The Importance of Time Off

By James Kwak

I used to be a real productivity nerd. I wrote an earlier post detailing some examples of my compulsion to be as efficient as possible. I worked at a company where efficiency was one of our highest implicit values.

I still care a lot about productivity—my own, that is. For example, after reading Anthony Bourdain’s first book, I became much more attentive to the sequence of movements I make around the kitchen: when you open the refrigerator, take out everything you need; when you walk to the far end of the kitchen to get utensils, get everything you need; and so on. I used to make fancy dinners that could take an hour and a half or two hours to cook. Now that I have a child, I make simpler, multi-course meals in 30–40 minutes.

But I have a more nuanced understanding of productivity now, which is why I liked Derek Thompson’s article on the importance of vacation—and taking breaks—so much.* Part of it is that since I left the business world, most of my work now is creative—not creative in the sense of creating original works of art, but in the more modest sense that it involves thinking about stuff and writing about that stuff. When you’re a manager at a fast-growth, under-staffed company, it’s not hard to spend huge blocks of time just responding to email, reviewing documents, and providing input on various issues. That takes thought, but it’s somewhat mechanical. When I’m writing anything I care about, though, I can’t force myself to crank out another paragraph at will. And if that paragraph isn’t coming, I go kill some zombies, or “clean up outer space” (as my daughter puts it), or weed the lawn.

Thompson cites a number of studies showing that taking short breaks can improve either quality of work or output or both. Even modest amounts of lolcats or cute animals can increase productivity. And anyone who knows anything about software development knows that if you demand more output from people in the same amount of time, you’re going to get lower quality—which means more work in the long run, when you factor in bug fixes and the increased effort required on customer sites. The idea that more time spent “at work” translates linearly into greater value for the employer is just silly, for reasons I go into more in my earlier post.

There’s a bigger issue here, too. If working forty hours per week is better than working forty-eight, why is working forty better than working thirty-two? One of the more obvious solutions to the unemployment problem is job-sharing or, more radically, a four-day work week. Various European companies have implemented shorter work weeks (and paid people less), with no productivity losses (I believe—I’m basing this on what people I trust have told me). (There’s the problem of fixed benefit costs, but there must be solutions to that.) I realize that this does nothing for economic growth and GDP. But it would modestly reduce the problem of unemployment-induced poverty, reduce welfare and disability claims on state and federal governments, and allow people to maintain their job skills, which is important for the economy in the long run. And, who knows, maybe it would actually make people more productive. Of course, in today’s America this sounds like a radical, even “socialist” idea. But that’s more a comment on America than on anything else.

* Derek Thompson is my editor at The Atlantic, so I have a small incentive to say nice things about him.

34 responses to “The Importance of Time Off

  1. In many cases, overtime doesn’t have to be compensated. Hence more profitable for the employer. End of story.

  2. I must say that the job-sharing concept is interesting, though I don’t know much about it to really contribute to your piece except sharing my first impressions on the subject. While it’s good in theory, I can’t see all jobs are candidates for job-sharing. There are certain ones that would take a long time to trace through what the other person has done before “seamlessly” continuing the work. And for those jobs that can be shared with multiple people but with less pay, I think majority of those jobs are already low-paying jobs. I don’t think it’d do the economy justice to keep people even deeper in poverty, unless the workers can pick-up another job-sharing elsewhere.

    I would be interested to know more about your thoughts over this.

  3. That is why some people take a weekly vacation called the Sabbath.

  4. I would be definitely in favour of shorter working weeks, that would reduce unemployment and grant a better quality of life for all, also very often I have the impression that what I get done in 5 days could easily take only 4, sometimes it’s just about focusing and have the right incentives to be efficient and save time for yourself…

  5. The 35 hour work week has been the law in France in the last decade. It was supposed to reduce unemployment. It did not work, as employers just augmented productivity, partially by producing out of France, partially through better automation. The result was a notable decrease of French GDP. Everybody agrees that the German approach has been better.

    Something missing in the USA is knowledge of what is going on in other countries, and a lack of appreciation of the fact that Europeans are less affected that way (at least among advanced nations, not pathological societies such as Greece).
    http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/

  6. If a four-day work week would let you pay people less without losing any productivity, why don’t you start a business that does exactly that? You should easily be able to out-compete any of those Stone Age corporations we have today, right?

    Oh, wait, you mean companies are too stupid to figure this out and therefore need the government to force it on them for their own good? Gee, I cannot imagine why anyone would consider this “socialist”…

  7. The whole idea of work needs to be rethought if we’re going to have a conversation about changing and improving the way the economy works. Just read a refreshingly open-minded article on CNN of all places yesterday – http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/09/07/rushkoff.jobs.obsolete/index.html?hpt=hp_c1
    which led me to this – http://edge.org/conversation/the-local-global-flip
    Interesting stuff.

  8. Previous generations of people in USA, focused on making their LIVES less miserable through HONEST WORK, naturally evolved *productivity* gains in labor, gains which were then shangheid away from the *productivity* producers by liars, thieves and murderers – a predatory *financial* scam.

    Puerile musings, as usual, from the paint-by-numbers *managers* of the SCAM.

  9. In a manufacturing or well-structured service job, job-sharing is a viable option as they are not operator-dependent. This characteristic also makes them vulnerable to automation, so the existence of job-sharing can be seen as indicative of the end-stages of a technological era. The key enabling positions within a corporation – those which involve a high degree of creativity and initiative – are not scalable. These are the only jobs with any robustness, and only to the extent of the holder’s talents. However, it is still important for the corporation to ensure the continued productivity of the person in that position by providing appropriate support staff and structure so that the key person CAN take healthy breaks from time to time. Unfortunately, until some externality (like childbirth and parenthood) forces that person to throttle back, they don’t. My field is strewn with the husks of creative individuals who contributed copiously during the first years of their career but burned themselves out. Their employers contributed to/exploited this in some fashion, but it was also the ambition of the individuals at fault. We can also explore the societal forces that compel individuals to such self-destructive behavior. Job-sharing has been tried in the US, but it finds more fertile ground in more communally-oriented societies like Germany.

  10. wallyfurthermore

    “Oh, wait, you mean companies are too stupid to figure this out and therefore need the government to force it on them for their own good?”

    Maybe the government should force it upon them for the good of their employees. People, after all, are people and corporations – regardless of certain political views to the contrary – are not.

  11. The train of capitalism is so large and moves so fast that breaking the momentum would be next to impossible without derailing the entire system and causing great harm. In order to succeed people must produce more and not less than the person that they stand next to, or in this age, the person that lives across the expansive ocean. Changing the work week to 35 hours does little if anything to change the fundemental flaws of a system based on ever increasing productivity. Capitalism and human conditioning can not envision any other determination of value other than the product produced. As long as we consistently compare ourselves and our abilities to others instead of accepting the differences while working together to better the whole then this train will continue.

  12. “Happy Hunting for Good-Will Books” was my farewell cry to an aging-bookworm searching for Eliyahu M. Goldratt,…productivity engineering novel “The Goal”.

    Ref: The Goal (novel) by Eli Goldratt (sadly passed June/2011)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goal

    Thankyou James and Simon

  13. There is significant low-lying fruit. The rest of this is “on the margin.”

    For example: Look up the stat’s on how much time the world would save by dealing with road conjestion (e.g., in Vanderbilt’s book on Traffic). That’s “real money.” Figuring out whether to brush your teeth or comb your hair first in the bathroom is trivial.

  14. I would suggest more “telecommuting” or “alternative work site” agreements, as the arrangement benefits the mental health (sanity) of the worker, saves gasoline, saves wear and tear on human and vehicle, and is just a good thing. Most of what I do is computer-based, and I can access my employer’s various applications from home, and do my job, sometimes without even combing my hair first thing.

    This presents a kind of “time off” from the *people* in the office who are your *colleagues*……and god knows, if you have EVER done hard time in any office, this alone is worth an ounce of gold!

  15. I suggest we do away with tenured academics and divide up the spoils amongst the truly productive.
    That should provide us all with some needed RR.

    The tenure system is a feudal system comprised of nepotistic sycophants. It is an aristocracy where the truly creative need not apply.

  16. It is worth reading Julie Schor’s Plenitude for her perspective on jobsharing … Schor makes the point that job sharing will allow us to enjoy plenitude without increasing GDP — a good not a bad in a world where we are bumping up ecosystem boundaries and thus have reached the limits to growth…growth is no longer “economic” when it fails to promote human well being. Your blog illustrates the point!

  17. @pat: The result was a notable decrease of French GDP. Everybody agrees that the German approach has been better.

    Something missing in the USA is knowledge of what is going on in other countries, and a lack of appreciation of the fact that Europeans are less affected that way (at least among advanced nations, not pathological societies such as Greece).

    I don’t know who everybody is, but the reason the French are considered “lazy” was because they did not want to be like the Germans. The German society is and has been one of utter weakness and collapse from overthinking and over working themselves, there is filmed documentation of this. The question that should be posed is one of greater human quality of life, not of how much one can produce in a life time. The japanese took the german model over the top and have been the really productive ones. But they are actually asleep at the wheel, constantly in motion or in pain, suffering so badly they need make endless drugs to medicines for all the ailments they come down with. You will find, and it will be proved, that you can accomplish more in a life time if you can live longer, say some 200+ years in comfort. Rather than only getting 4 hours of sleep per day and then getting 50 or 60 years to collect and spend your money. I would enjoy being a pathological 500 year old, in a warm greecian society. Would not you?

  18. Technology continues its progress towards making human labor redundant. If the trajectory continues there will literally be too many people in the population unable to be fully employed and not avoid serious civil and international conflicts.

    Unless the fabric of the capitalist economic system goes through some truly revolutionary (and perhaps enlighten) change too many of us will have too much liberty for contemplating the importance of time off.

  19. @JDM, “Technology continues its progress towards making human labor redundant.”

    Life-maintenance involves *redundant* activity. Just ask the honey bees :-) Technology should not even be TRYING to replace them, should it?

    I’ll agree that one issue is the establishment of a man to land ratio – the Native American idea of “100 of us, 1000 buffalo”.

    1000 self-controlling computers programmed for stasis will NOT be able to *maintain* life simply because not only is a re-building always necessary (and a chance for implementing improvement which a computer will NOT do) because of natural phenomena like hurricanes and earthquakes,

    but also because every individual human being engages in redundant activity – eats, sleeps, and eliminates bodily *stuff* (boogers and poop) – on a DAILY basis – *maintenance*.

    Without proper infrastructure, disease increases. We’re already seeing drug shortages that can’t keep up with UNAVOIDABLE health maintenance – poverty is not a healthy life style even for all the people with very good genetics!

    Absolutist worship of *technology* is just another monkey-brain *ism* that in no way takes into account LIFE-MAINTENANCE.

    Let’s compromise by using *technology* to figure out the man to land ratio that is *sustainable*. Normal minded people will have no trouble sticking to a SANE population number that makes their lives LESS MISERABLE.

  20. a good beginning, but you are still thinking about “maximizing productivity” and i’m afraid your “vacations” show evidence of some kind of moral burnout.

    now if you could only learn how to value that time – off as time to learn to be, and be,more human, you’d be on to something.

    we really do not need to “maximize” gdp to be happy. in fact we have long passed the point where maximizing gdp… which had value before that point… has become counterproductive.

  21. @Annie,

    Yes, humans rock! They are our most valuable treasures. (Look at Japan, besides folk what does this global economic powerhouse have on a small island have to commanded its place in the global economic pecking order?)

    I agree. Technology should be used to improve the quality of life for every person but the incentives for efficiency, at least in a capitalistic economic model, is not altruistic; until profit is redefined from being just a monetary metric we will see the same machinations at work.

    The fact is, machines have replaced many workers. Robots dominate assembly lines, combines harvest many crops, pbxs are run by computers, traffic lights are automated. These are just a few examples of what is already in our world, and as time goes on I suspect more jobs that can be automated will be automated. You are correct people will still be required but a lot less of us will be needed to do and produce a lot more.

    Again, you make another valid point; the infrastructure in most of the U.S. cities I have personally visited or lived in are frankly in a criminal state of neglect and is a national disgrace. The once bright shining city on a hill has let its light bulbs burn out and left them that way to show the world its citizens don’t care.

    But with the tools available, should the powers that be implement them, and a renovation of the country’s infrastructure is started I doubt it will require as much manpower as the interstate highway programs of generations past. Again, because of the technology available today.

    Populations will reach an equilibrium point for a given environment. We can, in theory, choose how we get there but not until we have exhausted every way of avoiding it.

    Your millage may vary, but from my experience the normal human tendency is to always want more than your current lot.

  22. @coberly

    Perhaps we should ask and define: What is profit?

    I’m no economist and my knowledge on that science is dismal but I wonder if anyone of them have tried to define that term in a holistic sense.

  23. @JDM “Populations will reach an equilibrium point for a given environment. We can, in theory, choose how we get there but not until we have exhausted every way of avoiding it.

    Your millage may vary, but from my experience the normal human tendency is to always want more than your current lot.”

    Two good considerations for defining *profit*. First one should be that *profit* isn’t *infinite* :-)

    What was 2 generations in my family tree, is more often 4 generations in *developing* countries. Which means that there was a closer *time* (historical) connection to generational, sustainable, and wealth producing agricultural life – the *skanse* model. Long winters meant it was time to fire up the kiln that was used all winter to provide heat for people and livestock as well as, of course, *manufacturing* metal implements, pottery, glass…so people spent less time on each task and the seasons determined what *work* was done. Variety still is the spice of life :-) I will always want *more* variety, even in the way the redundant needs can be addressed – hot tub vs. shower, grill outside vs. stove inside, BIG skylight to see the stars in bedroom vs. man cave in a basement, etc. etc.

    Quick aside, *older* parents have more wisdom and knowledge to share, but that’s another angle for another time.

    If you take a look at coal mining, for instance, technology has not been applied to that brutal labor to make it better for the workers. Even worse, it has been deliberately denied. So *technology* has not been applied evenly to all *redundant* brute, manual labor tasks, has it?

    When I look at those old photos taken all over the place in the NorthEast from my very early childhood, the *lights* were definitely on everywhere in the cities, to use your example. Fraud and corruption and rabid avarice is why the lights went out – no other explanation for such an uneven distribution of the benefits of *technology*.

    One thing about USA people that many other peoples might not understand is how we *abhor* the crowded living conditions of mega-cities. Which is one of the issues that will make the attempt to define the *global* man to land ratio an argumentative conversation. And another thing about USA people, just because some people don’t want to discuss something about *REALITY*, doesn’t mean we’re NOT going to go ahead and discuss it anyway :-)

    Yes, different mileage :-) I’m definitely quality over quantity – and THAT is another big argument over sustainable resources and who gets the *profits* from other people’s labors – temporarily, btw, as all *isms* crash and *labor* has to be applied again…

  24. I have read the article and the comments. I don’t see how this is possible or how corporations would even consider this without a single payer health care system in place and running. The fixed cost of a single employee is simply to high. I’m amazed that this has not entered the discussion. It effects everything.

  25. @ Anonymous – I did mention *health care*, from yet another angle, “Without proper infrastructure, disease increases. We’re already seeing drug shortages that can’t keep up with UNAVOIDABLE health maintenance – poverty is not a healthy life style even for all the people with very good genetics!”

    Corporations are what *fixed* the cost *too high* because of the amount of PROFIT they want to extract from the *employee*!

    Isn’t United Health Care a *corporation*? Didn’t the CEO give himself a 1.8 BILLION $$$ package in 2005?

    So let’s have fun with numbers – a 447 Billion *jobs package* is just the creation of 400 billionaires – that’s all that *politics* is about….who are we kidding?!

  26. Gosh I’m glad somebody’s talking about this . . . excellent point, James. And for those who are interested in increasing their efficiency between breaks ;-) try the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology by productivity guru David Allen. The guy has it down to a science.

  27. “The Importance of Time Off”,… should, could, or would equate to a, “Social Entitlement Calamity”? That is, where’s the hemp for supporting our life-line?

    Interesting articles all about the web, concerning Obama’s payroll tax deductions, morphing into a “10 Year Bush Tax Cut”, ( excuse me, sire, “Sir, Flip-Flop Czar”, but it is I,… Obama, that trumps Kerry’s “Foreign Aide[?]“, thus keeping this abomination alive via Geithner/ Bernanke” life support systematic monetary labyrinth?), soon to take on a new life of itself as a creature from hell feeding off its immortal predecessor!

    Ref: “Federal Insurance Contribution Act Tax”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Contribution_Act_tax

    ,… And as always from zerohedge.com {T.D. ;-) } ____submitted by testosteronepit (9-9-11 /20:21)
    Ref: Obama: “Gut Social Security Now, Don’t Wait Till The Election”
    http://www.zerohedge.com/contributed/obama-gut-social-security-now-don't-wait-till-election
    Note: If link fails – Google

    Thankyou James, and as usual, you were way ahead of the curve :-))

  28. Vacation? Seems like the total time you are at “work” (in someone else’s employment or engagement) does not equal what could be called the total enterprise of man. Nor does the total amount of “vacation” equal the total amount of time screwing around in any given period. It could be that the sum total of your productivity is fixed at birth, like the amount of energy in a AAA battery. If so, the more brilliant your brief flashes of net contribution to the world around you might be — if only you endeavored to play video games most all the time. But for all you know, the real creative contribution you make (we all make) is the production of offspring, not our musings on banking and economics. If this were expressed as a mathematical equation, the probable solution set would read, “Spend more time making daughters, and Spend more time with the daughters you make.”

  29. annie

    millage may be the right term.

    i think most of history would say the opposite… folks naturally quit working when they have enough. we have to have advertising, and a labor system which offers you the choice of too much or not enough. you are just not allowed to stop wanting more than you need.

    as for the lights burning out, i think we have exported not only our factories but our “know how” to china. we won’t know how to repair the infra-structure.

    i think our bosses will be quite happy when they can go back to relaxing on the porch with a mint julep while the field hands take in the crop, and the white trash is relegated to the hills and swamps.

    when you’ve got slaves you don’t need no steenkin infrastructure.

  30. @coberly – “as for the lights burning out, i think we have exported not only our factories but our “know how” to china. we won’t know how to repair the infra-structure”

    bs – look at what the enronistas (another Gen X historical achievement) contributed to improving the energy grid….

    the time is coming when the sadists (bosses) are going to be put down ala pitchforks….

    there is NO WAY to enslave people who are more advanced than a cabal of monkey brains imagining they are god sperm hiding behind FIAT $$$ that they STOLE…

    seriously, who do you think you are talking to….what *race* and *culture* are *We the People* that we would believe the DELUSION line you are paid to spew – that they are so almighty powerful that they WILL bring back slavery?

    BTW – GenX knows LESS about the *fields* than they do about infrastructure!

    The National Guard is coming home – if the economy needs *slave* labor, let’s see who puts GenX to work on infrastructure as the *masser*….the ME can have the War Lord – Prince of Blackwater, we’ll take Trekkies and Millenials and get to work on building the first bit of 21st century infrastructure – a cloaking device :-)

  31. In the US system, where much of health care (and to a lesser extent, training, childcare and retirement) are costs borne by individual businesses in proportion to the number of employees, there is a strong incentive for employers to increase the work week rather than the number of employees. Conversely, our high unemployment, individual bargaining and employment-at-will rules give employees a strong incentive to offer to work long hours in order to win a competitive edge.

    Whether long hours are more productive or not, or whether job sharing is inferior to having some people overworked while others have no work at all is basically irrelevant. The rules of the market we’ve created up generate these results regardless of what individual companies or employees want.

    If, in contrast, we used the tax system to pay for social costs such as health care, childcare, retirement and training as the Germans do, and if we had a functioning requirements that companies pay extra for overtime, ordinary market pressures would lead corporations to shorten the work week. If we had stronger rules protecting job security, as all the other successful capitalist countries do, or if we had stronger unions, as we used to, the incentives on individual job candidates to agree to unproductive working conditions would also be lower.

    Moreover, if we had industry-based unions, as the Germans do, instead of plant-based organization, we’d have a power structure with the incentives to and capable of standing up to short-sighted stock market driven managers to press for greater efficiency. Even absent unions, if we restricted the ability of corporations to buy elections and lobby government, the government would be more able to balance the poor incentives of the status quo economic incumbents.

    The issue is not “markets” or “government.” It is whether we want rules for our markets — rules that can only be produced by governments — that encourage long work weeks, inefficiency, inequality and unemployment, or whether we have the political gumption to convince our politicians to give us a better set of rules.

  32. Nemo has apparently come here to demonstrate how ridiculous mainstream economic reasoning is.

    ‘If a four-day work week would let you pay people less without losing any productivity, why don’t you start a business that does exactly that? You should easily be able to out-compete any of those Stone Age corporations we have today, right?’

    How about James doesn’t have the time, resources or inclination to start a new business? Horrendous reductio ad absurdum fallacy.

    ‘Oh, wait, you mean companies are too stupid to figure this out and therefore need the government to force it on them for their own good? Gee, I cannot imagine why anyone would consider this “socialist”…’

    And of course, no economist has ever found £20 on the floor because somebody would already have picked it up.

    The problem is a fallacy of composition: it’s not like one business can just go out of sync with the rest of the world, but if all businesses are required to do it then it will work.

    It’s also not about governments ‘forcing’ working hours on people because it is otherwise ‘forced’ by capital. Neither employers nor employees have control over the length of their working week so the state is the only way to decide it remotely fairly.

    It worked in the Great Depression when FDR went from 10 to 8 (and other countries followed suit).

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  34. One obstacle to job sharing I notice as a project manager is the time on communication. A good portion of time spent on a project is keeping in the loop. It’s at least fixed for each person on the team, meaning for each position divided into two you have twice the number of people needing to keep up with project communication, even if their different perspectives don’t add even more communications.