creativity”, 2019) Want to be a more creative, innovative leader? REST.
Enhanced Emotional Well-being
Doing nothing reduces stress, promotes a sense of calm, and improves emotional resilience, leading to improved overall well-being. Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of relaxation techniques on mental health, including reduced anxiety and depression symptoms. (Source: JAMA Internal Medicine, “Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction in a community sample of older adults”, 2016) Want to become a leader who has greater empathy and emotional intelligence? REST.
Improved Work-Life Balance
By incorporating periods of doing nothing, busy executives can find a healthier balance between work and personal life, leading to greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Creating boundaries and prioritizing self-care can result in increased happiness and a more sustainable approach to career success. (Source: Journal of Vocational Behavior, “Work-life balance initiatives: Examining how they relate to work outcomes and individual well-being”, 2018) Want to become a more balanced leader? REST.
Give Yourself Permission to Rest
I recently attended a webinar series on rest, put on by Daring to Rest. I’ll be honest: I thought to myself, “I don’t have the time to rest right now.” I stopped myself. I don’t have time to rest? Of course I do! And I started thinking about rest more intentionally. Creating an intentional space for rest. Crafting a plan for rest. Looking for spaces in my schedule when I can rest. And I found that, once I started deliberately making mental space for rest, I was able to find the time for a little rest here and a little rest there.
My rest is rarely the same from day to day. Some days, I’m working on a jigsaw puzzle before my day of meetings begins. Other days I’m lying down in a little 15-minute window between client sessions. Sometimes I’ll just go cuddle with one or all of our dogs when I have a break. The point is to be deliberate and intentional about finding the time and space for a bit of rest now and then.
Busy executives and leaders can greatly benefit from incorporating periods of doing nothing into their routines. By allowing the mind to rest and recharge, they can experience enhanced productivity, creativity, and overall well-being. Embracing the power of doing nothing can contribute to their long-term success and happiness. And you will be amazed at how much better you feel when you start doing this.