Why the Most Productive People Insist on Unproductive Time

By Paul Thomas Zenki

How quieting the brain sharpens your mind …

A while back, Fast Company ran an article featuring the “secrets of the most productive people”, a productivity how-to from 11 big hitters spanning industry, politics, media, tech, design, and entertainment, headlined by Oprah Winfrey. (Spoiler, if you don’t already have a kick-ass personal assistant, you’ll want to run out and get one.)

Three topics appeared in all of the profiles: sleep, organization systems, and finding time to be un-productive.

Nobody agrees on sleep, which means everybody agrees on sleep — whatever your pattern is, do that. The mayor of LA can fall asleep at will which, to me, sounds like a superpower. Airbnb’s Belinda Johnson gets to bed by 10 every night, Oprah runs on five and a half hours sleep with no alarm, while producer Steve Aoki goes weeks on naps.

And everyone has a system. There’s the above-mentioned assistant, and then a handful of physical and digital gear to keep the day straight and the projects on deadline.

And everyone makes time to step away from productivity.

You Can’t Finish If You Never Stop

My brain solves problems at night, I don’t know how but I’m grateful.

I keep pens and notepads all over the house and the office, even in the truck, because ideas and solutions have a way of wandering into the mind uninvited, and if you don’t catch them they drift off into the woods and get eaten or come dragging back again at another bad time.

Songwriter Tom Waits tells the story of getting stuck in traffic and having an achingly beautiful melody pop into his head. But he had nothing with him, no way to record it or write it down. So he cussed out his muse, “Dammit, why can’t you leave me alone? I’m at the studio 10 hours a day, go bother me there!”

The brain needs downtime. It just does, and you can’t get your best ideas, find your most workable answers, or operate at your highest productivity if you don’t schedule that downtime into your day along with all the uptime.

Here’s how some of Fast Company‘s productive people step outside for that mental breath of fresh air….

“I close the door, wherever I am… literally go in the closet — and just sit and breathe.” -Media Mogul, Oprah Winfrey

“I play music and I write music.” -LA Mayor, Eric Garcetti

“When I walk into my home, I’m done. The kids take over.” -Google VP, Lorraine Twohill

“I love tinkering. Sometimes I’ll just get out my soldering iron and build something.” -Ford VP, Ken Washington

“My wife and I, we talk. I like to have a soulful conversation, a meaningful conversation.” -Chef, Marcus Semuelsson

“Meditation is a key component in my daily cycle.” -Producer, Steve Aoki

Tinkering, talking, spending time with the family, it’s all great stuff. But it’s the first and last items here, breathing and meditating, which are the least likely to be on an American entrepreneur’s list. But they should probably be at the top.

The Quickest, Easiest Way to Develop Unfreakoutableness

The best way to get better at anything is to do that thing. Maybe honing your golf swing will improve your batting average some just by spill-over, but if you want to get more hits you’re better off spending your time in the batting cage than on the green.

So if you want your mind to be calm and attentive, to be genuine while not getting carried away with emotion, then give it time to practice. It’s called meditation and there’s a form of it, called zazen, that may in all honesty be the simplest thing you can do to improve your life.

Zazen is just sitting. All you need is a place to sit comfortably for a few minutes and you’re good. It doesn’t even have to be quiet, although that’s nice.

Man at the end of a dock over a misty lake, sitting on his shoes, meditating
Photo by Patrizia08 (adapted)

Here’s what you do: Sit in a stable position with your spine straight, your eyes open and relaxed and looking ahead and down. Then pay attention to your breathing, and when you’re settled just pay attention, to everything and nothing. Just be, like a frog on a lily pad.

Let thoughts and feelings come and go without trying to hold onto them or follow a chain of thought. When you find yourself getting involved in thought, re-straighten your spine and return your attention to your breathing. Do not try to stop your brain from creating ideas or memories, do not imagine that you have to “start over”  —  simply return your attention to the breath. When your mind is calm, let your attention expand.

That’s it. Start with five minutes a day and add time when that feels too short. Most folks stop adding if they get to around half an hour. (If you decide to continue daily sitting long-term, I highly recommend seeking out an instructor to ensure proper posture and technique.)

If you’ve never done this before, you’ll be surprised how unusual it is for your conscious brain to stop chasing after thoughts and simply take in what’s around it. And how difficult it is to do for even five minutes if you’re not used to it.

But over time, your brain learns that it doesn’t have to get carried away with the ideas and emotions of the moment, and it brings that skill to the rest of the day. Which is why I call mindfulness meditation “practicing not-freaking-out.”

Over the years I’ve known people who had this skill naturally, or developed it young due to their circumstances, but I am not one of those people. I discovered meditation through a martial arts class, and it’s been more useful than anything I learned (and long forgot) about fighting.

And now that data is piling up about meditation’s ability to make us more productive and happy, as well as physically healthier, business is starting to take the idea seriously in practice.

One tip, though, if you decide to take it up: Don’t approach it as some kind of remedy, to use as needed. As simple as it is, sitting is something you learn, like a sport or trade or musical instrument. Making it a regular part of the schedule is essential. Remember, the carpenter who’s too busy to sharpen the tools will always be too busy to sharpen the tools.

Here are some instructions for you if you want more details:


Zazen at Home, with Daiko Matsuyama (4:30 instruction + 10:00 meditation time)

Header photo by Couleur (adapted)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.