Albert Einstein, Warren Buffet, And Bill Gates Have All Loved Downtime–Do You?

If you don’t have pockets of space in your day, you’re risking being a less insightful, less ethical, and less developed person.

Albert Einstein, Warren Buffet, And Bill Gates Have All Loved Downtime–Do You?
[Image: Flickr user Nana B Agyei]

Our brains are gluttons: While they amount to only 2% of our body weight, they gobble up 20% of our calories. What do we do with that information? First, we can eat a brain-oriented breakfast. Second, we can recognize that our gobbling gray matter needs its rest.


Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American that rest–and its counterintuitively productive effects–isn’t all about naps, but turning down the devices and creating some constructive downtime in your day.

We have an intuitive sense that always being on isn’t the best thing for us or our work: Albert Einstein was a master of leaving space in his day, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner makes sure his schedule has empty spaces, and both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates know to protect their time.

But now research is showing the how and why our brains do so much better when they’re let off the leash of the to-do list. Let’s look at Jabr’s work to see why.

1) It makes you a more ethical person.

Scientists have a new name for the state during which your mind begins to wander. USC’s Mary Helen Immordino-Yang authored a review of research on the default mode of mind wandering–which, she concludes, is positive for three reasons.

  • You recall memories.
  • You imagine the future.
  • And you feel social emotions and investigate their moral connotations.

The mind wandering–or default mode, as you might say–is better understood with another phrasing: “constructive internal reflection.”


2) It helps you connect the dots.

The time between first encountering a problem and arriving at its solution is called “incubation.” Interestingly, people often do their best incubating when they’re doing something really simple, like brushing their teeth or going for a walk.

3) The highest achievers take breaks.

Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has spent 30 years studying peak achievement. He’s found that the most expert people–musicians, athletes, artists included–only practice for four hours a day. But they do so deliberately: They push their skills to their limits for a brief burst, followed by a pause.

“Unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and nighttime sleep allow the individuals to restore their equilibrium,” Ericsson wrote, “individuals often encounter overtraining injuries and, eventually, incapacitating burnout.”

And burnout is the opposite of productivity.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.