In many areas of life there's a straight line between input and output. The more you eat, the fatter you'll get. The more you exercise, the fitter you'll be. The faster the production line runs, the more units it will spit out.
Following this logic it's easy to conclude that the same can be said of work. The harder and longer you work, the more you'll accomplish. But while this seems sensible on the surface, a look at the historical record offers plenty of reasons to doubt that hours in equals accomplishments out.
Can you slack your way to genius?
If you're shoveling coal or screwing together widgets, then certainly longer hours will yield higher output (up to the point of exhaustion at least, which research shows is pretty close to 40 hours a week). But as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang uncovers in a fascinating article for Nautilus, if you're looking to come up with breakthrough ideas, less really is more.
Pang digs into the daily routines of geniuses in various branches of human endeavor, from scientists to writers to musicians, and finds one big commonality. None of them was at their desks (or in their practice rooms) for more than a leisurely five hours a day. These greats applied themselves with intensity and passion, but in terms of sheer nose to the grindstone hours they were, by modern standards, "slackers." Here are a few examples:
1. Charles Darwin
For a guy who upended our understanding of the natural world, Darwin sure didn't put in long hours. Here's Pang describing his schedule:
After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, "I've done a good day's work," and set out on a long walk
The afternoon consisted of napping, more walking, and an early dinner with his family. All together that's around three hours of concentrated work a day. "If he had been a professor in a university today, he would have been denied tenure. If he'd been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week," Pang remarks.
2. Henri Poincaré
The eminent French mathematician authored 30 books and 500 papers. He was also, "involved in efforts to standardize time zones, supervised railway development in northern France (he was educated as a mining engineer), served as inspector general of the Corps des Mines, and was a professor at the Sorbonne."
Did all this require 80- hour weeks? Hardly, he worked in two concentrated bursts every day from ten in the morning to noon and from five to seven in the afternoon.
3. Anthony Trollope
Trollope, the great 19th century English writer, published 47 novels while holding down another full-time job. This was his schedule: "At 5 o'clock in the morning, a servant arrived with coffee. He first read over the previous day's work, then at 5:30 set his watch on his desk and started writing. He wrote 1,000 words an hour, an average of 40 finished pages a week, until it was time to leave for his day job at the post office at 8 o'clock."
Alice Munro, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, Saul Bellow, and Ernest Hemingway are all known to have worked less than five hours a day.
The chilled out schedules and incredible contributions of these geniuses aren't unrelated, Pang insists. The complete article gathers an impressive array of research to back up this conclusion (and is absolutely worth a read in full), but the bottom line is this: if you're working on truly hard problems or searching for genuinely great ideas, forget our current cult of hard work. Short bursts of concentrated work and plenty of leisure will result in more and better work.
The breakthroughs of geniuses "weren't accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it. And even in today's 24/7, always-on world, we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier," Pang believes.
Do you agree with him?