From Leonardo da Vinci to Bertrand Russell, great artists and thinkers have made a practice of what we instinctively know: our greatest ideas often occur when we stop looking for them. As Brigid Schulte writes on CNN.com this week, “Russell, along with scholars like Josef Pieper…thought that it is in moments of leisure that civilization gets created. Both were extraordinarily productive, despite their call for what may today be seen as slacking.” Schulte is a former New America Fellow, staff writer at the Washington Post, and author of the best-selling book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Her CNN piece, “Leisure Is the New Productivity,” is the second in the series, “Big Ideas for a New America,” which spotlights experts’ solutions to shared challenges.
Schulte tracks the evolution of leisure from a status symbol for the wealthy in the early 20th century to a labor practice mandated by Henry Ford to what it is today for many workers—a fleeting dream amidst the grind. Whether you’re an employee in a white collar or low-wage job, chances are you either work more hours or have less control over your schedule than your counterparts in other countries. The U.S. is the only advanced economy with no national vacation policy, and as Schulte points out, our cultural attitude that leisure equals laziness is flat-out wrong. Countries like Denmark and Norway with mandated paid leave and vacation and cultures more accepting of leisure consistently beat us in international comparisons of GDP per hours worked.
Schulte points to Richard Feynman as an example of innovative thinkers who demonstrate the power of leisure moments to produce “a-ha” breakthroughs: “Feynman idly watched students goofing off spinning plates in the cafeteria and began making calculations of the wobbles, "for the fun of it," which led to his developing the "Feynman diagrams" to explain quantum electrodynamics and ultimately resulted in his Nobel Prize.” Research shows that inspiration strikes when we take breaks, not when we’re hunched over our laptops or pushing to crank out overtime. And these ideas don’t appear like magic—there’s science to explain it. Neuroscientists are finding that when we’re idle, our minds are more active and connect parts of the brain that don’t typically communicate. We actually think more innovatively in these moments, says Schulte. In an economy like ours powered by knowledge and ideas, says Schulte, we can’t afford to ignore the scientific, economic, and cultural evidence that “dialing down on overwork” will help us be the most productive and healthy nation we can be.