Story: Sometimes I Work the Hardest When I Seem To Work the Least.

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story:


This reminds me of something Virginia Woolf wrote in her Diary: “My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way.” Agree, disagree? Does your “work” sometimes distract you from your “work”?

Can’t see the video? Click here.

If you want to read more along these lines, check out…

7 tips I use to spark my creativity.

Pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out with a teaspoon.

You can also read more about this in Happier at Home, chapter five.

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.3 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

  • Ginger

    I discovered something similar the other day when I went for a walk. I usually go to the gym to work out, where I’m reading or listening to podcasts on my iPhone, but the weather was irresistible. I spend so much time putting information into my brain, it is amazing what has time to develop if I’ll just pause for a minute. I found that several projects that I had been researching sort of gelled together in my mind when I was doing nothing at all but walking. What an eye-opener! No new thoughts can form when I’m constantly imputing. It’s hard to unplug, but worth it.

    • Alissa Ripley

      I love the video Gretchen, I’m just as animated and enthusiastic as you when I speak! I agree with Ginger, pondering does allow time for great work to get done!


  • jillybeingjilly

    I cannot view your video, but I think I know what you mean. A significant part of the creative process is the fallow time that precedes the visible work. No fallow time, no period when the process is completely internal, and the work will not manifest to its fullest.

    I wish I could remember where I read that, Jung perhaps? But it is true. Sitting and thinking, observing, and pondering seem to be essential to the journey of production, be it poetry, a painting, writing or just cleaning the house.

  • Bean

    This brings to mind a quote that I had as an email signature for a long time, originally culled from an email list I was on: “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.” (Victor Hugo)

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE this.

  • Catherine Begley

    I think it’s a shame that corporations don’t value giving employees time to think (or not “work”). If you see someone in an office or cube just sitting there, it looks unproductive and therefore folks don’t do it. On the flipside, corporations want their employees to be strategic, but if all we are ever doing to fill gaps is answering emails, are we ever going to get anywhere?

  • Marabeth Duncan

    This is so true, especially for composing. The trick, though, is that if I’m bored enough to be inspired, I’m generally dissatisfied because I’m bored. I don’t understand this about myself.

  • Helen Dibble

    Heh! Gretchin, I can’t believe your timing. I wrote a blog post on productivity just last night. I’ve just started freelancing, and I don’t know how hard to work. And, I am working ALL THE TIME! You’re getting a reblog. This has summed up my situation perfectly!

    • gretchenrubin

      So happy to hear this strikes a chord with you!

  • peninith1

    I often do my best creative work as a quilter when I wake up in the night and imagine something new, or ‘solve’ a how-to-accomplish a design or an execution so that it will work. I miss being able to take long walks outdoors, because that really was always a time for good ideas to emerge. I used to be embarrassed at my job that I seemed to spend more time than others ‘staring at the wall’ but I know this, too, was productive time in which I thought through a lot of projects. The actual work quite often took less time. Now, computers let us always look busy, but the screen time is not always as productive as the ‘blank wall’ time.

  • This is a story that broke only yesterday and the part of the story that particularly caught my attention relates to your post today!

    The story is about Zitang Zhang, an unknown name in the mathematics world, who published an astounding paper:

    “There are a lot of chances in your career, but the important thing is to keep thinking,” he said.

    Zhang read the GPY paper, and in particular the sentence referring to the hair’s breadth between GPY and bounded prime gaps. “That sentence impressed me so much,” he said.

    Without communicating with the field’s experts, Zhang started thinking about the problem. After three years, however, he had made no progress. “I was so tired,” he said.

    To take a break, Zhang visited a friend in Colorado last summer. There, on July 3, during a half-hour lull in his friend’s backyard before leaving for a concert, the solution suddenly came to him. “I immediately realized that it would work,” he said.

    Zhang’s idea was to use not the GPY sieve but a modified version of it, in which the sieve filters not by every number, but only by numbers that have no large prime factors.”

    I also fondly remember my dancer mother’s maddening habit of playing solitaire on the daybed that served as our couch–at these moments, she didn’t really like to talk to me nor did she invite me to play with her: she was really thinking about her choreographic projects. When she was in the middle of making a work, she spent a lot of time smoking and playing solitaire! RIP Mimi Kagan (1918-1999).

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  • Trina

    How true! I was taught early on as an undergrad that those we see sitting thinking, but looking idle, might be doing the most work. Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani yogurt, claims to find his best ideas when he takes walks. I also found your earlier advice very useful: to do nothing during our allotted writing time if we aren’t writing; it is so easy to get distracted with other busy work. Currently, as a full-time caregiver for a loved one, I find that days go by when I am unable to sit and write. I used to criticize myself for that – for not being able to stick to a schedule and make time. Now I realize I sometimes do have to time think and jot notes or write in a journal, during the times when I have the opportunity to be an “idle” companion watching a loved one, even if I can’t get away to the computer or concentrate specifically on writing. Doing this idle, relaxing thinking leads me to more insightful, productive writing when I do sit down…it is then that I have something to say. Thanks for all your inspiration, Gretchen.

  • peninith1

    This is a ‘belated’ comment, but so related to what you were talking about. I found myself sitting on the sofa this afternoon, ‘wasting time’ re-reading a light entertainment mystery that I have read more than once before. Suddenly I realized that what was happening while I was reading was that I was working out in my mind the quilting patterns that I want to put on a quilt that has been sitting for about 3 weeks in my sewing room, that I am hesitant to start work on (it’s a baby quilt for my very long and intensely awaited grandson). The familiar plot and dialogue skimmed past as my mind created the right patterns and motions for the baby quilt. Now, I will be ready to go to work. To me, this is the very definition of serious work going on when absolutely no one but myself would realize it was happening.