To Do Our Best Work, We Need Time to Play

Americans Venerate Their Work Ethic, Especially in Hard Times, but the Most Creative Solutions Emerge When the Mind Takes a Break From Work

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When President Obama took a nine-day vacation to Martha's Vineyard in August, we heard lots of griping about what an ill-timed move that was, especially given the dismal state of the economy. The GOP even created, an e-postcard generator to send snarky postcards picturing our casually (or sometimes barely) dressed commander-in-chief, with headlines like "Finding a wave in Martha's Vineyard is almost as hard as finding a job."

But now that the summer season is over, and everybody with a job is hard at work after the Labor Day holiday, I have to wonder, what is our culture's problem with play?

Sure, Americans are rightly proud of their famous -- and long-heralded -- work ethic. Hard times such as these especially call for hard work. It's not surprising to see the growing appeal in popular culture of the heroic down-and-dirty manual laborer and his old-fashioned blue-collar ethics. This theme is evident in everything from the Levi's "Everybody's Work Is Important" campaign, focusing on the post-collapse town of Braddock, Pa., to the rise of Southern-fried reality TV shows like "Swamp People," where real-life alligator wrangling is just another day at the office. Even the Kardashians are in on the act: "My girls' work ethic is second to none," said mom Kris Jenner in Redbook.

Don't scoff. Those mink eyelashes don't glue on by themselves. The Kardashian version of hard work -- grueling mani/pedis, relentless photo ops and shooting the umpteenth season of their series -- may seem like a piece of cake to someone working the night shift, but nobody makes $65 million a year just by showing up.

All this veneration of nose-to-the-grindstone is well intentioned, but it belies a reality that many Americans would rather not face: Hard work isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Endless hours on the job don't necessarily lead to new ideas, creative solutions or even the greatest productivity. The mind needs breaks to do its best work.

"When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we're doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain," said R. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University and a leading researcher of human creativity, in an interview in Time magazine. "If the answer wasn't in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another. If we're lucky, in the next context we may hear or see something that relates-- distantly -- to the problem that we had temporarily put aside."

Similarly, neurologists believe that creative thinking requires a shift in brain wave states -- from alpha to beta -- to generate those "aha" moments that many of us have experienced. It might happen in the shower, or while driving a car or jogging in a park -- the psychological equivalent of popping a champagne cork.

Once, meeting with a client offsite, I nailed an elusive vision statement during a bathroom break. They're still talking about it. A former boss used to joke that he'd toss me subway tokens to come up with great ideas because I had found so many while riding the A train.

He was onto something. We process information constantly, but need to allow our synapses time to work their magic without our well-meaning intervention. As managers, it's crucial that we create opportunities for felicitous interaction among employees -- field trips, coffee breaks, group lunches -- to facilitate random connections among people and ideas. This way, they can get work done when they're not even trying.

The cafeteria at Google's main headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., is strategically situated in the physical crossroads of the campus, guaranteeing spontaneous and collaborative input from varied staffers. "At lunchtime, almost everyone eats in the office cafe, sitting at whatever table has an opening and enjoying conversations with Googlers from different teams. Our commitment to innovation depends on everyone being comfortable sharing ideas and opinions," says the Culture page of the Google corporate site.

So I'm all for a presidential round of golf every now and then, in the hope that while chipping out of a sand trap with his best buddies Barack Obama might find the "aha" moment that will lead to a fresh solution to our economic crisis. There's no need to fret the next time you see your team lingering next to the coffee machine. Just because they're not at their desks, it doesn't mean they're not working. They might just be coming up with your next great idea.

LINDA ONG is president of Truth Consulting.
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