Work Less To Do More

The prominence of #hustlelife posts on Instagram reflects the values of our current times. The capitalistic society we live in glorifies overwork and vilifies rest. We are led to believe that any time not spent on so-called “productive” labor is a sinful waste that must be diverted to more useful endeavors.

Stories of successful people who are constantly working litter our cultural mythos — like CEOs who sleep on the factory floor while personally overseeing production. We’re taught that to be successful, you must be willing to dedicate their entire lives to work and sacrifice all leisure. But, is this emphasis on always working truly justified?

Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician

Alex Pang focuses on this question in his book, Rest. While digging into the daily routines of many famously productive people, he noticed something quite interesting. He found that they would only work intensely for a few hours a day, and spent their remaining time in leisure — taking long walks, napping, socializing, or playing a sport.

Figures in diverse fields, ranging from Darwin to Dickens, displayed a similar style of work. Their days were structured around a few hours of intense work followed by long periods of rest. Quoting the mathematician G. H. Hardy, “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician.”

This intermittent pattern of work perhaps matches a natural cycle of mental energies. It’s unrealistic to expect our bodies to operate at 100% all the time. And like most things in nature, it’s possible that our own mental capacities fluctuate in some regular pattern. Perhaps extremely productive people are just more in tune with their inner circadian rhythm and don’t needlessly overexert themselves when running low on creative energy.

Modern-day companies are also realizing that the relationship between time spent working and productivity isn’t strictly linear. Microsoft recently found that a 4-day workweek increased productivity by 40%. We’re increasingly coming to view the structure of the modern workweek as an archaic hangover from a bygone industrial era.

Studies of the brain also show that there is a connection between resting and creativity. Although one may expect the brain to slow down when not engaged in any active work, this isn’t the case.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have found that when disengaged, the brain is just as active, but in a different set of regions — collectively referred to as the default mode network (DMN). Studies of participants graded on divergent thinking tasks also show that the connectivity to the DMN region plays some role in highly creative thinking.

As Archimedes would likely attest, insight strikes when you least expect it to. You’ve probably experienced this yourself when you were engrossed in trying to solve something and couldn’t. But later when your mind was wandering in a completely different direction, suddenly, an idea reveals itself.

The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame

Setting time constraints also forces you to be more deliberate about how your time is spent. The impetus to work less drives us to cut out superfluous tasks that drain energy and distract from truly meaningful work. In the Microsoft experiment, for example, they cut down meeting times from 60 to 30 minutes and were still able to achieve more than they previously did.

Similar to artistic pursuits, productivity is enhanced through constraints. Like the critic, G. K. Chesterton once said, “Art consists in limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

Leisure does not exist for the sake of work

Another trap to avoid is to look at rest as purely in service of productivity. Far too often, I find myself looking to the weekend to “restore” my energy for the following workweek. But that kind of thinking is reductive and distracts from leisure’s own true purpose: the freedom to pursue other things. As Josef Pieper put it, “Leisure does not exist for the sake of work.”

Although written in vastly different times, I find this section from Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, In Praise Of Idleness, to be more appropriate than ever.

The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. […] Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good but keyholes are bad. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profitmaking is the incentive to industry.

While trying to be more productive isn’t necessarily an evil thing, a single-minded obsession with maximizing productivity at the expense of all else is harmful. What’s the point in planting a garden if you never stop to smell the roses?