Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Schedules (page 1 of 2)

Circadian rhythms and work rhythms

The New York Times has an interesting piece about efforts to match work schedules to circadian rhythms:

At the Denmark offices of the pharmaceutical company AbbVie, employees design work schedules that take advantage of their biological strengths. A nine-hour training program helps them identify when they are ripe for creative or challenging projects, typically mornings for early risers and afternoons for late risers. Lower-energy periods are meant for more mundane tasks, like handling emails or doing administrative chores. Workers save commuting time by avoiding rush hour traffic, and can better mesh their personal and professional lives — for example, by getting their children from school in the afternoon, then working from home in the evening after the kids are in bed.

Employee satisfaction with work-life balance has risen from 39 percent 10 years ago, when the program launched, to nearly 100 percent today, according to company surveys. Last year the Denmark division of Great Place to Work, a global organization that ranks companies based on employee satisfaction, named AbbVie the top middle-size company in the country. “The flexibility actually empowers people to deliver the best possible results,” said Christina Jeppesen, the company’s general manager.

When I first started reading up on circadian rhythms and focus, it struck me that many of us spend some of our potentially most productive hours stuck in traffic. We hit a wakefulness peak– a period when we have the most energy and are most awake– about one or two hours after we wake up; we also have another, less intense one in the later afternoon.

But for most of us, that period gets spent inching our ways down the highway, not actually doing productive stuff. Far better, I thought, to spend that time at home working, and then come in later, after you’ve done a couple hours’ work.

Within groups, though, it’s worth thinking about how you might factor in chronotypes to match the kinds of work you’re doing:

Stefan Volk, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, has suggested that businesses can leverage chronotypes to maximize team success. For example, members of a surgery team should have similar chronotypes because they need to be in top form simultaneously. But at a nuclear power plant, workers should have different energy peaks, so that someone is always on the alert.

Talking about REST on BBC Radio 4

Ready for my closeup on BBC Radio 4!

So I was just on BBC Radio 4’s morning show (it’s night here in California, but 8 hours ahead in London, people are having their coffee and checking the weather). I was on with Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, talking about careers, aging, retirement, and the challenge of making work suitable for populations that have longer life expectancy (and increasingly, social safety nets and retirement systems that suck).

This was a bit of a last-minute thing: I got a message from a producer this morning asking if I was available, we did a sound check a couple hours later, and they rang me up a couple minutes before the segment ran.

I find that I perform better in these situations when I don’t just rely on my natural brilliance and extemporaneous speaking ability, but actually do some prep– which for me means writing some note about the subject beforehand. (I’ve written other posts about doing radio.)

Here’s what I wrote out and was trying to get across:

People who have very long and productive careers often alternate periods of intensive focused activity, with periods for recovery and reflection. This is true at the weekly level (i.e., detaching from work and having hobbies or other things that occupy your time), and at the level of years (having sabbaticals or other longer breaks).

This is a more sustainable pattern because, as recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists has shown, humans effectively focus for 4-5 hours a day. We’re also more creative when we have time built into our schedules for both hard work and deliberate rest. Finally, we vastly underestimate how much checking email after-hours erodes our ability to recover and recharge, and both our technologies and professional norms make that problem worse.

Whether consciously or not, parents who take time off with their young children, professionals who burn out after a decade in a high-pressure job, “digital nomads” who spend their 20s doing projects while traveling the world, etc. are all trying to find alternatives that play around with more extended periods of time off, or remix work and other things.

But companies have yet to make sense of these experiments, and instead see the traditional linear career as the norm, and these experiments as concessions or deviations. They also see long hours as a sign of dedication and productivity, and have generally been unwilling to share increased productivity with workers in the form of either higher wages or shorter hours. Finally, we see this problem of work-life balance mainly as one to be solved by individuals, not as an organizational design or policy challenge.

However, there are companies (mainly in software, advertising, and financial services) that have shown that it’s possible right now to shift to a 4-day week, or a 6-hour day, simply by using existing technology more productively, making meeting more efficient, and redesigning the workday to give people longer periods of focused, uninterrupted time.

Companies moving to 4-day weeks show that ever-longer hours are not inevitable, nor are they necessary for a company to make money and do good work. And if we can move to a 4-day week just by using our time and technology more wisely, this suggests that by designing new technologies like robots and AI with an eye to helping workers become more skilled and productive, and sharing the resulting time savings with workers, a 3-day week— or Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour workweek— could be closer to hand than we think.

The challenge we face now is to figure out how we can put these parts together: to do things like shorten the work day, rebuild the wall between work and private time, and design careers that allow for longer breaks and sabbaticals.

It’s not that you find the paragraph that best fits the question the presenter asks and then read it, but rather, the point of the exercise is to get you thinking about a subject, and give you a starting-point.

You’ll also notice the post-it that says “Answer JUST the Question.” This is a constant issue with me: I tend to want to answer a question and then discuss the implications, or a related point, and in a short-format radio show, you have to curb than instinct, and let the presenter guide the conversation. (BBC presenters, in my experience, are really outstanding, so it’s best to let them lead.)

Having a serious microphone is also a MUST for things like this. I love my Yeti Blue mic, and adding the wind guard and stand has only improved both the audio quality and ease of use.

I think I’m slowly getting better at these things. It’s not something that comes effortlessly, but it is possible to improve!

Now to bed, as I have to be up very early tomorrow!

Time isn’t money: “I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time”

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were interviewed by Charlie Rose (I don’t know the date it aired, sorry), and in this excerpt on YouTube, Gates talks about what he learned from Buffet about protecting his time.

“The fact that he is so careful with his time” was a revelation to the young Gates, and it taught him that “sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority” than responding to the normal demands of CEO life. “You feel like you need to go and see al these people, [but] it’s not a proxy for seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.”

“People are going to want your time,” Buffett says. “It’s the only thing you can’t buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time.”

This is a really interesting exchange in my view, because we often think of time as being like money. It’s not just that we work X hours a day, to earn a living. It’s not just that our language jumbles the two together: we say that “time is money,” and that we “spend” time.

What I mean is that we treat time as something to invest, and treat inactivity as like an underperforming asset. Our time can’t be like the money that we’ve stuffed in a mattress: it has to be out in the world, circulating, creating value, working for us. Our calendars are like hotels: the closer you get to being 100% occupied, the better off you are.

So it’s striking that Buffett doesn’t treat his own time that way. Not that he’s unfamiliar with the idea that time is money. Berkshire Hathaway owns (among other things) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, logistics companies, insurance companies (GEICO, National Indemnity), NetJets, and construction companies. Lots of these are companies where you don’t want stuff just sitting in warehouses or worksheets, idling on the runway or train yard: the more things are moving, the more money they make. You can bet that Buffett understands this.

And yet, he doesn’t treat his own time that way. At one point in the interview, he shows Charlie Rose his appointment book (and it’s a simple paper diary): many of the pages are blank. It’s not that people don’t want Buffett’s time; it’s that Buffett values his time more than they do, because he knows that time isn’t money.

“make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer”

Scottish author James Kelman tells the Guardian how he got his start, and how he writes:

I’m at the desk most mornings between 5.30 and 7. Every day is the same. I developed the practice under pressure of external commitments and obligations. I began writing while a young fellow in London in the mid to late 1960s, working at any job I could find. Most began at 8 am, and went on for ever. By the time I came home I was too tired for anything. I discovered a first principle of art: a weary mind in a weary body. So I did my own work first – my writing – which meant rising two hours before leaving the house.

In 1969 I met Marie and we married the same year. I continued writing and working after the same fashion. In my mid 20s I was driving buses. We had two kids by then. If a shift began at 5 am I would have managed an hour on a story before taking the first bus out of the garage. It was a wrench leaving the story but better that than trying to write in the aftermath of a 12-hour shift.

I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer. It worked. During the formative years I discovered another first principle: “writer’s block” is an economic luxury. It was inconceivable that I could steal time to write and be unable to write.

This is a geat example of how writers discover early morning routines: as often as not, they’re forced it in by circumstance and schedules, and only after doing it for a while do they discover that there are creative benefits to early hours.

The idea that you should “make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer” is also an important one. I’ve always loved John Le Carré’s description of being careful to give his country second best when he was writing novels on the train to and from work. This isn’t license to do a bad job on the job, but it is a reminder that you should be honest about what’s your most important work, and let your expenditure of time and energy– and especially those hours during which you can do your best work– reflect those priorities.

Kurt Vonnegut: “I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day.”

One of the most consistent findings in REST is how many really prolific and creative people do their most important work in about four focused hours a day. They’re not taught that this is a magic number; they often start their careers as workaholics; and some find this sweet spot when they’re younger, others when they’re in middle age of later.

Add Kurt Vonnegut to this list, as Literary Hub contributor Emily Temple notes in this piece on “Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Writing Advice:”

I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours. (From an interview with Robert Taylor in Boston Globe Magazine, 1969)

The value of flexibility: What workers will pay for different kinds of flexible working arrangements

If you ask people if they like flexibility in their jobs, they generally say, yes. But do they like it more than, say, stability or benefits? Would they trade a slightly higher-paying job with more uncertain hours for a lower-paying 9-to-5 job? In other words, how much is flexibility worth when compared to other things?

Interestingly, while there are surveys that have measured people’s attitudes towards flexibility and independence, these studies haven’t done a very good job of measuring how much they value flexibility. Consequently, we tend to treat “flexibility” as a free-floating property, or even as an absolute: we imagine that people view it as a kind of economic liberty. Now, a new study by two economists, Princeton’s Alexandre Mas and Harvard’s Amanda Pallais, seeks to more precisely measure the value of flexibility. As writer Sarah Kessler explains in an article in Quartz, Mas and Pallais

tested how much value workers placed on flexibility while they were recruiting call center workers for another study. After applicants applied for the job, the researchers asked more than 3,000 of them to choose between a job that offered a standard 9-to-5 schedule or the same job, but with one of five flexible scheduling options: choose when to work; choose how many hours to work; work on a traditional schedule, but from home; choose both how much to work and when; and hear from your employer one week in advance when you’ll work.

The difference between hourly pay for each of the job options varied randomly. Sometimes it was the same. Sometimes the alternative work arrangement paid more, or a lot more, than the traditional job, and sometimes the traditional job paid better.

Mas and Pallais found that when workers chose between the two types of jobs presented to them—one an alternative work arrangement and one a traditional, office-based, 9-to-5 job—workers overwhelmingly place little value on flexible options.

Obviously everyone makes these calculations a little differently, and given enough money most of us are willing to rationalize accepting choices that otherwise would be unpalatable. But when given the choice between a 9-to-5 job and a flexible job that paid the same, 40% of people chose the 9-to-5; even when the flexible job paid $5/hour more, 20% of people still chose the fixed hours.

People really didn’t like the option of having employers set their hours a week in advance: you had to increase wages by $3.41 to get half the people offered that job to say yes. But when you think about it, that’s the version of the “gig economy” that gives all the advantage to employers, and gives workers the worst bargain: as an employee you don’t have the flexibility to do your work the way you want, but your employer has the flexibility to treat your schedule as their plaything. And if other parts of your life depend on stability, you pay a penalty in having to manage those more closely: you have to scramble to find new child care arrangements, or find someone to walk the dogs, and so on.

Interestingly, women were 30% more likely to accept a flexible job offer, and to accept a lower-paying job if it meant being able to work from home. They also were more averse to taking a job whose hours were both unpredictable and set by the employer.

So what this means for employers is that flexibility is less valuable than many of us assume, and less attractive a perk– especially if that “flexibility” looks like something that comes at the employee’s expense.  Or as Mas concludes,  for the most part, “People just want a fixed schedule…. They don’t really care about being able to adjust it.”

The article is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Here’s the abstract:

Valuing Alternative Work Arrangements

We use a field experiment to study how workers value alternative work arrangements. During the application process to staff a national call center, we randomly offered applicants choices between traditional M-F 9 am – 5 pm office positions and alternatives. These alternatives include flexible scheduling, working from home, and positions that give the employer discretion over scheduling. We randomly varied the wage difference between the traditional option and the alternative, allowing us to estimate the entire distribution of willingness to pay (WTP) for these alternatives. We validate our results using a nationally-representative survey. The great majority of workers are not willing to pay for flexible scheduling relative to a traditional schedule: either the ability to choose the days and times of work or the number of hours they work. However, the average worker is willing to give up 20% of wages to avoid a schedule set by an employer on a week’s notice. This largely represents workers’ aversion to evening and weekend work, not scheduling unpredictability. Traditional M-F 9 am – 5 pm schedules are preferred by most jobseekers. Despite the fact that the average worker isn’t willing to pay for scheduling flexibility, a tail of workers with high WTP allows for sizable compensating differentials. Of the worker-friendly options we test, workers are willing to pay the most (8% of wages) for the option of working from home. Women, particularly those with young children, have higher WTP for work from home and to avoid employer scheduling discretion. They are slightly more likely to be in jobs with these amenities, but the differences are not large enough to explain any wage gaps.

John Littlewood’s advice to mathematicians: 4-hour days, acquire the art of “thinking vaguely,” and “work all out or rest completely”

Views of Cambridge from Great St. Mary's
Cambridge from the bell tower at St Mary’s Church

I’ve quoted from this before, but I love John Littlewood’s essay “The mathematician’s art of work,” In this extract, the Cambridge offers “some practical advice about research and the strategy it calls for.”

In the first place research work is of a different order from the “learning” process of pre-research education (essential as that is). The latter can easily be rote-memory, with little associative power: on the other hand, after a month’s immersion in research the mind knows its problem much as one’s tongue knows the inside of one’s mouth. You must also acquire the art of “thinking vaguely,” an elusive idea I can’t elaborate in short form. After what I have said earlier, it is inevitable that I should stress the importance of giving the subconscious every chance. There should be relaxed periods during the working day, profitably, I say, spent in walking.

HOURS A DAY AND DAYS A WEEK On days free from research, and apart from regular holidays, I recommend four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps). If you don’t have breaks you unconsciously acquire the habit of slowing down. Preparation of lectures counts more or less as research work for this purpose. On days with teaching duties, I can only say, be careful not to overdo the research. The strain of lecturing, by the way, can be lightened if you apply the golfing maxim: “don’t press.” It is, of course, hard not to. Don’t spend tired periods on proof correction, or work that needs alertness; you make several shots at an emendation that you would do in one when fresh. Even in making a fair copy one is on the qui vive for possible changes.

Either work all out or rest completely. It is too easy, when rather tired, to fritter a whole day away with the intention of working but never getting / [116-117] properly down to it. This is pure waste, nothing is done, and you have had no rest or relaxation. I said “work all out”: speed of associative thought is, I believe, important in creative work; another elusive idea, with which my psychological doctor agrees.

For a week without teaching duties- and here I think I am preaching to the converted – I believe in one afternoon and the following day off. The day off need not necessarily be Sunday, but that has a restful atmosphere of general relaxation, church bells in the distance, other people going to church, and so on. The day, however, should stay the same one of the week; this establishes a rhythm, and you begin relaxing at lunch time the day before.

At one time I used to work 7 days a week (apart, of course, from 3-week chunks of holidays). I experimented during a Long Vacation with a Sunday off, and presently began to notice that ideas had a way of coming on Mondays. I also planned to celebrate the arrival of a decent idea by taking the rest of that day off. And then ideas began coming also on Tuesday.

In these paragraphs, Littlewood beautifully and informally summarizes some of the key practices of deliberate rest: the conscious use of rest to nurture and sustain subconscious creative thinking, the mixing of focused and unfocused periods, the advocacy of exercise, and the practice of keeping an eye out for insights after breaks. It’s all in here, which is why I’m so enthusiastic about it.

Source: John Littlewood, “The mathematician’s art of work,The Mathematical Intelligencer 1:2 (June 1978), 112-119.

On creative lives and the art of saying “no”

One of the striking things I noticed when writing REST was how often the people I was studying said no to things, arranged their lives to smoothy avoid distractions, and were ferociously protective of their time. As Kevin Ashton notes, they say no a lot.


When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was writing his book on creativity, he asked 275 creative people to participate in his study. “A third of them said ‘no.’ Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing.” Saul Bellow’s secretary wrote back, “Mr Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’” Peter Drucker said, “One of the secrets of productivity… is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours.”

I’m not at all surprised by this. Notable creative people are highly conscious of how they spend their time; they treat it as a precious resource; and they’re always on the lookout for things that will help them be more creative.


Routines are one way to say no. I’ve been reading the new biography of James Merrill, and am struck at how when he was young, he first tried to live the bohemian life of an artiste: as Langdon Hammer puts it,

In New York, where everyone was busy and ambitious, it was easy not to get much done. When Jimmy’s day was over at the desk, there were too / many options: the opera, the San Remo, a vernissage, book parties, and more parties, which made it hard to get to the desk the next morning.

Merrill, Hammer says, quickly realized that he needed more focus in order to write. In the summer of 1948, he and a friend rented a cottage on Georgetown Island, in Maine. There, Merrill spent the summer

testing what it was like to write without the distractions of New York. He opened his diary every day and copied yesterday’s stanzas again, growing his poems by increments, establishing the laborious process of daily revision that would be his mature writing practice.

Merrill had always shown considerable literary talent, but he didn’t really take off until he realized that he could either behave like a poet, or be a poet. As he later put it, he discovered that “the life of leisure doesn’t give us a moment’s rest.”

Scenes from PopTech
Camden, Maine

Doing creative work, people discover, requires two kinds of focus. The first is hours to focus: time set aside to work, every day. As Chuck Close puts it, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Embedded in this practice is the recognition that creative work isn’t powered by lightning bolts from the Muse; if you want to really explore your craft, you need a steadier and more reliable source of energy, and you have to give yourself time. 

The second kind of focus is more of an attitude: an embrace of a specific kind of minimalism, of a life that had fewer diversions and more space to do what really matters. When James Merrill moves from New York City to the town of Stonington, Connecticut, or Charles Darwin leaves London for Down, they’re consciously looking for spaces that will buy them more time, without keeping them close enough to their professional networks to stay engaged and productive. They’re still close enough to the centers of publishing and science to stay in touch with colleagues, agents, etc., but far enough to deter casual admirers, cranks, and the like; and even their friends have to plan their visits.

Darwin Walk

But, and this is a very big BUT, what “really matters” isn’t just endless work: they’re not turning down invitations and chairmanships and speaking gigs to spend eighteen hour days in the lab or studio. In fact, even people who spend “only” about four hours a day doing what we recognize as “work” are ferocious defenders of their time.

You might think that if the bulk of your creative work was done before lunch, you’d have lot of time for committees or get-togethers. Wrong. Really creative people are just as careful about protecting time for deliberate rest. They build long walks, afternoon naps, and exercise into their routines; indeed, those routines exist partly because without them, it would be too easy to rationalize away that rest, to say yes to that little speaking engagement or reviewing that manuscript.

Creative people put work first, but they put rest a close second. They make time for both. And one reason they make that time is they see themselves as having time, because they understand how work and rest support teach other. As I explained in an earlier post, successful scientists see hobbies as another “expression of a general aesthetic sensibility about nature,” and recognize that “time relaxing or engaging in their hobbies could be valuable” to “their scientific efficiency and thus to their careers” (to quote Robert Scott Root-Bernstein and his coauthors).

Having the time for these hobbies, or for long walks, for time for the kind of mind-wandering that builds to breakthroughs, requires structuring your life in the right way. It requires routines. It requires cultivating an attitude that accepts that in order to do important things, you have to refuse to do unimportant things, even if they’re interesting. (It may require developing a reputation for irresponsibility, so people stop asking you to do things.) Finally, it requires saying no to a lot of distractions and things that would eat up that time.

Experiments in six-hour days

The Guardian reports on experiments in Sweden to shorten the workday, in an effort to get higher-quality work and reduce turnover. In the Svartedalens care home, a Gothenburg nursing home, for example, nurses are experimenting with six-hour rather than eight-hour shifts.

Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, head of elderly care at the home, says staff wellbeing is better and the standard of care is even higher.

“Since the 1990s we have had more work and fewer people – we can’t do it any more,” she says. “There is a lot of illness and depression among staff in the care sector because of exhaustion – the lack of balance between work and life is not good for anyone.”

Pettersson, one of 82 nurses at Svartedalens, agrees. Caring for elderly people, some of whom have dementia, demands constant vigilance and creativity, and with a six-hour day she can sustain a higher standard of care. “You cannot allow elderly people to become stressed, otherwise it turns into a bad day for everyone,” she says.

Toyota service centres in the city have been working six-hour days for more than a decade. Managing director Martin Banck recalls that

Customers were unhappy with long waiting times, while staff were stressed and making mistakes… [Under the six-hour day,]  “Staff feel better, there is low turnover and it is easier to recruit new people,” Banck says. “They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs – everyone is happy.”

Also, “Profits have risen by 25%, he adds.”

These kinds of schemes tend to be expensive, but proponents say that the improvement in quality of service is worth the cost– which is one reason you see these experiments in service industries and jobs that require high levels of focus, a ability to improvise, patience and resilience, and other psychological resources that can be eroded by long working hours.

It’s not just service companies that are finding success with shorter hours: several software companies have, too. The Swedish SEO company Brath has also implemented a six-hour day, and it’s interesting to read their defense of it. They make several points:

  • “Hiring and keeping talent is if not the most so at least one of the most critical tasks for any growing company.”
  • The policy shows that “we actually care about our employees, we care enough to prioritize their time with the family, cooking or doing something else they love doing.”
  • “Another big benefit is that our employees produce more than similar companies do. We obviously measure this. It hasn’t happened by itself, we’ve been working on this from the start. Today we get more done in 6 hours than comparable companies do in 8. We believe it comes with the high level of creativity demanded in this line of work. We believe nobody can be creative and productive in 8 hours straight.”
  • “A third huge reason for shorter days is that we all feel more rested. Obviously we too have to stay late at times, obviously we too are stressed at times but it’s from a better base line.”

Another software company, Filimundus, has adopted a six-hour day. CEO Linus Feldt says:

“Today I believe that time is more valuable than money…. And it is a strong motivational factor to be able to go home two hours earlier. You still want to do a good job and be productive during six hours, so I think you focus more and are more efficient.”

This runs directly counter to several trends in employment and workplace management, as people like Peter Fleming would point out. We assume that keeping people in the office longer automatically translates into higher levels of production, and that it’s better to have a smaller number of overworked employees than a larger number who work more reasonable hours. These places show that, properly managed, a transition to shorter hours can be better for everyone.

“science benefits when we think more and do less”

Susan Fitzpatrick, the president of the McDonnell Foundation, has an opinion piece in The Scientist about the importance of unstructured, social time in doing good science.

There was a stretch of time when I would spend a week or so each summer visiting some friends who were academic colleagues. Typically, our days were structured around generous amounts of “schmooze” time. First, there was the requisite two-hour breakfast at a quaint, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. These meetings were about more than sharing a meal; we covered a fair amount of ground over coffee, eggs, and whole-wheat toast. We hashed out serious questions related to our areas of scientific interests, argued over the changing politics of academic research, and strayed unflinchingly and irreverently into topics for which we have no particular claim to insight or expertise…. We indulged in those freewheeling discussions in which an out-of-left-field comment could completely alter the way we were pursuing a problem.

Of course, as a senior scientist and administrator, finding that kind of time seems well-nigh impossible; more disturbing, that kind of free time seems to be evaporating from the daily lives of scientists at every stage of their careers.

Cafe Milano

If you’re a graduate student, you have to demonstrate that you’re a super-brilliant Wunderkind by doing stunningly original work; if you’re a postdoc, you need to show you’re a paper-writing machine even as you apply for grants or bounce babies with your other hand.

Stairway to Peets Coffee
Gotta climb that career ladder!

If you’re lucky and good enough to win the tournament of science and become a PI, you now have to schmooze donors, read the tea leaves about what’s hot and not at the NSF and NIH, sit on review boards and editorial boards, chair committees, supervise dissertations, oversee postdocs, etc. etc. ad infinitum. You wouldn’t want to lose your lab, now would you?

MIT's Stata Center

In other words, everyone is in danger of being too busy working to do their jobs.

Coffee and Simon Schama

Does it make the science better? Fitzpatrick argues that it doesn’t.

I don’t believe that doing more is always better. Paradoxically, doing more can lead to fewer impactful results—smaller questions, smaller insights, and smaller advances in knowledge. It is unfortunate that just about every professional reward and incentive in academic science requires that more and more be piled onto ever-crowded plates. Can supervising more trainees, being named on more grants, and appearing as an author on more papers really equate to being more productive?

But, Fitzpatrick argues, having useful leisure is no less important now than in the past. Even in an era of computational biology, robots that can do experiments, machine learning, etc., we need to be able think deeply, and seriously. Which requires being able to think in a leisurely fashion.

Dog and iPad

This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it does mean taking science (or whatever you’re working on) very seriously, letting it settle into your brain and bones, but not holding yourself to a clock or factory model of research and writing.

The anecdotes of researchers at some of the most productive institutions during halcyon times of progress recall a complex web of time in the lab, competitive sporting games, whimsical parties, mountain hikes, and walks on the beach. There seemed to be a fair amount of wine, lots of long dinners, and plenty of bull sessions.

But, I’d argue, it still requires time to think. Time to talk…. To my mind, science benefits when we think more and do less.

I don’t know of many studies that have tried to determine a correlation between scientists’ working hours and productivity, I do know of one that’s really fascinating. In the early 1950s, Raymond Val Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues at the Illinois Institute of Technology about their motivation, work habits and schedules.*

In fact, when they graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced, they found something surprising. Rather than a straight line that showed a linear relationship between workplace hours and productivity, their data produced M-shaped curve. Productivity was highest among those who spent between ten to twenty hours in the office. (I’ve seen this pattern of four-hour days among creative and prolific people repeatedly, in many fields, across at least a couple centuries.)

The curve then turned downward. People who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five; at thirty-five hours, your productivity was half that of your twenty hour-a-week colleagues.


From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly. A researcher who clawed their way out of the thirty-five hour valley, buckled down, and spent fifty hours per week in the lab saw their productivity rise– to the same point as those who spent five hours a week. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this rise was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment” and continuous monitoring: most of those ten-hour days were spent tending machines, and occasionally taking measurements. From there, it was all downhill: the sixty plus hour-a-week researchers were the least productive of all.

Study Hotel

Val Zelst and Kerr also asked faculty how many “hours per typical work day do you devote to home work which contributes to the efficient performance of your job,” and graphed those results against productivity as well. This time, they didn’t see an M, but rather a single curve peaking around three to three and a half hours a day. Unfortunately, they don’t say anything about total hours spent working at the office and home; they only allude to “the probability that” the most productive researchers “do much of their creative work at home or elsewhere,” rather than on campus.

If you assume that the most productive office and home workers are the same, this cohort is working between twenty-five and thirty-eight hours a week. In a five-day week, that works out to an average of five to seven hours a day.

Corpus Clock

Now, this is an old study, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to explain what’s changed in the nature of scientific thinking, or creative thinking more generally, that requires we spend many more hours a day at it— other than all the flawed and external reasons The challenge is figuring out how we can get back to a form of work that is creative and prolific, rather than merely busy and rushed and time-crunched.

*Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr, “Some correlates of scientific and technical productivity,” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 46(4), Oct 1951, 470-475.

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