Why it’s important to have downtime at work

An empty calendar is a competitive advantage. The person who fills their calendar with average opportunities has no time for exceptional ones. - Farnam Street

It’s January and my head is clear. But not because I took off 2 weeks in December to “rest and recharge.” I have young kids, if anything I’m more tired now.

My head is clear because last year I started designing regular downtime into my work weeks.

I’m a lead designer and design manager at Dialpad, and am directly responsible for a large part of the company’s design efforts. I oversee 12-15 projects at any given time, regularly work across teams, and help my direct reports with their careers.

My typical week could look like this:

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We’ve all had weeks like this and know it’s no fun. Exhausted at the end of each day but feel like we accomplished nothing. Answering notifications between meetings while squeezing in a 10min lunch somewhere. Feels like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

It’s a one-way ticket to phantom burnout.

To make matters worse, it’s also my job to have a vision for my product area and see the forest for the trees. It’s incredibly hard to do that if I’m constantly switching from one thing to another.

Some say their best ideas come while they’re in the shower or walking the dog. Basically anywhere except in front of a screen.

I can relate.

So last year I became more intentional about how I spend my time and began designing regular downtime into my work weeks.

Each week I’ll block a few hours on my calendar and do one of the following:

  • Walk or run (without listening to anything).
  • Exercise where I don’t have to count reps (without listening to anything).
  • Sit somewhere away from an screen and read. Or just sit.

Basically get away from distractions that come from screens and let my brain go on autopilot for a while.

When I’m in front of a screen, I accumulate knowledge:

But only when I let my mind wander am I able to connect the dots to form bigger, deeper ideas.

The key here is that this happens while I’m “at work.”

We all think about work outside of work, but this shouldn’t be the only time we get to do this kind of deep thinking. Thinking is work, so it’s fair to do it while we’re on the clock.

Last year I started doing scheduling a few hours of downtime each week. It’s helped slow down my mind enough to do some blue sky thinking and connect the dots I’ve accumulated. It also keeps work from dominating my thoughts when I’m off the clock.