Less Is More: Knowledge Work Requires (Also) Idleness

Less work­ing hours lead to more and bet­ter results. What may sound absurd has recent­ly been impres­sive­ly demon­strat­ed by Microsoft in Japan. In August, all 2,300 employ­ees had five Fri­days off – with the same salary, mind you. The result of this exper­i­ment were hap­pi­er employ­ees and 40% more pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. More work­ing time does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly lead to more or bet­ter results in knowl­edge work. Nev­er­the­less, the cul­ture in many orga­ni­za­tions is char­ac­ter­ized by the sim­ple for­mu­la “more atten­dance = more work = more per­for­mance = more career,” as Cawa Younosi, Head of Human Resources and mem­ber of the Exec­u­tive Board of SAP Ger­many, put it in an inter­view on the change in val­ues regard­ing work­ing time. So it’s high time to cor­rect this for­mu­la in our minds and unleash people’s cre­ative poten­tial through a bet­ter bal­ance between focus and idleness.

Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot.

Takuya Hira­no, Microsoft Japan pres­i­dent and CEO 

Microsoft’s exper­i­ment is not an iso­lat­ed case. Sim­i­lar results are report­ed by Lasse Rhein­gans, who suc­cess­ful­ly intro­duced the five-hour day at the same salary in his agency in his new book “Die 5‑S­tun­den-Rev­o­lu­tion: Wer Erfolg wollen, Arbeit muss neu denken” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link).

In recent years, brain research has clear­ly shown that our brain has no pause func­tion. It is always busy – or dead. How­ev­er, it has two dif­fer­ent work­ing modes: con­cen­trat­ed atten­tion on the one hand and what is called the Default Mode Net­work on the oth­er. Although the brain is not work­ing focussed and active­ly on a prob­lem in this mode of relax­ation, it is nev­er­the­less very pro­duc­tive, in that it cre­ates the con­nec­tions for cre­ative solu­tions in the sub­con­scious. And that’s why the deci­sive ideas don’t come in meet­ings and not when we make a par­tic­u­lar­ly long and hard effort, but only some­time lat­er while iron­ing, show­er­ing or dri­ving a car. Less is more.

Kolorierter Holzschnitt aus dem Jahr 1547 zeigt Archimedes als er beim Bad das Archimedische Prinzip entdeckt.
A coloured wood­cut from 1547 shows Archimedes when he sud­den­ly found the solu­tion to a prob­lem he had stud­ied for a long time.

So it hap­pened to Archimedes. He had been ordered by King Hieron II of Syra­cuse to find out whether his crown was real­ly made of pure gold or whether the gold­smith had cheat­ed him by remov­ing gold and adding the same weight of sil­ver. After a long peri­od of fruit­less con­sid­er­a­tion, Archimedes climbed into the bath­tub, which was filled to the brim and spilled over. At that moment Archimedes real­ized that the vol­ume of the sub­merged body cor­re­spond­ed exact­ly to the dis­placed water and that he thus could mea­sure the vol­ume of any irreg­u­lar object. This real­iza­tion hit him so sur­pris­ing­ly that he alleged­ly ran out on the street naked as he was while shout­ing “Eure­ka!” (“I’ve found it!”). The crown was actu­al­ly not made of pure gold, because it dis­placed more water than an equal­ly heavy pure gold bar and thus was of low­er den­si­ty. What hap­pened to the gold­smith is not known.

The right bal­ance of ten­sion and relax­ation, the inter­play of con­cen­tra­tion and detach­ment makes the dif­fer­ence. There­fore the equa­tion that more con­cen­trat­ed work in the office leads to more or bet­ter results is no longer valid for knowl­edge work. It is all a ques­tion of the right degree and how much is too much. How­ev­er, our cur­rent yard­stick in most orga­ni­za­tions still comes from the indus­tri­al age in which this sim­ple equa­tion was valid. But knowl­edge work and cre­ativ­i­ty are dif­fer­ent and there­fore they need a dif­fer­ent yard­stick and bet­ter con­di­tions to be effec­tive. And nobody has sum­ma­rized this bet­ter even with­out brain research than Astrid Lind­gren (which is why this quo­ta­tion is dis­played very promi­nent­ly in our home):

Und dann muss man ja noch Zeit haben, einfach dazusitzen und vor sich hinzuschauen. (Astrid Lindgren)
Quote by Astrid Lind­gren hang­ing in our home: “… and then you have to have time to just sit there and look at yourself!”

Ques­tion­ing and improv­ing the frame­work con­di­tions, as Microsoft, SAP and Lasse Rhein­gans do, is a con­sis­tent and over­due step. The stan­dard work­ing day of 8 hours plus x in an open-plan office or, even worse, in non-stop meet­ings (which Microsoft lim­it­ed to a max­i­mum of 30 min­utes in the exper­i­ment) is far beyond accept­able and ben­e­fi­cial lev­els. Our work­ing world is too one-sid­ed­ly opti­mized for focused work and too lit­tle for idle­ness and day­dream­ing. In knowl­edge work, how­ev­er, it is not this seem­ing­ly unpro­duc­tive idle­ness that is a waste, but rather its absence! Less is more.

On the one hand. But on the oth­er hand, we are all to blame for this because of our use of tech­nol­o­gy and espe­cial­ly of the smart­phone. Where there used to be idle time in the past, in the train, wait­ing at the check­out, in the sub­way and when going to the toi­let, every lit­tle idle time now is imme­di­ate­ly filled with the nev­er-end­ing stream of news and infor­ma­tion on our omnipresent smart­phones. Archimedes could­n’t come to his real­iza­tion today, because he would be busy post­ing a self­ie of him­self in the bath­tub on Insta­gram, or upset­ting him­self on Twit­ter that his water had over­flowed and was much too cold by the way.

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