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2019-06-12

Why we should work less

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By Amanda Ruggeri
5 December 2017
When I moved to Rome from Washington, DC, one sight struck me more than any ancient column or grand basilica: people doing nothing.

I’d frequently glimpse old women leaning out of their windows, watching people pass below, or families on their evening strolls, stopping every so often to greet friends. Even office life proved different. Forget the rushed desk-side sandwich. Come lunchtime, restaurants filled up with professionals tucking into proper meals.

Of course, ever since Grand Tourists began penning their observations in the seventeenth century, outsiders have stereotyped the idea of Italian ‘indolence’. And it isn’t the whole story. The same friends who headed home on their scooters for a leisurely lunch often returned to the office to work until 8pm.

Even so, the apparent belief in balancing hard work with il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, always struck me. After all, doing nothing appears to be the opposite of being productive. And productivity, whether creative, intellectual or industrial, is the ultimate use of our time.

As we fill our days with more and more ‘doing’, many of us are finding that going non-stop isn’t the apotheosis of productivity. It is its adversary

But as we fill our days with more and more ‘doing’, many of us are finding that non-stop activity isn’t the apotheosis of productivity. It is its adversary.

Researchers are learning that it doesn’t just mean that the work we produce at the end of a 14-hour day is of worse quality than when we’re fresh. This pattern of working also undermines our creativity and our cognition. Over time, it can make us feel physically sick – and even, ironically, as if we have no purpose.

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Think of mental work as doing push-ups, says Josh Davis, author of Two Awesome Hours. Say you want to do 10,000. The most ‘efficient’ way would be to do them all at once without a break. We know instinctively, though, that that is impossible. Instead, if we did just a few at a time, between other activities and stretched out over weeks, hitting 10,000 would become far more feasible.

“The brain is very much like a muscle in this respect,” Davis writes. “Set up the wrong conditions through constant work and we can accomplish little. Set up the right conditions and there is probably little we can’t do.”

Do or die

Many of us, though, tend to think of our brains not as muscles, but as a computer: a machine capable of constant work. Not only is that untrue, but pushing ourselves to work for hours without a break can be harmful, some experts say.

People who worked more than 11 hours a day were almost 2.5 times more likely to have a major depressive episode than those who worked seven to eight

“The idea that you can indefinitely stretch out your deep focus and productivity time to these arbitrary limits is really wrong. It’s self-defeating,” says research scientist Andrew Smart, author of Autopilot. “If you’re constantly putting yourself into this cognitive debt, where your physiology is saying ‘I need a break’ but you keep pushing yourself, you get this low-level stress response that’s chronic – and, over time, extraordinarily dangerous.”

One meta-analysis found that long working hours increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 40% – almost as much as smoking (50%). Another found that people who worked long hours had a significantly higher risk of stroke, while people who worked more than 11 hours a day were almost 2.5 times more likely to have a major depressive episode than those who worked seven to eight.

In Japan, this has led to the disturbing trend of karoshi, or death by overwork.

If you’re wondering if this means that you might want to consider taking that long-overdue holiday, the answer may be yes. One study of businessmen in Helsinki found that over 26 years, executives and businessmen who took fewer holidays in midlife predicted both earlier deaths and worse health in old age.

Holidays also can literally pay off. One study of more than 5,000 full-time American workers found that people who took fewer than 10 of their paid holiday days a year had a little more than a one-in-three chance of getting a pay rise or a bonus over three years. People who took more than 10 days? A two in three chance.

Productivity provenance

It’s easy to think that efficiency and productivity is an entirely new obsession. But philosopher Bertrand Russell would have disagreed.

“It will be said that while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours’ work out of the 24,” Russell wrote in 1932, adding, “it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

It will be said that while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours’ work out of the 24 – Bertrand Russell

That said, some of the world’s most creative, productive people realised the importance of doing less. They had a strong work ethic – but also remained dedicated to rest and play.

“Work on one thing at a time until finished,” wrote artist and writer Henry Miller in his 11 commandments on writing. “Stop at the appointed time!... Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.” 

Even US founding father, Benjamin Franklin, a model of industriousness, devoted large swathes of his time to being idle. Every day he had a two-hour lunch break, free evenings and a full night’s sleep. Instead of working non-stop at his career as a printer, which paid the bills, he spent “huge amounts of time” on hobbies and socialising. “In fact, the very interests that took him away from his primary profession led to so many of the wonderful things he’s known for, like inventing the Franklin stove and the lightning rod,” writes Davis.

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