The value of getting nothing done.

This week, I got nothing done. It was a good week. In fact, it was one of the most productive weeks I had in a while. Let me explain. I did submit a paper, and sent back some comments to co-authors on two manuscripts, attended a few meetings and calls, and gave two lectures. But I did not make any of my own projects move forward. And I did it on purpose.

Instead on working on the things that needed work, I spent the week reading papers, book chapters, and working on problems that were not immediately relevant to any particular active project. I spent some time playing with adaptive dynamics, some time working on machine learning methods I had not explored yet, and tried to apply those I had previously explored to new problems.

One of my colleague is often saying that we should take the time to just sit back and think more often, and I decided to give this a try. So, in what way was this productive? I learned a ton of new things.

In part, this was because I had no clear goal in mind. There was not this self-imposed pressure of getting the job done, because nothing I did was tied to a project. I was free to keep pushing when it was interesting, and free to drop an idea when it went nowhere or started to be boring. And I was not ashamed in getting rid of boring things, because discovery and exploration should be fun (sometimes).

This was not entirely an exercise in indolence. All of the things I toyed with were on my ever-growing list of “things I am curious about but never had the time to think deeply about”. I started the week with a rough schedule of things to do, and worked on one, each day.

At the end of the week, I had a much better idea of the value of each of these ideas / tools / concepts for my current and future projects. This is why I think this week in which I got nothing done was, in fact, very productive. Because it will pay off in the future, in new ideas or in new ways to explore old ones. And I am quite sure I will do it again.

Maybe not next week.