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更新时间:2017-12-31 12:54:16 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

The compelling case for working a lot less

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.


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.


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.

《可怕的两小时》(Two Awesome Hourse)的作者乔希·戴维斯(Josh Davis)认为,可以把脑力工作想象成俯卧撑。比如,如果你想做1万个俯卧撑,最"高效"的方式是一次性做完,中间不休息。但我们本能地知道这不可能。相反,如果我们一次只做几个,中间掺杂其他活动,分成几个星期做完,要达到1万个的目标就会更加可行。

“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.


“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.”

"如果你认为可以随意延伸精力和生产率,那显然是错误的。这只能弄巧成拙。"《自动驾驶》(Autopilot)的作者安德鲁·斯玛特(Andrew Smart)说,"如果你让自己不断陷入认知负债,你的生理机能就会告诉你,'我需要休息。'但你还是不断逼迫自己,把这种低水平的应激反应变成长期问题——久而久之,就会变得非常危险。"

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.

人们很容易把效率和生产率当成一种全新的痴迷。但哲学家伯特兰·罗素(Bertrand Russell)却有不同观点。

“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.”


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.”

"一次性把事情做完。"艺术家兼作家亨利·米勒(Henry Miller)在他的11条写作戒律中写道,"在预定时间停止!……保持人性!多见见人,多出去转转,如果喜欢就喝两杯。"

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.

就连美国国父本杰明·富兰克林(Benjamin Franklin)这种勤奋的楷模,也会抽出大量空闲时间。他每天都花两个小时吃午餐,晚上也会自由活动,而且会保证整晚的睡眠。他并没有像打印机一样一刻不停地工作,而是把"大量时间"用在业余爱好和社交活动上。"事实上,那些工作之外的兴趣让他得以通过很多有趣的东西为人所知,例如发明了富兰克林炉和避雷针。"戴维斯写道。

Even on a global level, there is no clear correlation between a country’s productivity and average working hours. With a 38.6-hour work week, for example, the average US employee works 4.6 hours a week longer than a Norwegian. But by GDP, Norway’s workers contribute the equivalent of $78.70 per hour – compared to the US’s $69.60.


As for Italy, that home of il dolce far niente? With an average 35.5-hour work week, it produces almost 40% more per hour than Turkey, where people work an average of 47.9 hours per week. It even edges the United Kingdom, where people work 36.5 hours.


All of those coffee breaks, it seems, may not be so bad.


Brain wave


The reason we have eight-hour work days at all was because companies found that cutting employees’ hours had the reverse effect they expected: it upped their productivity.


During the Industrial Revolution, 10-to-16-hour days were normal. Ford was the first company to experiment with an eight-hour day – and found its workers were more productive not only per hour, but overall. Within two years, their profit margins doubled.


If eight-hour days are better than 10-hour ones, could even shorter working hours be even better? Perhaps. For people over 40, research found that a 25-hour work week may be optimal for cognition, while when Sweden recently experimented with six-hour work days, it found that employees had better health and productivity.


This seems borne out by how people behave during the working day. One survey of almost 2,000 full-time office workers in the UK found that people were only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes out of an eight-hour day. The rest of the time was spent checking social media, reading the news, having non-work-related chats with colleagues, eating – and even searching for new jobs.


We can focus for an even shorter period of time when we’re pushing ourselves to the edge of our capabilities. Researchers like Stockholm University psychologist K Anders Ericsson have found that when engaging in the kind of ‘deliberate practice’ necessary to truly master any skill, we need more breaks than we think. Most people can only handle an hour without taking a rest. And many at the top, like elite musicians, authors and athletes, never dedicate more than five hours a day consistently to their craft.

当我们把自己推向能力极限时,集中精力的时间甚至会更短。斯德哥尔摩大学心理学家K·安德斯·埃里克松(K Anders Ericsson)等研究人员发现,当从事"刻意训练"这种对真正掌握某种技巧十分必要的活动时,我们所需的休息时间超出自己的想象。多数人都只能连续进行1个小时。而顶尖音乐人、作家和运动员每天持续创作或训练的时间从不超过5小时。

The other practice they share? Their “increased tendency to take recuperative naps,” Ericsson writes – one way, of course, to rest both brain and body.


Other studies have also found that taking short breaks from a task helped participants maintain their focus and continue performing at a high level. Not taking breaks made their performance worse.


Active rest


But ‘rest’, as some researchers point out, isn’t necessarily the best word for what we’re doing when we think we’re doing nothing.


As we’ve written about before, the part of the brain that activates when you’re doing ‘nothing’, known as the default-mode network (DMN), plays a crucial role in memory consolidation and envisioning the future. It’s also the area of the brain that activates when people are watching others, thinking about themselves, making a moral judgment or processing other people’s emotions.


In other words, if this network were switched off, we might struggle to remember, foresee consequences, grasp social interactions, understand ourselves, act ethically or empathise with others – all of the things that make us not only functional in the workplace, but in life.


“It helps you recognise the deeper importance of situations. It helps you make meaning out of things. When you’re not making meaning out of things, you’re just reacting and acting in the moment, and you’re subject to many kinds of cognitive and emotional maladaptive behaviours and beliefs,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

"它帮助你更加深刻地认清形势。帮助你了解事情的含义。当你无法了解事情的含义时,你就只能从事当下的活动和反应,你会因为难以适应而在情绪上和认知上出现多种行为和信念。"南加州大学大脑和创造力学院研究员、神经科学家玛丽·海伦·伊莫蒂诺-杨(Mary Helen Immordino-Yang)说。

We also wouldn’t be able to come up with new ideas or connections. The birthplace of creativity, the DMN lights up when you’re making associations between seemingly unrelated subjects or coming up with original ideas. It is also the place where your ‘ah-ha’ moments lurk – which means if, like Archimedes, you got your last good idea while in the bath or on a stroll, you have your biology to thank.


Perhaps most importantly of all, if we don’t take time to turn our attention inward, we lose a crucial element of happiness.


“We’re just doing things without making meaning out of it a lot of the time,” Immordino-Yang says. “When you don’t have the ability to embed your actions into a broader cause, they feel purposeless over time, and empty, and not connected to your broader sense of self. And we know that not having a purpose over time is connected to not having optimal psychological and physiological health.”


Monkey mind


But as anyone who has tried meditation knows, doing nothing is surprisingly difficult. How many of us, after 30 seconds of downtime, reach for our phones?


In fact, it makes us so uncomfortable that we’d rather hurt ourselves. Literally. Across 11 different studies, researchers found that participants would rather do anything – even administer themselves electric shocks – instead of nothing. And it wasn’t as if they were asked to sit still for long: between six and 15 minutes.


The good news is that you don’t have to do absolutely nothing to reap benefits. It’s true that rest is important. But so is active reflection, chewing through an issue you have or thinking about an idea.


In fact, anything that requires visualising hypothetical outcomes or imagined scenarios – like discussing a problem with friends, or getting lost in a good book – also helps, Immordino-Yang says. If you’re purposeful, you even can engage your DMN if you’re looking at social media.


“If you’re just looking at a pretty photo, it’s de-activated. But if you’re pausing and allowing yourself to internally riff on the broader story of why that person in the photo is feeling that way, crafting a narrative around it, then you may very well be activating those networks,” she says.


It also doesn’t take much time to undo the detrimental effects of constant activity. When both adults and children were sent outdoors, without their devices, for four days, their performance on a task that measured both creativity and problem-solving improved by 50%. Even taking just one walk, preferably outside, has been proven to significantly increase creativity.


Another highly effective method of repairing the damage is meditation: as little as a week of practice for subjects who never meditated before, or a single session for experienced practitioners, can improve creativity, mood, memory and focus.


Any other tasks that don’t require 100% concentration also can help, like knitting or doodling. As Virginia Woolf wrote in a Room of One’s Own: “Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”

其他不需要100%关注的任务也可以起到帮助,例如织毛衣。正如弗吉尼亚·伍尔芙(Virginia Woolf)所说:"画画是一种慵懒的方式,可以帮助你毫无意义地度过一个早晨。但有的时候,正是在慵懒、白日做梦的过程中,才能让隐藏的真理浮出水面。"

Time out


Whether it’s walking away from your desk for 15 minutes or logging out of your inbox for the night, part of our struggle is control – the fear that if we relax a grip for a moment, everything will come crashing down.


That’s all wrong, says poet, entrepreneur and life coach Janne Robinson. “The metaphor I like to use is of a fire. We start a business, and then after a year, it’s like, when can we take a week off, or hire someone to come in? Most of us don’t trust someone to come in for us. We’re like, ‘The fire will go out’,” she says.

诗人、企业家、生活教练珍妮·罗宾森(Janne Robinson)认为,这完全错误。"我喜欢用火来打比方。我们创造了一家公司,一年之后,我们能不能离开一个星期,让别人来接管?多数人都不信任外人。我们觉得,'火会熄灭。'"她说。

“What if we just trusted that those embers are so hot, we can walk away, someone can throw a log on and it’ll burst into flames?”


That isn’t easy for those of us who feel like we have to constantly ‘do’. But in order to do more, it seems, we may have to become comfortable with doing less.