When you think of Albert Einstein, you probably picture a wild-haired professor scrawling equations on a blackboard or scratching away at some of the universe's hardest problems. But Einstein wasn't a desk-bound workaholic. In fact, the genius credits his ability to slack off with some of his most important ideas.
A lifelong loafer, Einstein loved to take out a sailboat and float around aimlessly for hours. He was even stopped by the police in 1939 for wandering around a beach lost in thought. One of the last century's great geniuses understood that the best ideas often come when you're doing nothing.
So did one of this century's great geniuses.
Slack your way to greater creativity
Steve Jobs may not have upended our understanding of the universe, but he did revolutionize the way we work and play. And, like Einstein, he did it by allowing himself to do nothing sometimes.
"The former Apple CEO relied on so-called procrastination, and taking breaks from his work, to generate his best product ideas, like the iPod," write Tat Bellamy Walker and Shana Lebowitz in Business Insider, backing up their claim with a quote from Wharton professor Adam Grant.
"The time Steve Jobs was putting things off and noodling on possibilities was time well spent in letting more divergent ideas come to the table," he told BI.
Which doesn't just suggest constant busyness is probably killing your personal creativity, Walker and Lebowitz point out. It also suggests you'd probably get more creativity out of your team if you gave them more leeway to do nothing now and again.
"If you're a manager, it pays to consider how you can make time for innovative thinking on your team," they write, offering eclectic examples of how various creative pros make space for ideas, from Twitter's hackathons to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's writer's-block-busting showers (up to six a day).
The science of inspiration
Deliberately encouraging your team to work less is going to be an extremely hard sell for many bosses, but it might help to know that Einstein's and Jobs's insight is backed by science. Researchers have broken the idea generation process down into several discrete stages, one of which is "incubation."
In this stage, your mind unconsciously sorts through all the inputs, images, and odd bits of knowledge you've fed it over the years, looking for new and unique ways to combine them. It's a stage that can't be rushed or pushed. You just need to make space to let it happen (and as Sorkin discovered, activities like showers, long walks, and doodling, during which your body is engaged but your mind can wander, are ideal for incubating ideas).
At some stage your brain will reward you with the proverbial "Eureka!" moment, but those breakthroughs never come if you don't give yourself slack time for incubation. Which isn't to say that you can slack your way to innovation. Hard work to stock your brain with inspiration and to bring those breakthroughs to fruition are required. Einstein didn't just experience moments of illumination--he then battled through the math to prove them true.
But your team is never going to come up with excellent ideas to execute on if you don't give them the space and freedom for incubation. That looks like slacking off, but you have to accept that sometimes doing nothing is the most creative thing you can do. Steve Jobs knew that. So did Einstein. And if you realize it too, your team will be way more creative.