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Mind Matters: In Defense of Downtime

alarm clock

When I was first employed by a government research organization some years ago, my supervisor, although bright, kind, and productive, was so committed that she regularly labored into the wee hours of the morning and on weekends. She rarely took vacations. No one who worked with her could keep up with the pace, certainly not me.

Typically, I would leave work at about 6 or 7 each evening after crossing off most of the items on my to-do list. Invariably, when I returned the next morning before 8, my in box was overflowing.

Lacking control over my workload, I felt stressed. My productivity suffered, as did my morale. Other employees became so dispirited and worn out that they left. (These were days when jobs were abundant.)

Nonstop work--without sufficient downtime for family, friends, and solitude--violates the natural rhythms of life and nature. My supervisor was a perfectionist: obsessive, competitive, extremely mission-driven, and excessively failure-aversive. These traits made it difficult for her to set healthy boundaries between work and the rest of her life. And those traits affected not just her life but also the lives of all the members of the team.

Smart phones, laptops, and ubiquitous Internet connections have compounded these tendencies in driven people, enabling them to work nonstop and to drive their subordinates to do the same. The depressed economy has made things worse still, leading many workers--the ones lucky enough to still have jobs--feeling vulnerable to job loss and pressured to work harder.

A lot of people assume that the key to productivity is hard work, and of course hard work is essential. But there are limits to how much work is useful. Research suggests that working harder and longer doesn't necessarily mean getting more done.

Lessons learned about time off

A 4-year study by professor Leslie Perlow and research associate Jessica Porter, both of the Harvard Business School, published in the October issue of Harvard Business Review, demonstrates that time off can have a larger, positive effect on individual and organizational productivity than more hours on the job. They looked at the effects of something they called "predictable time off" on employees of the Boston Consulting Group, an international consulting firm comprised of consultants, bankers, accountants, lawyers, and IT professionals. During designated periods, even some periods of high work demand, employees were required to take time off. In a first experiment, employees had to take at least one day off in the middle of the workweek; they weren't given a choice, regardless of the pressures of their jobs. In a second, less extreme experiment, employees weren't allowed to work past 6 p.m. on one night each week, and they were not allowed to check e-mail or voice mail on those evenings. These "predictable time off" arrangements were in addition to any time off that occurred because of periods of light workloads, vacations, and personal leave.

Initially, the consultants and their supervisors were anxious and resisted the changes. But the results of the study were overwhelmingly positive: greater job satisfaction, improved communication, greater trust and respect for colleagues, increased learning and self-development, better products for the firm's clients, and a better work/life balance.

In a separate study, the same researchers found that 94% of professionals work at least 50 hours a week and that half of them work more than 65 hours a week. The researchers found that the study group monitored their smart phones at home 20 to 25 hours a week.

"What we discovered is that the cycle of 24/7 responsiveness can be broken if people collectively challenge the mind-set," write Perlow and Porter in their publication. "Furthermore, new ways of working can be found that benefit not just individuals but the organization, which gains in quality and efficiency--and, in the long run, experiences higher retention of more of its best people." Although not all supervisors are yet convinced, a converging body of research suggests that downtime can be a boon for employers and employees.

Get some rest

By now you might be thinking, "Gee, I wish my department or laboratory was part of this study. Where do I sign up for paid time off?" Or maybe not: Whether it's due to nature or nurture, scientists tend to make work a priority, working long hours (independent of whether they're required to) and responding quickly to new demands, even unreasonable ones, imposed by supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates.

If this describes you, you might want to do your own experiment modeled on the ones by Perlow and Porter. Resist the impulse to work constantly. It's likely to be hard at first as you feel as though you're neglecting your responsibilities. But you may find that, over time, you end up getting more done than before.

"Focus, willpower, and the ability to tackle difficult projects all draw from a limited reserve of energy," writes Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist based at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in an e-mail to Science Careers. "When you deplete these reserves--whether through sleep deprivation, which alters how the brain and body use energy, or through pushing too hard on too many projects--the quality of your work plummets, along with the usual pleasure of working on something important, such as doing good science." It's biological. "No one can afford to skip rest, and anyone's work will be refreshed and restored from some time off."

One simple means of addressing an energy deficit is a good nap. An article in the November issue of the Harvard Health Letter reviewed dozens of experiments conducted over a decade that have shown the value of sleep--including brief catnaps--in improving learning, memory, and creative thinking. Citing the finding that napping makes people more effective problem-solvers, Harvard sleep researcher Robert Stickgold urges employers to encourage napping. Some companies, such as Google, have created NapPods or nap rooms where their employees can catch some restorative shuteye during the workday. Can't see yourself sleeping on the job and can't sleep enough at home? You might think that a vacation can offer the energy burst you need. It can, but according to a meta-analysis published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Occupational Health, the results of vacations are short-lived, fading out between 2 to 4 weeks on average after the subjects returned to work. More research is needed to figure out how to make the gains of a vacation last longer. Sign me up for that study.

Probably the most feasible and easily implemented approach to reaping the benefits of downtime is to seize time off regularly, whenever you can. Modest changes in the routine of work allows a busy multitasker to slow down, recharge, and return to work with more focus, energy, and creativity. There are numerous ways to add more free time into a busy life, including work-free weekends, postlunch catnaps, days off, vacations from technology, no-work evenings, and regular 10-minute work breaks (described more fully in a previous Mind Matters column).

A season for everything

"Having an office full of workaholics is like having a yard full of moles," writes Eric Darr, executive vice president and provost at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. "Workaholics focus so much on finishing the project that they do not strategize, prioritize, or seek more creative solutions. And, like moles, they start tunneling but not in the same or best direction. Blinded by getting to the finish line, they miss opportunities."

In Judaism there is a custom called the Shmita, a sabbatical year occurring cyclically every 7 years when the land is allowed to rest; those who observe the Shmita are promised a bountiful harvest afterward. Those who fail to observe a fallow period--and this goes for scientists--are bound to feel depleted.

Need proof that's closer to home? Consider how many of your most creative thoughts occur not in front of a computer screen or at the bench but while your are showering, golfing, lying in bed, or taking a jog in the park?

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