The Importance of Time Off

I used to be a real productivity nerd. I wrote an earlier post detailing some examples of my compulsion to be as efficient as possible. I worked at a company where efficiency was one of our highest implicit values.

I still care a lot about productivity—my own, that is. For example, after reading Anthony Bourdain’s first book, I became much more attentive to the sequence of movements I make around the kitchen: when you open the refrigerator, take out everything you need; when you walk to the far end of the kitchen to get utensils, get everything you need; and so on. I used to make fancy dinners that could take an hour and a half or two hours to cook. Now that I have a child, I make simpler, multi-course meals in 30–40 minutes.

But I have a more nuanced understanding of productivity now, which is why I liked Derek Thompson’s article on the importance of vacation—and taking breaks—so much.* Part of it is that since I left the business world, most of my work now is creative—not creative in the sense of creating original works of art, but in the more modest sense that it involves thinking about stuff and writing about that stuff. When you’re a manager at a fast-growth, under-staffed company, it’s not hard to spend huge blocks of time just responding to email, reviewing documents, and providing input on various issues. That takes thought, but it’s somewhat mechanical. When I’m writing anything I care about, though, I can’t force myself to crank out another paragraph at will. And if that paragraph isn’t coming, I go kill some zombies, or “clean up outer space” (as my daughter puts it), or weed the lawn.

Thompson cites a number of studies showing that taking short breaks can improve either quality of work or output or both. Even modest amounts of lolcats or cute animals can increase productivity. And anyone who knows anything about software development knows that if you demand more output from people in the same amount of time, you’re going to get lower quality—which means more work in the long run, when you factor in bug fixes and the increased effort required on customer sites. The idea that more time spent “at work” translates linearly into greater value for the employer is just silly, for reasons I go into more in my earlier post.

There’s a bigger issue here, too. If working forty hours per week is better than working forty-eight, why is working forty better than working thirty-two? One of the more obvious solutions to the unemployment problem is job-sharing or, more radically, a four-day work week. Various European companies have implemented shorter work weeks (and paid people less), with no productivity losses (I believe—I’m basing this on what people I trust have told me). (There’s the problem of fixed benefit costs, but there must be solutions to that.) I realize that this does nothing for economic growth and GDP. But it would modestly reduce the problem of unemployment-induced poverty, reduce welfare and disability claims on state and federal governments, and allow people to maintain their job skills, which is important for the economy in the long run. And, who knows, maybe it would actually make people more productive. Of course, in today’s America this sounds like a radical, even “socialist” idea. But that’s more a comment on America than on anything else.

* Derek Thompson is my editor at The Atlantic, so I have a small incentive to say nice things about him.