Work Less to Get More Done

Why you get more done when you works less.


Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


In June 1942, Dwight Eisenhower was appointed Commanding General of the European Theater of Operations for the U.S. Army. Eisenhower was a well-respected thinker and had risen rapidly through the Army’s senior ranks in 1940 and 1941, and his new position required overseeing planning for the Army’s invasion of North Africa, working with his British military counterparts, and fielding Winston Churchill’s demands for faster American action. When he arrived in London, the war in Europe had already been going on for nearly two years, and Eisenhower found a command badly in need of reorganization and rejuvenation. By early August, according to his aide Harry Butcher, Eisenhower was working “15 to 18 hours a day” and had become a man “whose problems frequently [kept] him awake at night.” Eisenhower ordered Butcher to find “a ‘hideout’ to escape the four forbidding walls of the Dorchester,” the London hotel where the two shared a suite of rooms.

After scouting locations around London, Butcher found Telegraph Cottage, a “small, unpretentious” house “remotely situated on a 10-acre wooded tract.” That summer and fall, while planning Operation Torch, the U.S. invasion of North Africa, Eisenhower would escape to Telegraph Cottage whenever he could. There he played golf, read cowboy novels, played bridge, went riding in nearby Richmond Park, and simply enjoyed the country. Shop talk was strictly forbidden. Only a handful of people outside Eisenhower’s staff knew the cottage’s location. “If anything saved him from a mental crack-up,” his driver, Kay Summersby, later said, “it was Telegraph Cottage and the new life it provided.”

This kind of break from work — the kind that allows what sociologists call detachment, the ability to put work completely out of your mind and attend to other things — turns out to be tremendously important as a source of mental and physical recovery from work. It’s essential for those in unpredictable, high-stress jobs that require lots of focus and emotional control, like nursing or law enforcement. It’s equally essential for people who love their jobs, who are perfectionists and passionate. It’s a necessity for people who want to do their very best work to be able to detach from the workplace, to have time to recover their mental and physical energy. For individuals, burnout can lead to emotional exhaustion, a decline in performance, poorer decision-making, lower empathy, and higher rates of errors. For organizations, burnout contributes to declines in productivity, a more stressed and unhappy workplace, and greater turnover. And it’s often an organization’s most talented and valuable workers who are most likely to burn out.

Dwight Eisenhower would go on to become one of the great heroes of World War II, celebrated as a brilliant general and a model of American confidence and character; but in 1942, he was a career staff officer thrown into his first major command and tasked with an immensely difficult high-stakes job. It was an early sign of his fitness for leadership that he recognized the need to restore his psychological reserves, to literally make space for rest.

A survey found that 71 percent of workers who take regular vacations reported being satisfied with their work, versus 17 percent of workers who don’t.

Expert opinion about the best treatment for fatigue and exhaustion has generally fallen into two camps. In the nineteenth century, some doctors advocated a medically supervised “rest cure” for nervous exhaustion consisting of several bedridden weeks (sometimes in darkened rooms) and a bland diet; others argued that the tonic of fresh air, vigorous exercise, and primitive living was the best cure for nervous exhaustion brought on by the stresses of modern industrial civilization. (Not surprisingly, the former tended to be recommended for women and the latter for men.) In modern America, we tend to assume that the best way to recover our energy is to take a long leisurely vacation — that we have a reservoir of mental energy that we consume at work, and time away from the office refills it. In this theory, the longer our vacations, the better.

This is one reason we’ve tended to take long vacations and spend generously on them. But it’s also one reason we don’t take vacations: For many people, the idea of leaving the office for two or three weeks feels impossible, and the thought of facing a mountain of work and an overflowing inbox on their return is more stressful than never leaving. And the problem is getting worse: According to the U.S. Travel Association, workers in 2000 took an average of 21 vacation days, but in 2013 that figure dropped to 16 days.

But there are real costs to not taking vacations, too. American workers lose roughly $52.4 billion in earned benefits each year. They also lose long-term health benefits. The Framingham Heart Study found that over a 21-year period, women who took infrequent vacations were more likely to have heart attacks than those who vacationed regularly. In a nine-year study of 12,000 men at high risk for coronary heart disease, researchers found that those who took annual vacations had fewer heart attacks and lower overall mortality rates than men who did not. A 2015 survey found that 71 percent of workers who take regular vacations reported being satisfied with their work, versus 17 percent of workers who don’t.

Workers who skip vacations or don’t use all their vacation days are also at higher risk of burnout, of feeling emotionally exhausted by their work and never feeling fully able to handle the demands of the job. This can also create marriage and family problems and contribute to depression, poor health, and — especially among formerly hard-charging and career-oriented people — higher rates of suicide.

Whatever short-term benefits come from overwork and delayed vacations, they’re more than offset by the long-term costs of errors, lost productivity, higher turnover, and abbreviated careers. Exhausted workers can’t give their best, take less initiative, are more cynical, and may even be actively subversive. Burnout is also most likely to affect the people employers can least afford to lose: their most dedicated, most experienced, and most skilled workers.

For writers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, delaying vacations can also mean passing up opportunities for creative breakthroughs. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the idea for Hamilton when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton during a vacation to Mexico. He had been working for seven years on his play In the Heights, and as he later put it, “the moment my brain got a moment’s rest, Hamilton walked into it.” Software developers have epiphanies on vacation, too: Kevin Systrom came up with the idea for Instagram while on a vacation in Mexico in 2010, while Rafa Soto dreamed up OmmWriter, a minimalist word processor, on a beach in Brazil. In fact, according to a 2014 survey, one in five start-up founders got the idea for their company during vacations.

Given the high costs of exhaustion and burnout, it’s worth asking what kinds of breaks provide the greatest degree of recovery. For the last 20 years, German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has been exploring this question. Sonnentag has studied how opportunities for recovery — the process of recharging the physical and emotional batteries — affect workers’ health and well-being, job satisfaction, productivity, and resilience. She and her colleagues have looked at paramedics, clerical workers, software developers, civil servants, factory workers, consultants, schoolteachers, and the self-employed. She’s measured the effects of time off and detachment on performance on multiple scales: the effect of weekends on energy levels during the week, of vacations on mood and work satisfaction months later, even the effects of being well-rested on energy and focus in the morning versus the afternoon.

Over the course of decades, across professions, in one industry after another, Sonnentag’s findings have been consistent. Workers who have the chance to get away mentally, switch off, and devote their energies elsewhere are more productive, have better attitudes, get along better with their colleagues, and are better able to deal with challenges at work.

Sonnentag and her colleagues argue that there are four major factors that contribute to recovery: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work. Think of them as a bit like vitamins. Breaks that are high in all four are the equivalent of nutritious and nourishing meals; those that don’t are like empty calories.

Relaxation is the most straightforward of the four to understand: It’s an activity that’s pleasant and undemanding. Relaxation doesn’t have to be totally passive; it just shouldn’t feel like work or require conscious effort.

Control and mastery experiences are more interesting. Control means having the power to decide how you spend your time, energy, and attention. For people who don’t have much control over what happens at work and whose schedules are filled with family duties and chores, being able to control their time is liberating and restorative.

Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and all the more rewarding when you do them well. In England’s top-secret code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park during World War II, for example, chess was a popular pastime. The heads of the Enigma section had played on the British national chess team and recruited players on the belief that the game built the mental skills necessary to do cryptanalysis; yet playing the game remained a recovery experience. It was effortlessly absorbing and thus relaxing, with the board, rules, moves, and opponent all in the open, unlike the murky world of codes and ciphers.

The importance of psychological detachment — the ability to feel disconnected from the job — turns out to be important in determining how much you recover during breaks. This turns out to be as true for evenings and weekends as long vacations.

Israeli sociologist Dalia Etzion surveyed employees at a high-tech company before, during, and after business trips, and found that levels of job stress and burnout dropped significantly after a trip. The effect was even more dramatic among women, for whom a business trip meant a break from household chores and childcare. Subsequent studies have found recovery effects even for people who travel for a living. A study by Sonnentag and Eva Natter of German flight attendants (whose work is both physically taxing and emotionally demanding) likewise found that they experienced greater recovery from work when staying in a hotel than when returning home.

Relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and detachment all work together to promote recovery. An activity that is challenging and absorbing, and pushes thoughts of work out of your mind, increases your sense of detachment. This helps explain why many noted scientists have been avid musicians. In the 20th century, the cultured physicist-musician was a virtual stereotype: Get four physicists in a room, one joke went, and you’d have a string quartet. These days, they’re more likely to be a heavy metal band, like the one organic chemist and MacArthur fellow Carolyn Bertozzi played in during college with future Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave co-founder Tom Morello. A musical performance and a start-up both involve getting very talented people to work together and do great work on a deadline. You might think that their similarity would make music less useful as a form of recovery, but because doing it well demands commitment, concentration, organizational skill, and cooperation, and channels some of the same energy and skill normally used on the job into a completely different context, playing music serves to promote recovery from work.

Detachment also requires being able to escape work-­related interruptions. Knowing that you’ve left your pager in your desk or are out of cellphone range makes it easier to relax or focus on your swing. This is one reason workers who carry work smartphones or other devices during non-work hours, or who have to keep in touch with the office while they’re on vacation, have higher levels of stress and work-family conflict. But it’s also critical to be able to disconnect from work psychologically. A study of the cortisol levels of on-call workers found a negligible difference between their stress and alertness levels when they were at work and on call. Likewise, people who worry about work in their off hours have lower recovery rates than those who do not. At the end of a long week, you’re more likely to be emotionally spent, which makes you more likely to dwell on negative things, or to just keep thinking about that upcoming project or the work that was pushed aside in order to deal with an emergency. It’s harder to detach from work after long, demanding days, and being exhausted and cranky leaves you with less energy to switch mental gears — precisely when it’s most essential to do so.

Unfortunately, psychologists have since discovered that the benefits of even relaxing vacations don’t last very long. When they measure mood, energy levels, engagement, and happiness levels among workers before and immediately after a vacation, then weeks or months later, psychologists find that the emotional boost that a vacation provides lasts about three or four weeks. After that, your happiness and job satisfaction levels return to their pre-vacation levels: It’s “lots of fun, quickly gone,” as one article puts it.

This led to another question: At what point during vacation does happiness peak? When psychologists ask people how they feel during a holiday, they find that happiness levels rise rapidly during the first few days, peak around day eight, and then either plateau or slowly decline. We think of the big annual vacation as a great way to recover from the stresses of a job, and while long vacations have their virtues — they let you travel farther and spend more time learning about local cultures, for example — long vacations don’t translate into greater happiness.

These results further undermine the idea that our mental energies refill with time, rather than through activities that promote recovery. They also suggest that we should reassess the role of breaks, and the rhythm of vacations, in our lives. Regularly and decisively breaking from our jobs, disconnecting from the office in the evenings and on weekends, and choosing to do things that are relaxing, mentally absorbing, and physically challenging — in other words, engaging in a form of active rest — will promote recovery of our mental resources and make us more effective, productive, and focused. Rather than treating vacations as big, annual events that are completely separate from our working lives, taking shorter but more frequent vacations every few months provides greater levels of recovery. As Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Tampere and vacation researcher, puts it, vacations are like sleep: You need to take them regularly to benefit.

Eisenhower’s time at Telegraph Cottage serves as a model of recovery theory, which explains why it was so valuable in helping him recover from the pressures of his first command. It was a space where Eisenhower could exercise mastery in long bridge games (a game he played brilliantly) or relax over novels and golf (“Ike’s [golf] score is a military secret,” Butcher joked, suggesting that for Eisenhower, golf was more relaxation than mastery). Cottage life also gave him a chance to exercise a rare level of control over his time (he sometimes took over the kitchen to cook his own breakfast, though his aide drew the line at letting the boss do the dishes). Aside from his dog (who, revealingly, was named Telek, an abbreviation of “Telegraph Cottage”), the cottage and the life he maintained there was Eisenhower’s great respite from the war, a key to staying sharp and recovering from the pressures of the job.

The story of Telegraph Cottage should remind us that even people in very high-stakes jobs need to set aside time for recovery. It’s easy to forget that we need to build rest into our schedule. It’s easy to convince ourselves that detaching from work is impossible. We live in an era when we’re urged to be passionate about our work, to regard the boundary between work and life as an obsolete relic of the industrial age. Mobile technologies keep us connected to the workplace day and night. At the same time, the boundaries between work and life are blurred, giving us more flexibility and choice about how to organize our time. Together, they create the illusion that we’ll find greatest fulfillment, and be most effective, if we’re always working.

But that’s wrong. The positive effects of time off from work, of being able to completely leave the cares and pressures (and even the positives) of the workplace behind, are by now too well-documented to ignore, as are the negative effects of burnout. The literature on vacations and recovery shows that individuals, job performance, and companies all benefit from time out of the office. The most creative and most productive workers are the ones who are able to unplug from the office, recover their mental and physical energy, and return to their work recharged. We also now know that recovery isn’t just a function of time off. We get the most from breaks when we do things that are relaxing, that let us experience control and mastery, and that provide a sense of detachment from our working lives. Recovery is active, not passive, and we can design it to get greater benefit — helping us stay curious, engaged, and productive and lead long creative lives.

This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *