I am a lister.
There’s no doubt about it. When something needs to be done, I will jot down notes with ferocity, slicing out the unnecessary fat like a ninja-turned-butcher, aligning the elements in a grid or thought-web or doodle-laden spiral with equal intensity. It’s how I get things done: visualizing them so I can knock them off, one by one, feeling a small burst of achievement each time I whip the pen across the paper, as if carving hash marks into a bed post.
But with all my listing, my organizing, my Inbox Zero and GTDing, I still find myself periodically feeling stressed and overwhelmed, as if I am forgetting something important.
I decided that what I really needed was a sure-fire method of clearing my mind and collecting my thoughts. Something that I seldom do is nothing. If you see me during the day, I likely have a reason for walking the direction I’m walking, and if I’m just sitting there, you can bet that I’ve got a phone in my hand and/or a keyboard at my fingertips.
Though productivity is generally seen as a positive trait (as well as somewhat of an occupational hazard when you enjoy what you do for a living, like I do), I’ve found that taking a small amount of time per day to do absolutely nothing helps me to focus, make connections that I would not otherwise have made, remember things that I would otherwise have forgotten, and generally de-stress when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
When I say do nothing, I literally mean ‘nothing.’ No TV in the background. No music to mentally sing along to. Do not doze, do not read, do not play Tetris (though this is something that I usually recommend for small breaks during the day), and do not eat a snack. Just sit comfortably and let your mind wander where it will.
The first week I started doing this, my girlfriend came home from work and I was just sitting on the bed, leaned up against the headboard, staring into space through glazed eyes. She was understandably shocked, being accustomed to my usual whirlwind of movement, but I was completely in the zone, and afterward was able to meet a project deadline that had completely slipped my mind and type out the details of an idea I had just come up with for a side-project I’m involved with.
Make sure to keep this time reasonable, or you won’t keep up with it. The first week I did it for 30 minutes per day, but since then I’ve done it for 20 minutes, as after that amount of time I start to get jittery and my physical environment starts to distract me. Figure out what you optimal time is and stick with it.
The big goal here is to realize that sometimes doing nothing is the most productive activity one can take part in, and that even though modern technology and organizational skills can take you far, sometimes just dropping the intensity and focus for 20 minutes can be a good investment of your time.
Update: April 22, 2016
Here we have the origin story for something I still do and recommend today: my 20 Minutes of Awesome. Just sitting and doing nothing for a period of time each day, which allows my brain to unspool.
Note that at this point I was still GTDing and listing and doing other lifehacker-sounding things. I guess I still Inbox Zero, but a lot of the tricks and gimmicks I used adhered to seem a little superfluous now. I’m not trying to optimize every moment, so I’m more able to just say, “If it’s in my inbox, I haven’t responded to it yet,” and let that be. I seldom make lists, I rarely Pomodoro.
That’s not to say these aren’t valuable things to know about, but I prefer less-branded techniques these days, and instead focus on core principles. I don’t buy things I don’t need. I don’t do work that doesn’t feel good, that doesn’t align with my philosophy. I don’t do business with assholes. I don’t allow clutter to develop, because it gets in the way of how I like to live. Simple things, unnamed, largely, but useful. And far easier to develop on-the-fly, since everything ties back to core principles, rather than NYT-Bestseller-named ‘time optimizers.’