You don’t need to be busy to be working

What do I do if I have nothing to do?
I’ve just finished my current task. What should I do now

Chances are you don’t have anything to do right now. Don’t worry. It’s fine.

Industry 1.0 and 2.0 paved the way for people not having to think what to do next. Assembly line workers or people at offices would follow clearly defined procedures and systems. Put a nut into a piece. Put another nut into the next piece. Repeat for 8 hours. Go home. After that, the point was optimizing times and efforts so you could lower costs as much as possible.

But it happened that Lean, Toyota Production System and Theory of Constraints demonstrated that working at 100% (or more!) rate is not beneficial, but decreases productivity.

I was thinking on it last saturday, watching the RTVE Orchestra playing the Star Wars Suite.


An orchestra ensembles dozens of highly trained, highly skilled professionals to accomplish a common goal. They all play together to accomplish it.

They all play together? But then, who are that group of people sitting, silent and still, in the background? There are at least fifty of them. And they haven’t done a thing for the whole first two pieces. They don’t have instruments, by the way.


Are they even part of the orchestra?

In fact, they are. They are the choir. They just remained in the background, for eight minutes and a half, silent, still, not disturbing, maybe relaxing, focusing or doing a mental recap of the notes they are going to be singing for the next piece.

Could they be helping the guy with the drums on his beating. Clearly not.
Would they be of help turning the pages of the score of the man whith the trombone. Of course not.
So they just sit still.

Could they be out of the stage, behind the scenes, chating or having a drink? They always could enter after the end of the second piece.
Yes, they could. But it would not be efficient, nor a nice watch. They would last forever to enter and sit down, ruining the flow of the concert, distracting the crowd in attendance and the performers.

So they just sit still.

Having every people in the orchestra, in the team, busy 100% of the time, is not only bad for morale… it’s highly inefficient.

So whenever you face it, please, think clearly and, if you don’t have anything to do, just wait still, focusing for being ready to start working again the very moment it makes sense.


  • The Toyota Way (Liker): “Toyota management says it is OK to run less than 100% of the time, even when the line is capable of running full-time, yet Toyota is regularly ranked among the most productive plants in the auto industry. Why? Because Toyota learned long ago that solving quality problems at the source saves time and money downstream.”
  • Synchronize your watches (Seth): “The work itself now tells you when to start working on it, as the project is passed from desk to desk, from account to account.”
  • Managing the Unmanageable (Mantle and Litchy): “Prioritize. Sometimes, it is urgent to wait. […] When an unexpected issue comes up, engineers (mostly) tend to want to fix it right away to show their mettle, forgetting their actual priorities. It is actually more difficiult to sit back and wait first to understand the actual priority of the new issue” – Phac Le Tuan

Finding Focus, and Pride, and Satisfaction

For a knowledge worker, being able to focus is the most efficient productivity tool he can ever achieve.

Here’s the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. (Joel Spolsky)

Interruptions are productivity serial killers.

Programmers cannot work effectively in an interrupt-driven environment. Make sure your working environment protects your programmers’ flow state, otherwise they’ll waste most of their time bouncing back and forth between distractions. (Jeff Attwood, The Programmers Bill of Rights)

Being productive at work requires focus. By definition, you can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

This mental juggling act is one of the most difficult aspects of programming and is the reason programming requires more concentration than other activities. It’s the reason programmers get upset about ‘ quick interruptions’ – such interruptions are tantamount to asking a juggler to keep three balls in the air and hold your groceries at the same time. (Steve McConnel, Code Complete)

But focusing is not privative for programmers or IT workers and it’s not a recent invention. Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina, tells us about Constantine Levin, who decides helping his peasants laboring his fields. His lack of practice doesn’t let him work well, nor enjoy the task.

The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously. […]He felt as he swung his scythe that he was at the very end of his strength, and was making up his mind to ask Tit to stop.

After the firsts clumsy efforts, Levi doesn’t give up, and keeps mowing and thinking how to make his technique get better.

His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut. “I will swing less with my arm and more with my whole body,” he thought.

Finally, he suddenly starts working well, he is fully focused. He doesn’t care about no other thing than his scythe, the field in front of him and himself.

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.

He has reached “the flow”. He is working “in the zone”. This is important because his work is better. But also for a more important reason.

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction.
Anna Karenina (vol I, 3rd part, chapter 4)

Reach the flow. Get into the zone. Work better. Enjoy your work.

Related: Interruption, communication and rubber ducks