The Creative Power of Leisure

If you’re looking for a good book to take on vacation this summer, consider David Nasaw’s biography Andrew Carnegie. This is the story of an impoverished immigrant kid from Scotland who transformed himself into an American steel tycoon, philanthropist and social philosopher. Once you read about Carnegie’s work habits, you may question your own.

Carnegie’s approach was to delegate the details, work less not more, and focus on creating a bigger future. When a businessman boasted to Carnegie that he was “always in his office by 7am,” Carnegie was unimpressed. “You must be a lazy man if it takes you 10 hours to do a day’s work,” he retorted. “what I do is hire good men and then never give them orders; my directions seldom go beyond suggestions. In the morning I get reports from them… within an hour I have disposed of everything, sent out all my suggestions, the day’s work is done and I am ready to go out and enjoy myself.”

In 1878 his companies were booming, yet Carnegie was already concerned about burnout. He had his brother step in to run things and he took a year off to explore Asia and the Mid East. “Your always busy man accomplishes little,” Carnegie wrote in one of his many essays, “the great doer is he who has plenty of leisure.”

Fast forward to summer, 2017. What are the great doers doing? Working their tails off, it appears. Consider these statistics from my recent reading:

  • 31% of USA college-educated male workers are regularly logging 50 or more hours a week at work, up 22% from 1980. In Europe, the number of French and German executives working longer hours is on the increase as well.
  • Full 25% of executives at large companies around the world say their communications – voice, email, meetings – are nearly or completely unmanageable, according to a McKinsey survey of more than 7,800 managers.
  • About 40% of American adults get less than seven hours of sleep on weekdays, up from 34% in 2001.

You might think that with all the long hours, executives would be anxious to delegate, disconnect, and disappear. But the growing trend is toward turning vacations into an extension of the regular grind. One in five executives will take along their laptops on vacation this summer, 8 of 10 their smart phones. We connect because we have the ability to. But here’s the rub.

Whether you’re on safari in Botswana or day-hiking Italy’s Dolomites, if you’re connected electronically, you’re also connected mentally — you’re working problems. Your physical body may be with your family, but metabolically you’re back at the office. Once your mind reenters the familiar realm of work, the competitive juices reign in your body and you crowd out the very dreamspace that leisure can avail you to.

For eight glorious days last summer, 23 companions and I rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Each day our eyes feasted on some of the most beautiful scenery on planet earth. That is, when we weren’t hanging on for dear life as we shot endless rapids, getting slammed by six foot high barrages of icy cold, chocolate=colored river water.

In the evenings we enjoyed tasty meals prepared by our four professional guides, and, over red wines, we talked over and laughed about the events of the day. Thinking about business, for the first time in memory, began to recede from its usual dominant place at the center of my thoughts.

With a steady barrage of messages coming at us, we are susceptible to a state of mind that Babson College’s Tom Davenport calls “continuous partial attention.” We react and sometimes reply, to whatever questions are being posed by the sender, whatever breaking news comes at us. But unless we unplug, we never really pause to think about what it all means. This is what vacations are for; this is what can happen to your thinking when you tap the creative power of leisure.

Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your summer vacation this year:

  1. If you must connect with your office, do so only once a day. Have your assistant make a list of the things you need to be informed of, and be brief.
  2. Start making a list of books you want to read on vacation well in advance. A good book, the right book, can transform a mediocre vacation into a great one.
  3. Figure out whether your vacation should be active and adventuresome or more sedentary and calm based on the kind of schedule you’re been keeping of late. Allow yourself to be lazy and directionless and spontaneous if you’ve had a tumultuous first half.
  4. If you’ve been emotionally absent as a spouse and/or parent, expect some “dynamics” to come into play as your family spends time together at meals, etc.
  5. Commit to being “in the moment.” Only you know your thoughts, so only you will know if you’re thinking about your business. As with meditation, when you realized your focusing on the chatter in your mind, you don’t give up, you just get back on track.
  6. Think about your own creativity, and where you get ideas.
  7. Take your “Doug Days.” If you’ve hear me speak, you’ve probably heard me tell the story of Doug Greene, CEO and founder of New Hope Communications, of Boulder, Colorado. When I asked Doug where he got most of his ideas, he credited the discipline of taking a full day each month to go offline, to leave meetings and “continuous partial attention” for an appointment with himself.
  8. Fuel your creativity by getting plenty of exercise, having a massage, listening to music, developing a new hobby.
  9. Start keeping a journal on your vacation. Record not only what you see, and what you experience, but how you feel as well.
  10. Don’t skip taking a vacation this summer, even if you do have to break it up into chunks. Remember, if you’re burned out, you’re not productive no matter how many hours you put in and even if you arrive at work at 7am each day
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