Take a Break

Random moments of “unproductive” time don’t just make you healthier, happier, and more resilient. They help you work smarter, too.

At Google, goofing off is the way to go. In fact, it’s encouraged. Engineers at the tech powerhouse’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters are told to spend 20 percent of their work hours — whether a couple of hours a day, or a full day a week — doing exactly what they please. They can sit and stare into space, take a nap, or wander the corporate campus and let their minds roam free.

At first glance, this looks like a clever (though potentially costly) ploy to retain finicky employees. But Google’s 80/20 concept taps some of the most reliable research on employee productivity. Wide-ranging studies show that taking time out at work or at home to rest, daydream, be silly and pursue amusements of various kinds has physiological and psychological benefits that can bolster well-being, improve concentration, boost problem-solving capability and enhance creativity.

Google’s approach has given rise to some amazing innovations. Gmail, Google News and Mars — an add-on map of the Red Planet’s terrain in Google Earth — are just three of the successful products employees have created during their “free” time. Software engineer Michael Weiss-Malik, who created Mars, says the time his employer allows him to just have fun with ideas is crucial to the creative process.

“I got to stretch my wings and do something out of the ordinary that also happens to benefit the public’s understanding of science,” says Weiss-Malik. “And because these are ‘side projects’ that don’t always benefit initially from full-support resources, you’re forced to get creative and scrappy, which means you sometimes come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of before, but that in hindsight wind up being superior to what you probably would have done had it been a ‘real’ project.”

Of course, most of us don’t work for companies quite as forward thinking (or as richly resourced) as Google. But it’s not just corporate policy that prevents us from taking breaks and goofing off. It’s our own mistaken notions about the best ways to wring the most from our busy days and our addled brains.

For the most part, we think of off-task idleness and play as indulgences or distractions from what we “should” be doing. These apparently low-productivity pursuits can yield surprisingly pragmatic benefits, though, helping us become more effective thinkers, more productive workers, and healthier, happier, more resilient individuals. All of which means that pursuing random moments of “unproductive” time might be a lot more productive than you think.

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