Want to Be More Creative at Work? Stop Working

Isaac Kaplan
Mar 22, 2018 8:11PM
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Raise your hand if you’ve ever solved a problem while in the shower. (I’m going to assume you’re raising your hand.)

The shower epiphany is a classic example of reaching a practical or creative solution through distraction and relaxation, rather than burning the midnight oil at your desk. To work through an issue, sometimes you need to get your mind off of it and take some downtime.

The same, some argue, is true of the creative process. To be a creative person, you need to take time to step back from day-to-day work—even creatively driven work. In other words, you need a vacation. (Keep reading and I promise I’ll tell you something you don’t already know.)

Designer Stefan Sagmeister is famous for the witty and beautiful work that comes out of his New York studio Sagmeister & Walsh, and he’s also a vocal proponent of taking sabbaticals. Once every seven years, his entire company shuts down for a full year to do just that. In a 2009 TED talk, Sagmeister broke down the average person’s life into three main chapters—25 years of learning, 40 years of work, 15 years of retirement. He explained that he’s taking those 15 retirement years and interspersing them throughout the working years.

“That’s clearly enjoyable for myself,” Sagmeister said in his talk, “but probably even more important is that the work that comes out of these years flows back into the company and into society at large.” Sagmeister’s first sabbatical was in New York, while his second was in Asia, and he credits each with being enormously helpful, both personally and professionally. He is quick to caution, though, that sabbaticals require planning and are best taken by someone who has already spent a lot of time working.

Sagmeister’s approach is supported by wealth of research, which shows that the relaxed brain is actually an active brain. Scientists even have a distinct term for the parts of your cranium that are active during downtime: the default mode network (DMN).

One study proved the benefits of distraction by asking two groups of people to examine four cars and determine which one was best. Unbeknownst to participants, the researchers had already determined which car was objectively the best, based on criteria like size and mileage. One group of participants was given four minutes to decide which car was the best, while the other was distracted by anagrams. The more distracted group performed better.

“Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself,” Ferris Jabr wrote in Scientific American in 2013.

Research that links going on vacation to increased creativity once you get back to work is more fuzzy, but there appear to be some connections. One oft-cited study followed 46 Dutch workers who went on vacations that lasted between two and three weeks. The workers took the alternative uses task (an exercise used to measure creativity, explored more here) before leaving for vacation, and then again one week after their return. The workers were able to come up with more uses for everyday objects after their time off, but the uses weren’t more original.

That seems to suggest that vacation has at least some creative benefits after returning to work. But as Joseph Stromberg pointed out in Vox, the sample size was extremely small, and there was no control group (i.e., no group that took the test without going on vacation). Additionally, the participants may have just been more familiar with the test the second time around, which could explain why they performed better.

Another study followed 56 people who went on a four- to six-day wilderness trip, where they were also deprived of access to technology. Twenty-four people in the group took a creativity test on the first day before going backpacking, while another 32 took it after their fourth day of hiking in the wilderness. The group that took the test later into their vacation scored better on the test. Importantly, however, it’s unclear if this effect lasted after returning to the office, and if it was due to time away from work or the physical exercise of hiking (or just from being unplugged from technology).

A “meta-analysis” of existing research performed by Jessica de Bloom (now a researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland) along with her own work, which was cited in Scientific American, also found that the effects of a week of vacation tend to fade relatively quickly over time.

But not all vacations have the same benefits, argued psychology professor Todd B. Kashdan in a recent Harvard Business Review article. He pointed to a study of 485 American adults that linked “visiting more countries (breadth) or greater immersion into the local culture (depth)” with having “a greater ability to direct attention and energy.” Kashdan said that people should forgo comfortable, familiar vacations for those that challenge and push them beyond what they normally expect, because those will make them comfortable with the uncomfortable.

It’s worth pausing here to say that you should take a vacation whether or not it makes you more creative. You should get eight hours of sleep whether or not it helps your company’s bottom line. And you should find leisure time to pursue your interests, even if the results aren’t conducive to your work.

Being able to take vacation at all is an immense privilege, particularly in the United States. The U.S. is the only nation out of 21 wealthy countries that does not mandate paid time off, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And even when Americans do get offered a breather, 40 percent of them don’t even plan to take it, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm. Unlimited time off—popular among tech companies—isn’t an ironclad solution either, because employees may just never stop working for fear of looking like a slacker, or because they don’t feel empowered to do so.

Some companies are so convinced of the benefits of downtime, however, that they mandate time off—and not just the typical break once every six months. Instead, breaks should be interspersed regularly to prevent burnout and to best preserve the benefits of time off. Boston Consulting Group, one company cited by Scientific American, gave some employees one evening off per week for personal time (when, normally, they would’ve been expected to work), while another group got an entire day off per week. The staff was resistant at first, but after five months, they were happier and more likely to stay at the company.  

Following the Sagmeister ratio of seven years of work to one year of sabbatical, the airline marketing firm SimpliFlying began to mandate a week of vacation for every seven weeks worked back in 2016. How did they enforce this? If you were on vacation and contacted the office, you wouldn’t get paid. After a 12-week trial period they found that, while there were some kinks to work out (employees reported that the breaks were too frequent), the results spoke for themselves: There was a 33 percent bump in creativity, a 25 percent increase in happiness, and productivity increased by 13 percent, according an article written by Neil Pasricha and the company’s founder, Shashank Nigam. The company still uses a modified version of the original mandatory leave plan today.

So if you’ve got some extra vacation days you’ve been sitting on, there’s no time like the present to cash them in.

Isaac Kaplan