The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Career is Step Away

Your best work doesn’t happen at your desk

Rebecca Ryan

Rebecca Ryan

In “Zen and the Art of Simplicity” (Rotman Magazine, Fall 2011), author Matthew E. May recounts famous innovations like Einstein’s theory of relativity and Irwin Kiu’s sketch of the iconic Toyota Prius.

Both occurred to the inventors when they were away from work.

May writes, “Neuroscientists now believe that the ability to engineer creative breakthroughs hinges on the capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things, and a key ingredient is time away from the problem.”

Or to put it in the words of Don Draper, the advertising kingpin of Mad Men: “Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it. An idea will … jump up in your face.”

Best-in-class companies are leveraging this insight. Epic and Plante & Moran (a Fortune 100 “Best Place to Work” for over a decade) offer sabbaticals to their employees. The Best Places to Work list in this issue of Madison Magazine shows which companies offer the best life-work balance. Boston Consulting Group, the world’s leading strategy firm, recently ran a multi-year experiment with several of its consulting teams, mandating one uninterrupted evening each week when employees were barred from work and their smartphones after 6 p.m. Within six months, employees and clients reported that these teams turned out better work and communication levels had improved. BCG now leverages this strategy firm-wide.

“But,” I can hear you arguing, “I can’t step away for even a  second. My boss/clients/staff expect me to be available!”

To this I say, “Baloney.” (I wanted to say something else, but my editors prevented it.)

First, we train people how to work with us. If we train our clients and teammates that they can call or text us anytime, anywhere, for anything, guess what? They will.

Truth is, most of us don’t know how we work best. (Early morning? Late at night? Kinesthetically? Conceptually?) And if we know, we’re afraid to design our work around it, because doing so might inconvenience others or upset the apple cart.

So we fall into the same trap as many other working Americans: We work longer hours and make ourselves more available because that’s what everyone does. (Can you hear the voice of your mother asking, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”)

Being awesome like Einstein or Kiu is not a game of mediocrity. Doing what everyone else does isn’t going to get you there. Working as much as everyone else is a trap, a trap that will suck the creativity right out of your big, brilliant cranium. A trap that gives you the perception of being a hard worker (look how many hours you’re at the  office!) but is actually causing screen sickness and anxiety and may actually be hurting (not helping) your productivity.

If you’ve ever had a great idea in the shower or in the car or on vacation, you know that your best work doesn’t happen at your desk.

On the flip, if you’ve ever walked to your car after a long day in your cube muttering, “I didn’t get anything done today,” you know what a productivity drain “work” can be.

Although they are unusual, like albino  monkeys or the northern flicker, there is a rare breed of worker who has figured out how to produce at high levels and still have time for rest and big lives outside of the cube. These outliers are not at work all the time. They are not plugged in all the time. What they are, and most of us are not, is disciplined. They rule their technology; it doesn’t rule them. “Email is a way for other people to write on your to-do list,” they warn. They put hard edges around their workday. They don’t schedule one-hour meetings when thirty minutes will do. They are focused, because focus keeps them productive. And productivity makes them feel okay about stepping away. And being away from work is the secret sauce that makes them more creative and inspired.

I challenge you: Walk away from your career. Just this weekend. Like Einstein.

See what happens.

Rebecca Ryan would love to know how you use brain science to be more awesome. Email her at rrnextgenerationconsulting.com, but don’t expect a response this weekend.

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