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Productivity hack: the importance of downtime for deep work and better work-life balance

Feel like you never have time to get it all done? Maybe you need to take a break. Here’s how to unlock deep work time by prioritizing deep downtime.

Remote teams

Last updated

18 Aug 2022
The importance of downtime for deep work and better work-life balance

How much do you work?

Think about the number of hours you dedicate to your company. Are you a 9-5 worker? Any evening or weekend time? How well do you take care of that often elusive work-life balance? 

The shift to remote work has brought increased control and flexibility over work hours—for some people. But research shows that 45% of now-remote professionals say they’re working more hours during the week than before. And nearly 70% say they’re now working on weekends. Feel familiar?

Increased demands and an ever-present office in your living room make it harder to shut down at the end of the day. Or on the weekends. Or while on vacation. 

This happens when your dining room table doubles as your computer stand. But it’s also due to a glitch in the average professional’s mind that work and rest are mutually exclusive opposites—a belief that the only way to work more is to put in more hours. 

And that belief is wrong. 

Deep work requires deep rest

Your brain is about 2% of your total body weight, but it consumes roughly 20% of your body’s energy. So you can imagine that, apart from calories, that kind of consumption also requires a fair bit of rest. 

And rest isn’t just that thing you do at the end of the day after your work is done. It’s a key ingredient for deep work. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, put it:

“Rest is not this optional leftover activity. Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

Downtime is essential for increasing attention, boosting mood, unlocking creativity, and solving problems. It’s also necessary for improving learning and memory and restoring mental health at work.

We’ve all been stuck on a problem, and then as soon as we give up and turn our minds to something else—bam!—the solution appears. From crossword puzzles to that forgotten name of the person you saw at the store, taking a break can unlock answers. By allowing your mind some downtime, it can subconsciously work through parts of a task that your conscious mind may have been blocking. 

Deliberately planned downtime can also keep us from bouts of burnout. Of course, there are days or weeks when extra time and effort are needed to hit important deadlines. But when high-output, no-rest days become constant, focus and motivation take a big hit. 

Makes sense. So why do we have so much trouble getting the rest we need to be our best?

So much to do, so little time

One of the reasons we don't take breaks is because we have so much to do. Resting feels like time away from getting things done. And those to-do lists seem to multiply by the minute. But how useful are all those tasks?

If you’ve read Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, or Cal Newport’s Deep Work, you know the distinction between being efficient and being effective

  • Being efficient is about getting the most amount done with the least possible time and energy 

  • Being effective is about focusing on the things that will have the greatest impact 

The problem is that many of us become efficient at doing things that aren’t really moving the needle. We prioritize inbox zero, instantaneous responses to Slack messages, and completing our entire checklist before finishing the day. Even if that checklist is full of trivial tasks.

But your customers—and your company—don’t pay you to become lightning responders in Slack or all-day Zoom warriors. 

Product managers are paid to prioritize products and features that people love. Developers are paid to produce code that comes to life as great user experiences. Copywriters are paid to write lines that inspire and move people to action.

Being efficient on tasks that don’t contribute to those activities won’t get you to the finish line quicker. It just pushes the finish line further down the task list.

And all of this affects the ‘life’ side of the work-life balance

If you spend the day checking off as many tasks as possible, you’ll finish your days—and go into your weekends—feeling like you still haven’t done enough. Work bleeds into life, and the line between the two gets blurrier. 

If instead your work days are spent doing deep work—undistracted focus on the mentally taxing tasks that actually make a difference—then at the end of the day, you’ll feel like you can log off in peace. 

Deep work is about focusing on things that really matter.

This is why it’s so important for individuals, teams, and managers to have periodic, honest reflections on questions like: 

  • Are we focused on truly important activities?

  • Are we trying to be more efficient or more effective?

  • What are we doing that we could stop with no repercussion to the business?

  • Are our efforts getting us closer to our goals? (or just giving us things to talk about during status updates)

Deep work also requires effortful, sustained attention. And this kind of focus requires rest. 

How to make downtime work for you

So when should you take breaks? And how do you effectively gear down during downtime?

Here are a few suggestions we think you’ll find useful.

1. Watch for the signs

There often comes a time during the day when you catch yourself scanning the same line in an email or document over and over again. Not because it’s really interesting, but because you repeatedly fail to pull the meaning out of the words. 

If you listen closely, you might hear a little voice in your head whispering, “I need a break.” Pay attention to that voice, and give yourself that break it’s asking for.

2. Stop before you crash

You’re almost there; just 32 more tasks to check off before you end the day!

It’s easy to want to push until you can push no more. But more often than not, this leads to poorer quality work, requires more recoup time, and eventually invites burnout. Instead, take a break before your brain says no more. Try stopping on a high note, and save a little energy for the rest of your life. 

3. Set a downtime alarm, literally

It’s easy to keep pushing on, unaware of just how long you’ve been working. If it’s because you’re fully engrossed in that presentation you want to finish, keep going. But oftentimes, we keep going without knowing how fatigued we’ve become. 

To avoid this, set a periodic alarm to remind yourself to take a break. There are different ways to do this. We’ve talked before about the Pomodoro technique: work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Repeat. 

But experiment to find what works best for you. Maybe it’s a break every two hours. Maybe it’s at 11:30 am and 2:30 pm. If you have trouble stopping on your own, set a reminder to pause. 

4. Turn off that podcast

Our drive for efficiency often carries over into our free time. We want to make the most of our non-work moments, so we look for ways to multitask during our leisure hours. Enter the podcast.

From long drives to doing dishes, podcasts help us learn or be entertained when our hands and eyes are busy with other things. How efficient! 

But listening to your favorite podcast while doing dishes or walking in the woods engages your goal-oriented mind—which doesn’t count as true downtime. So enjoy those podcasts, but also find time to unplug your ears. You don’t need to optimize your downtime. 

5. [Watch] Netflix

Watching Netflix, YouTube, or your other favorite channels is an easy way to let your mind escape after a long day. But you have to watch what you watch. 

Becoming engrossed in a show places you in the shoes of the protagonist and requires focused attention. This again excites the goal-oriented part of your mind as you wonder why a character does what they do and how the story will turn out. 

Don’t confuse ‘not working’ with ‘downtime.’ Zoning out by locking into shows or social media doesn’t give your brain the rest it needs. 

6. Practice mindfulness or other forms of meditation

Most of the time, we’re oblivious to what’s on our minds. We find ourselves lost in thought, our heads bouncing from one idea to the next.

Practicing mindfulness helps us become more aware of the tumbling in our minds and can help bring a busy mind to rest. It can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths every couple of hours and focusing on the air filling your body.

Another option: practice gratitude. Deliberately bringing to mind things you are grateful for can bring a sense of peace. It also pulls your mind away from the rest of your work.   

7. Go for a slow walk

Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf, and Charles Darwin were all incredibly productive geniuses. They were also all famous walkers

Going for a walk with eyes wide open allows your mind to escape the bombardment of information found in your habitual environments. 

More recently, Cal Newport takes a different approach on the importance of walking with his notion of productive meditation. It’s time dedicated to deep thinking without distraction. Not exactly downtime, but effective nonetheless. 

8. Take a short nap

You’ve got a report due by day’s end. Or a presentation to deliver tomorrow. How could you even consider taking a nap at a time like this?

However counterintuitive, an afternoon nap might be the best way to increase willpower and restore the focus you need to get to the finish line.

9. Sleep well and consistently

You’ve heard this before, but it can be hard to do with so much to do: Sleep well.

Maybe you need nine hours, maybe only seven. But you surely need more than six hours a night to be at your best. And it’s not just the average that counts. Having consistent to-sleep and wake-up times seems to be key.

10. Scale your downtime

How much downtime do you need? Sometimes a three-minute breathing session will do, and sometimes you need a three-month sabbatical. 

Different types of downtime are useful across several timescales. So to keep your mind and body sharp, remember to rest at a range of intervals.

Here’s a simple overview to keep in mind:

Daily

  • Sleep well and consistently

  • Pomodoro technique (work for 25 min, break for 5 min)

  • Take a 5-10 min walk

  • Enjoy lunch without a screen

Weekly

  • Go on a slow 30 min walk

  • Disconnect on the weekends

Monthly 

  • Take a half-day Friday

Quarterly

Yearly

  • Enjoy a few 1-2 week vacations

Every 5-10 years

  • Consider a sabbatical to recharge or explore other interests

Decoupling busy from productive

Being busy is not the same as getting things done. Yet too often, we fool ourselves into thinking that putting in just another hour or two will get us closer to our goals. 

For sure, making progress requires putting in the time. But simply working faster is likely to invite more work, not more life. And often, a deeper focus on fewer activities gets us closer to our goals faster. 

But deep work requires deep rest. Idle time is not wasted time. 

How much downtime you need depends on you. Some people naturally need more breaks throughout the day and more sleep at night. But we all need downtime to be our best—on both the work and life sides of the balance. 

So go take a break. You’ll be happy you did.

Or check out our careers page to find out more about how Hotjar takes care of our team’s needs for mental space.

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