Burned Out? Take a Creative Sabbatical: "
In an early episode of the excellent TV series Mad Men, agency partner Roger Sterling walks into creative director Don Draper's office to find Don gazing off into space.
'I'll never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you're doing nothing,' Sterling quips.
Sterling should take comfort in the fact that our best creative work is done in times of reflection and idleness. Studies have shown that the wandering mind is more likely to have a 'Eureka!' moment of clarity and creativity. Taking breaks and zoning out from everyday tasks gives our brains time to do a kind of long-term, big-picture thinking that immediate engagement with bosses and clients and email and meetings does not.
Designer Stefan Sagmeister takes these findings seriously. He works time off into his schedule in a way that will make you green with envy. Every seven years, Sagmeister closes his New York City–based design studio for an entire year of creative rejuvenation. During his sabbatical, Sagmeister "works," but not for clients. (He's serious about that, too. Last year, he turned down an opportunity to design a poster for the Obama campaign while he was on sabbatical.)
As he explains in his 18-minute TED talk below, Sagmeister's goal is to take five years off of his retirement and intersperse them throughout his working years. He's taken two such sabbaticals, and he uses the 'experiments' he conducts during them to inform what he produces during working years. His full talk is worth watching, but if you don't have 18 minutes, see this interview with Sagmeister about his sabbaticals in Print Magazine.
For many, taking an entire year off may not be practical. But there are less extreme ways to work big-think time off into any schedule. Sagmeister draws a parallel between his 'seven-year itch' sabbatical and Google's famous '20% time,' when engineers can work on whatever they want. Bill Gates took a twice-yearly 'Think Week' to read technical papers. His successor, Ray Ozzie, takes time off not to read but to 'dream' — and comes back to the office filled with new ideas.
While creative retreats aren't exactly idle time, Sagmeister's talk reminded me of one of my favorite essays of all time, published in a 2004 issue of Harper's. Entitled 'Quitting the Paint Factory,' its author Mark Slouka makes a case against constant busyness (and business). He writes:
Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had 'too much time on our hands.' They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, 'Quick, look busy.'
How do you use time off to refresh, rejuvenate, and yes, even make yourself more productive? Let us know in the comments.