Why Doing Nothing Can Make You More Productive
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Why Doing Nothing Can Make You More Productive

Here are ways to get your brain a rest.

By Annemarie Dooling
Wed, Mar 17, 2021 11:42amGrey Clock 2 min

One secret to achieving more: Finding time to do nothing.

In our efforts to squeeze every second from the day, it seems counterintuitive to watch a pot of coffee boil or gaze out the window. But your brain uses those free periods for important cleanup work, neuroscience research indicates. And during the pandemic, as the boundaries between work and home have blurred, it has become harder to create mental breaks.

Even brief timeouts help the brain reinforce long-term learning and productivity. You come out of downtime able to learn more, and can access that learning faster. “When you take a break, you may want to do something mind-consuming to help with motivation, but technically your best way of taking a break is to do something mindless,” says Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan who teaches a popular online course on how to open your mind to learning.

To ease into allowing yourself to do nothing, start with something familiar. Here are some techniques.

Take a long shower

A natural place to start slowing down is a habit that’s already built into your schedule, such as taking a shower. Letting your mind wander here can be a stepping stone to quieting more hectic environments. Or try blocking off time to look out your window. In her book “How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” writer Jenny Odell describes how bird-watching became her favourite slow-down activity: Exhausted after pulling an all-nighter, she had gazed out the window and noticed a cluster of yellow birds. “I burned out, and in that state of forced relaxation, that happened to be when I noticed,” she says.

Play a game without keeping score

Dr Oakley points out that while our body’s dopamine reward system might encourage tasks, keeping score is labour. Instead of competing against your crossword best, find a puzzle game on your phone that requires simply swiping.

Take a solo walk

Leave the Fitbit at home, and free up an hour to absorb the scenery in silence. Being in nature has been linked to a multitude of physical and mental benefits. But be sure not to create a competition, which can take the relaxation out of the activity. “We get fixated on taking 10,000 steps,” Ms Odell says. “Yes, it’s good to go for a walk, but this isn’t a job.” Enjoy the meandering, rather than the race, she suggests.

Cook a big meal

Borrowing from the downtime that the Italians call dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), the act of cooking a meal can encourage a wandering mind. It can be tempting to create a culinary masterpiece to make the time worth it, but fight the urge. Ms Odell suggests trying to “see the nonwork time as something other than the negative space left after work.” Try a simple recipe that requires slow preparation. Not only is the activity downtime, but bonus points for resting at the table between courses.

Just sit down

If you’re struggling to get enough rest at night, try a short nap. Simply find a comfortable chair, and breathe. While you’re napping, remember that your brain never is. Rest is one of the most important ways to enhance the neurological flexibility to build the kind of conceptual understanding that is related to identity and purpose, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Consider that a reason to lose the guilt over a daily rest.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”