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Why You Should Take Some Time Out To 'Waste Time'

A wandering mind can help your productivity.

25/05/2017 7:12 AM AEST | Updated 25/05/2017 7:17 AM AEST

On an average day in the office, how does your work situation unfold?

You're probably attempting to work through one task (quickly tailed by another) between meetings while draining in a deluge of emails and waiting on call for that phone to ring. And that's all before lunch. No time to waste.

The reality is our to-do list is a bottomless pit and our frantic quest for productivity leaves no time for breaks.

But it hasn't always been this way.

"Productivity these days is almost akin to being measured in a metric focused way. We are viewing it more as outputs and getting rungs on the board rather than sometimes viewing it as the quality of the output itself," Associate Professor from Sydney University's School of Psychology and Brain and Mind Centre Dr Muireann Irish told HuffPost Australia.

"I think we do sometimes need to recalibrate and direct our attention elsewhere to reach a solution. For me that's time well spent."

"I think that has to do with the change in accessibility that we have through technology. We are available all the time, and as a result, we are constantly bombarded by requests."

And so we are left to multitask -- or what Irish more accurately refers to as "task switching".

"Within the neuroscience literature, there is the view that multitasking is something of a misnomer. We don't really perform two tasks at the same time effectively. We tend to switch and toggle between the two and that comes with an attentional cost," Irish said.

"We find ourselves needing to catch up on the tasks that we have directed our attention away from. This means that we aren't giving focused attention to either one of those two tasks because we are constantly diverting our attention by switching between the two."

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Is this time well spent?

So what's the alternative?

Two words: Harry Potter. Or J.K. Rowling (we'll explain why later).

Human beings have evolved to herald attention and recall as key capabilities -- and these need not be eroded. What we need to bring into the conversation is the well proven fact that our waking mind also wanders. A lot.

And we should be letting it.

"Mind wandering, and the ability to daydream, is uniquely human but it tends to have negative connotations. We are again conditioned from a young age to direct our attention to the task at hand and be present in the classroom," Irish said.

"This is of course well and good when we're learning. But there is also a mounting area of research within neuroscience which tells us that those periods of 'incubation' where we relax our focus on the immediate environment and allow ourselves to drift off internally are actually beneficial."

This is called 'spontaneous cognition'.

Because we are not focusing on one particular thing, we actually free up and loosen associations between different concepts and constructions.

"There are times where we start to think back over our past and imagine or plan for events that may happen in future. And there are others with social inferences, like sitting and imagining why a colleague may have been stressed or upset at work," Irish explained.

This also has interesting implications for our productivity levels.

"Because we are not focusing on one particular thing, we actually free up and loosen associations between different concepts and constructions. It has been found that these periods of incubation are where ideas or solutions can come together in creative and flexible ways," Irish said.

And so we return to Harry Potter:

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Author J.K Rowling's light bulb moment came to her when she was daydreaming on a train. 

"If you are labouring on something or if you have writer's block, it is actually better to let yourself engage in some idle dreaming or mind wandering, and then come back to regenerate ideas."

Striking a balance

Of course, we cannot spend our entire day daydreaming. We'd get nowhere. Irish believes optimal productivity arises through a combination of the two.

"I know of some academics who block out time in their calendar where they allow idle wandering thinking sessions and let their ideas flow freely to connect their thoughts," she said.

You want to be productive but you also want to value the merit of what you are producing.

"But then you obviously need to have concerted focused attention that is directed to the problem at hand and enables you to be productive in the classic sense.

"You want to be productive but you also want to value the merit of what you are producing."

So is 'wasted time' time well spent?

Sometimes you can waste time even though it would appear on the surface that you're being productive. Other times, you may be working diligently on a problem but make no inroads.

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Working hard or hardly working?

You may decide to take some time out for a walk, and feel like nothing came from it.

Or maybe, just maybe, the penny will drop mid walk.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you feel like you have accomplished something and whether you have devoted your attention in a worthwhile way.

Irish believe fulfilling 'time wasting' comes down to the individual, and what their goals are.

"A lot of this can be clouded or coloured by our own perspective. Some people may view these incubation periods negatively, and coin them a waste of time, when it could be the opposite," Irish said.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you feel like you have accomplished something and whether you have devoted your attention in a worthwhile way.

"I think we do sometimes need to recalibrate and direct our attention elsewhere to reach a solution. For me that's time well spent."

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