Creative Breakthrough is Powered by Time Off Work

The most creative and most productive workers are the ones who are able to unplug from the office, recover their mental and physical energy, and return to their work recharged. – Rest

My latest book The Art of Focus launched August 28th and do you know what I did just a bit before the launch? I took a whole week off work. From August 13 – 16 I watched skating and took my two younger kids to the river every day.

It was glorious. Two whole days of the week I got to the beach at noon and left the beach at 7 pm. I read and watch my kids play while my wife ran the skate camp that my oldest daughter attended.

I left my phone turned off in my bag until my wife was done work and might need to communicate with me. My iPad stayed at home. I just swam, dug holes with the kids and worked on my tan.

I did this in the midst of a hectic time because rest is essential. If you’re not getting proper rest, then all the productivity hacks in the world are still going to fail you. Rest is so important I dedicated a whole chapter to it in The Art of Focus.

If you’re not getting proper rest in your days and your weeks and your years, then you’re harming your success.

What does good rest look like?

Vacation

Let’s start with the big one, a vacation. Vacation is something that Europeans do so much better than us North Americans.

Many people return from vacation only to have their boss telling them that it hurt the business. Which means that most Americans leave at least five days of their vacation on the table each year. Can you blame them though, with this toxic pressure coming from their boss?

Unfortunately, this thinking by management means they’re loosing out on some of the best creativity from their employees.

In this excellent podcast, Alex Pang1, dug in with Jessica De Bloom who has done a bunch of research on the science of vacations. She’s found that:

  • When you come back from a vacation, you are more creative
  • The optimal length of vacation is two weeks
  • You need to be unplugged from the office for it to count

Let’s take a quick look at these things.

De Bloom found that for a few weeks after your vacation, you’re more likely to come up with novel solutions to problems at work. You’re going to be more creative and better at solving problems. Those are things that managers want.

She also found that the optimal length of vacation is two weeks. After two weeks you don’t get any further benefits from a work perspective. Multiple two-week vacations in the year will benefit you the most.

One way to ruin your vacation is to stay plugged in, just a bit, to the office. It’s not a vacation if you’re checking in on email or fielding calls. Get unplugged and get away from the office.

Vacation can be extra hard to take if you’re self-employed. If it’s just you in your business, then all income stops when you take a vacation. If that means you’re just not going to survive, then you don’t have a business. You built yourself a job, and it’s a bad one.

Taking time off is a great way to prep your business to run without you. Ask yourself, what would it take to be able to take two weeks off work? What processes in your business need to get set up first? How do you have to budget to make it happen?

You need to start answering those questions now so that you can reap the rewards of taking time off.

Random Breaks

Let me tell you about a Tuesday for me. It started up at 6 am to help my wife and oldest daughter get out of the house for figure skating. From 7 am – 10 am I played with my younger two children and did house chores.

Around 10 am my wife came home, and I went out to the medical lab to drop off a sample for one of our kids. Then I got a haircut and started work by 11 am. I worked for two hours, then had lunch and moved to the local library for another few hours of work.

Then I took the long way home and got back around 3:30 pm where I got a client site syncing because it’s huge and takes a while. I did some book layout while this happened in Vellum.pub and stopped work at 4:30 pm to help my oldest child make pancakes for dinner.

All told I did 4 hours and 30 minutes of focused heads down work. In the midst of this, I had breaks as I ate pizza and got a haircut. During work, I didn’t check my phone a bunch of times. I didn’t hop on social media. I didn’t check Slack or email.

I just worked.

I was fresh to work the whole time because I didn’t try to push through the entire day in one long death march. At the end of the day when I was a bit spent, I started formatting The Art of Focus. Simply highlighting what was a heading or blockquote and letting the layout software know that so I can style it after.

If you want to stay fresh, you need a day like that. You need a day with random breaks to play Lego with your kids. You need to take a walk around the block when you’re stuck instead of continuing to bang your head against the wall.

During these breaks, you need to keep your devices away. You don’t need to fill your head with random extra reading and stuff. Just do what you’re doing without distractions. Phones don’t just make your work crappy, having one around means you’re not resting either.

Every Friday you’ll find me cutting out of work at 3 pm to meet with someone for coffee. Occasionally no one is free, and I’ll watch an afternoon movie at the theatre or build a fort with my kids at the house or read a physical book for a bit in my office before I join the family at the end of the week.

Most days of the week you can find me cutting work in the middle of the day for a bit as I do something that’s not directly profitable for my business. It’s something I want to do with a friend or family or for myself. This sane schedule is what allows me to provide maximum value for my clients.

So How Many Hours in a Day?

The final part of resting well is knowing how long you should be working in a day. Sure you could aim for a full eight hours, but really to get that much uninterrupted time focused on clients you need at least 10 but probably 12 hours in the office. I aim for 4 – 5 good focused hours in the office.

Focused hours means:

  • no social media
  • no phone or text messages
  • no surfing the internet

I’m able to do this in six hours in the office usually through a combination of things.

I start by being iOS first in my workflow. I don’t think that more screen means you’re more productive2. By aiming for iOS first, I can’t have so many distractions. I can’t put some other application on a second monitor that can steal my attention with random updates.

I’ve also turned off all notifications for Slack, iMessage, or any social media. I run a quiet device, so I’m never interrupted.

Contrast this to where most people are. They have a social media or chat window open in the background. They end up with 10 hours in the office and still only 4 hours of value creation because they never focused on the task at hand.

Startup culture is even worse as they try to compress a lifetime of value creation into some short window a VC thinks should happen. When the leader signs the sheet and gets the money in the bank, it all gets pushed down to the employees to work longer and harder. Oh, sure there are some perks, all delivered at the office, trying to suck you in and make you think that this is a normal and healthy thing to be at the office all the time.

If you’re not building good rest into your daily work, then you’re not doing the type of work that you could be doing. If you’re never taking a vacation, then you’re harming your long-term ability to do anything of value. If you’re trying to compress crazy hours into a short amount of time, but never really stopping, then you’re harming yourself.

It’s time to jump off this bandwagon and build something that doesn’t need these crazy hours. It’s time to take rest seriously.


  1. Alex wrote Rest, which I read and reviewed and loved. I highly suggest this book for your reading. 
  2. I have a longer post dedicated to this thinking coming so watch for it. I keep finding more research to bring in to the post so…maybe it will be another accidental book. 

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