Early in my career as an engineering manager, my boss gave me some advice. He said that developers sometimes seem idle, just staring at the wall. In many cases, they were likely waiting for their code to compile and wouldn’t be able to do anything else. But, developers also need this time to compile their thoughts and figure out how to solve intractable problems. Wall time, as he called it, is important for processing complex ideas and being able to move forward with purpose.
I run a fully remote organization of a dozen employees and contractors across the United States and Canada, working from their homes, co-working spaces, libraries, and coffee shops. I’ve worked from home, off and on, for 20 years. In that time, I’ve developed various coping mechanisms that help me get through a workday that often extends from 7:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night (with clients in the UK and Japan and many places in between), and involves hours of back-to-back meetings. As the CEO of a tech startup, each day requires an enormous amount of task switching between projects, hour after hour.
Three years ago, I got a dog as a way to keep myself active after more than 30 years playing soccer competitively. Though I’d been responsible for my fair share of other people’s dogs over the years — including a very active Bouvier des Flandres that was bigger than me — I’d never had a dog of my own. With aging children and full-time remote work, a dog seemed like a good idea for a variety of reasons — exercise, fresh air, companionship. But one of the most significant benefits of having a dog is one I would have never expected: that she forces me to stand up, go outside, and think about something else — or nothing else — for at least 20 minutes 3 or 4 times a day. When I walk Lily, I don’t take calls, I don’t browse my emails, I don’t text. I just walk and think, letting my brain process the last task or meeting, clearing my thoughts so I can face the next thing on the agenda. It’s my wall time. It’s how I compile.
There’s real science behind idle time. In his piece for Psychology Today, The Secret Power of Idleness, Nigel Barber talks about recent research into the science of idleness through a wide variety of lenses: decision making, creativity, happiness. One of the most interesting studies he cites explores how mind wandering — long thought to be wholly negative and a big part of why students fail in traditional educational institutions — is actually beneficial to creativity and “fluid intelligence”, or the ability to solve novel problems. If you’re a long-time schoolroom daydreamer, you may not excel at “crystallized thinking” (recall and synthesis), but you may be remarkably well-equipped for the tech-accelerated future, in which routine work is being rapidly replaced by automation and creative work may finally have its day.
In recent years, idleness and education have been studied extensively, especially as it relates to online learning, (here’s a relevant review of the literature). A key finding is that long lectures really don’t work in online learning settings, and tend to result in poor performance by those with a tendency toward mind-wandering. Researchers working with edX data showed that 6 minutes or less is the optimal length for an online learning video.
Most course designers agree that it’s important to intersperse different kinds of learning experiences (quizzing, activities, peer-interactions, etc.) in order to keep learner attention online; cognitive scientists have shown that mixing interrelated topics leads to better outcomes. Mind-wandering, specifically, not resting or undertaking different demanding tasks, seems to lead to better performance in creative tasks. Both online and in-person, instructional techniques are slowly evolving in recognition of these findings and the idea that variety in content and presentation helps people better digest educational material.
These studies obviously focus on learning, but are passive learning via video lessons and passive listening via conference calls really that different? In fact, there have been multiple studies (albeit less scientific) about how time is spent in conference calls and video meetings, especially focused on how much time we waste in them. The same rules apply. Keeping it short, dynamic, and interactive — and using video conferencing with cameras on, not just relying on phone calls — will make online meetings better. Breaks are important, but so is engagement.
Today, I had seven meetings in a row. No breaks. How did this happen? Well, it’s my family’s fault, or rather my kids. Now that everyone is at home full time, we’re sharing responsibility for walking the dog, and my built-in “break-maker” is being taken care of by somebody else. Normally, I wouldn’t complain about this, but I was absolutely wrecked at the end of the day. So Lily and I went out for a long walk.