Why It’s a Good Thing to “Waste” Time at Work

I’ve always been a big believer in ample downtime on the job, giving creative brain cells a chance to recharge. But too many bosses nowadays think that productivity gains are directly correlated to less time wasted. Not so!

In yesterday’s New York Times, Lisa Belkin’s Time Wasted? Perhaps It’s Well Spent takes a look at workplace productivity and the myth of filling every moment with work.

“The longer you work, the less efficient you are,” said Bob Kustka, the founder of Fusion Factor, a productivity and time-management consulting firm in Norwell, Mass. He says workers are like athletes in that they are most efficient in concentrated bursts. Elite athletes “play a set of tennis, a down of football or an inning of baseball and have a pause in between,” he says. Working energy, like physical energy, “is best used in spurts where we work hard on a few focused activities and then take a brief respite,” he says.

And those respites look an awful lot like wasting time.

So. We are faced with a dilemma. How many bosses out there really understand the benefits of downtime and how such rat race “pit stops” actually wind up adding to productivity? And if you don’t have one of those bosses, how do you make sure you provide rest stops for yourself, while still looking like you’re churning out important stuff?

For places that pack the workload so tight you can barely breathe, not only are they losing out on the over-all quality of their products or services, but the hit on morale is huge – and it will eventually show in employee turnover and other costly consequences.

A smart boss builds in time to rest and even time to play. They also know to schedule lighter projects or tasks in between more intense work. And then when an actual crunch time hits, they have a crew that can not only go the distance but come up real winners.

But far too many bosses are afraid of what it looks like on the outside. Heaven forbid someone should question their methods! So they either pump out assignments at breakneck speed or they simply make it clear that “wasting time” will not be tolerated. Many actually prefer for staff to pretend to be busy during slow times – even though it would be best for all if efforts were directed toward a smarter more adult policy policy.

Luckily there are some courageous, forward-thinking bosses out there. On that note, Ms. Belkin leaves us with a wonderfully encouraging thought:

A few companies are taking the concept of “watch what I produce, not how I produce it” even further. At the headquarters of Best Buy in Minneapolis, for instance, the hot policy of the moment is called ROWE, short for Results Only Work Environment.

There workers can come in at four or leave at noon, or head for the movies in the middle of the day, or not even show up at all. It’s the work that matters, not the method. And, not incidentally, both output and job satisfaction have jumped wherever ROWE is tried.

Now that’s an idea I’d like to see catch on. Talk about time well spent!


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. it’s not downtime, it’s recovery time 🙂

    the clock is such a poor measure of productivity anyway; judge me by my results, not how long it took me.

    But hey, quality rarely comes up these days.

    besides, a sociable workplace is a good workplace.


  2. Nicely said, ggwfung. Especially love what sounds like a good prayer for the workplace as well as for life in general:

    “Judge me by my results, not by how long it took me.”

    Of course, there are certain reasonable standards for how long work tasks should take. For instance if a person with only one task takes weeks to do it and it’s something that most people would do in a day…well, that’s a real problem. But assuming most of us are doing the best we can, it’s best when a boss errs on the side of treating people like responsible adults rather than looking over their shoulders or watching the clock. A good boss will deal with individual offenders separately, still cutting sufficient slack and building in both thinking time and “recovery time” for the rest of his team.

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