As a nation of hardworking people, we're always busy, striving to meet goals and deliver results. We work through lunch and skimp on sleep in our heroic dedication to getting things done. Plus, our digital devices keep us connected around the clock, so our productivity should be rivaling that of an assembly line, right?

That might be the case if we were machines, but we're not, and research from Scientific American shows that our preoccupation with "more, faster, better" actually impairs our productivity. We are not wired to be "on" all the time. Our bodies and brains need periods of rest to offset periods of activity and conscious effort. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered that letting our minds drift is helpful when it comes to creativity, planning, learning and productivity.

These implications may conflict with most business leaders' desire to look out over a roomful of employees who are heads-down and hard at work, but if you want to bring out your team's best, you should consider the value of introducing downtime into the workday.

The Value of Doing Nothing

Until recently, scientists believed that a resting brain was an idle brain. They've since discovered that it is anything but. When we take a break from the immediate demands of the day, our brains take the opportunity to do some of their best work, helping us assimilate our experience, consolidate memories, learn from the past, plan for the future and balance our emotions.

This process lightens our mental and emotional load, allowing us to return to active engagement with greater focus and energy, improved powers of judgment and decision-making and renewed productivity. We also increase our chances of having "aha moments" — those creative ideas that wouldn't be possible with an otherwise occupied mind.

As Rework reports, downtime paid off at Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm that used it to increase its retention rate by 76 percent. What started as an experiment in offering downtime during the workday to four U.S. teams quickly became a global initiative.

How to Build In Downtime

Downtime makes good sense, even if it runs counter to our modern-day work ethic. Test it out to see the benefits both you and your employees can reap. Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  • Schedule deliberate breaks throughout the day. In this New York Times article, Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project says that we move from a state of alertness to fatigue about every 90 minutes. So try maximizing your staff's productivity by suggesting — or even scheduling — focused 90-minute work intervals throughout the day. Just be sure there are short breaks between each session.
  • During breaks, completely disconnect from the task at hand. Get some fresh air, take a coffee break or simply gaze out of the window. Allow your mind to drift. The brain will take advantage of even a few idle moments to regroup and reorganize. Just be sure to avoid stumbling blocks that can draw you in and steal your time and productivity away.
  • Encourage away-from-the-desk lunch breaks. Enjoy social time with colleagues but keep work out of the conversation. Remember, your objective is downtime.
  • Unplug after hours. Encourage your employees to leave their laptops at the office. And if you can, avoid your own temptation to check email and voicemail after hours. Commit to maintaining a firm boundary between your work life and your home life to provide a positive example for your staff.
  • Insist on vacations for your employees and yourself. Time away, especially in a different locale, is one of the best ways to rest and restore the mind.
  • Identify an activity that you enjoy and do it daily. You will likely be more productive, happier and more energized.
  • Get enough sleep. Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night to be at their best; and a short midday nap can yield significant productivity gains, whether you're sleep-deprived or not.

A productive brain is one that's allowed to rest from time to time. Build in breaks for yourself and your employees and gauge the effects. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised.

Tags: Employee Well-Being Productivity