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Published: Sep 05, 2017 5 min read
Businessman holding paper airplane
Heide Benser—Getty Images

Artists have always understood that solitude—boredom, even—is essential to the creative process. Now economists, social policy experts, and scientists are making the argument that it’s vital for business, too. Imagination Institute’s Scott Barry Kaufman and science writer Carolyn Gregoire brought the case for mind-wandering and other forms of reflection to the Harvard Business Review in an essay with the pretty direct title of “Executives, Protect Your Alone Time.”

Although tailored to the work world, their rationale should be a pretty familiar one by now. We live in times that are not conducive to solitary reflection, which “feeds the creative mind.” You know—how it’s crucial for our brains not to respond to tasks or immediate stimuli or even concentrate on a singular topic but to sometimes just space out, mind-wander. Contrary to what your boss may think, it’s not being lazy. This is when the brain’s default mode network kicks in and our best, more original ideas get gestating, because we dip into profound and hidden reservoirs of emotion, memory, and thought. Many areas of the brain are lit up as we bring together past, present, and future to imagine entirely new realms and ways to do things (oh, and new products).

But you need alone or quiet time, and when we carry our offices in our pockets, that becomes all but impossible. It’s almost a badge of honor to always be checking e-mail, as if the more you have to refresh your inbox, the more important you must be. Or if you don’t respond to a group e-mail or message, you’re not a team player. (Stay-at-home parents suffer equally from this phenomenon: think of those stupid class e-mail threads where parents reply-all with “Great!” or “Thanks!” or “We can’t make it but have fun!”) But neuroscientists say that if we are always responding, we don’t take time to think up new ideas. “Today’s culture overemphasizes the importance of constant social interaction, due in part to social media,” Kaufman and Gregoire write. “We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality. Instead, we should see it as a sign of emotional maturity and healthy psychological development.”

Most workplaces these days don’t exactly encourage quiet reflection, but they should if they want to get the most out of their employees. Kaufman and Gregoire offered some tips for managers to help their teams “reclaim solitude and improve their ability to think creatively—without diminishing collaboration.”

Some of their ideas include giving people more freedom to work offsite, especially when they are assigned projects that require creativity. Who doesn’t get more work done at home or at a café when they really need to concentrate? Still, Kaufman and Gregoire suggest that managers put aside a room designated for quiet work only. Their biggest recommendation, however, is more a change of mind-set than architectural configuration. Those in charge should value and promote employees’ occasional need for seclusion, even if it just means taking a walk outside for a bit (without checking the phone).

There is one sure re way to unplug from the office, and that’s taking a vacation. A real one, where you don’t work. Unfortunately, Americans have a terrible habit of not using all the vacation days they are entitled to in their jobs. A 2016 survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that about half those in the United States who work fifty- plus hours a week reported that they don’t take all or even most of the vacation they’ve earned. Thirty percent of those who do get away “do a significant amount of work while on vacation.”

That is bad business for your brain. “Managers should . . . urge employees to take all their vacation days,” Kaufman and Gregoire write in the Harvard Business Review. “Having time for periodic rest and reflection will give your team the space to replenish their creative energy.”

Manoush Zomorodi is the host of the podcast Note to Self. The piece above is an excerpt from her book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, available now.

St. Martin's Press