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How to Be More Creative: Take Time Off and Work Fewer Hours

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
creativity

Among the things we are conditioned to believe about working, possibly one of the most detrimental is that you should be doing it all the time. We bank our vacation days for years, rarely taking more than a long weekend away from our screens. We are convinced that the person who stays at the office the longest is the most productive. We groan when one of our coworkers has the audacity to take off a full two weeks.

But we shouldn’t. Because all work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy — it makes Jack’s work boring, stale, and less valuable.

At his firm, Sagmeister & Walsh, Inc, designer Stefan Sagmeister has mandated year-long sabbaticals every seven years. For a full year, he explains in his TED Talk, his entire shop closes down. They do no client work. Because, Sagmeister says, constantly grinding away at work had made their output less desirable.

“Our work started to look the same. So I decided to close it down for a year,” Sagmeister explains.

Sagmeister’s theory was this: In a human lifetime in the Western world, the first 25 years are spent learning, the final 15 are spent in retirement, and the intervening 40 are used with work. Instead, he decided, he could intersperse one year of pseudo-retirement every seven years, which would still allow for 10 years of retirement at the end of a career, but more time off in the interim.

The key, though, was that his time off wasn’t spent idly; he says that, though at first he found he wasn’t very productive, it didn’t take long before he began to formulate a plan, to create some structure — and to work on things he loved, filling his time with creative pursuits that he didn’t have time to do during his full-time work.

The result?

“I really got close to design again,” he explains. “I had fun.” But more than that, he came up with the innovative ideas that he would use in his design work for the next seven years — ideas he says he never would have come up with were it not for his time spent traveling and thinking and being exposed to different cultures and their design elements.

Sagmeister’s may seem counterintuitive, but only because we’ve all been conditioned to believe that the only way to be productive and good at work is to be at work, and to continue working until…well, ever, really. However, science and psychology don’t really prove that to be the case — in fact, time off has actually been shown to improve productivity and creativity.

“Not just taking time off from work, but actually getting away from where you live is really important, because that’s the only way that you can achieve that perspective,” explains Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who has studied the subject of time away from work and its impact.

Consider this: Do you come up with your best, brightest ideas while you’re staring at a spreadsheet for the sixth hour straight, or do they come to you when your mind is elsewhere, like when you’re in the shower, thinking about nothing in particular? Allowing the mind to wander and relac has been shown to improve overall creative thinking, and generate more diverse, interesting ideas.

Time off isn’t a hinderance to work and productivity — it’s a silent motivator.

As for the monetary consequences of shutting down for a year, Sagmeister says, there were none. Taking time fully away from work also turned out to be a savvy business practice.

“Financially, seen over the long term, it was actually successful. Because of the improved quality, we could ask for higher prices,” he notes.

Even if you can’t take a full year to turn off your work email app while exploring Bali, time off can be an important, effective way to not only help you feel better, but be a better worker. So if your boss gives you the side-eye when you request to take a full week off this summer, just show them this article, and let them know that they can expect better, stronger work from you…as soon as you return.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.