What do Aristotle, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Lebron James all have in common? Time off in the most creative and nourishing way!
Amidst a culture that worships “busyness”, millennials John Fitch and Max Frenzel want us to unlearn workaholism by learning “noble leisure” of the past and developing a quality #RestEthic. The AI researcher (Max) and entrepreneur (John) have collaborated to share the history of how we value time and work, show us that a little time off will go a lot further than we may think, and that it doesn’t have to be a vacation or even a full day.
Science supports that time off (whether that be walking on your lunch break or saying no to drinks with friends to work on a passion project) is a critical factor for anyone who wants to achieve a fulﬁlling life, both personally and professionally. Time Off is intended for knowledge workers, creatives, entrepreneurs and business leaders who feel overwhelmed, giving them the knowledge and tools to hone the essential skill of taking time off work before it’s too late.
Read on for an interview with John Fitch and Max Frenzl, authors of Time Off, as well as an excerpt of the book.
Q: How has society’s view of “noble leisure” time changed over the years?
A: In Ancient Greece and Rome, leisure was at the center of society. According to Aristotle, we rest for the sake of work, and we work for the sake of leisure. But leisure is defined entirely through itself. It stands at the top of the hierarchy. And it was exactly this leisure-focused life and the time it provided for philosophy, games, literature, family, and sports that allowed culture to blossom. Leisure, as Betrand Russell would later write, was “essential to civilization.” But over time, this appreciation for leisure started to change. As people started collaborating on more complex projects, our perception of time shifted from natural cycles and a task-oriented notion, to timed labor. Time suddenly became a currency that could be traded and had value, and leisure was wasting this value. This became even worse around the turn of the 18th century, when the idea of “time discipline” developed. The middle and upper classes started to worry that the poor wouldn’t know what to do with their leisure, so they invoked religion to give work a divine justification and meaning. The “Protestant Work Ethic” was born. Now leisure wasn’t just wasteful, it was actually a sin. Another century later and the Industrial Revolution takes place. As religion gradually lost its omnipotent grip, the perception of why work was good, or rather the opposite so bad, started to change amongst the elite. Rather than a sin against god, the newly emerging class of industrialists started to equate idleness with another moral vice: theft. They paid for their employees’ time, so they felt like they owned it. Over and over again, the question of work became deeply fused with our morality. Are you productive (good)? Or idle (bad)? Today, we have largely forgotten the religious origins of this morality question, but it’s so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it’s hard to shake off. And this is especially true for knowledge workers, who don’t have eight model T engines to show for their day’s labor. Without any tangible progress indicators or a boss constantly telling us that he owns our time, our internalized sense that time equals value and morality becomes even stronger to compensate. Those who could choose to once again live Aristotle’s idea of noble leisure are often furthest away from it! But we need noble leisure more than ever. Genuinely productive knowledge work is the opposite of busyness and requires taking time off seriously. We wrote this book because we are extremely optimistic that our culture can and should find its way back to noble leisure.
Q: What is the culture of “busyness”?
A: Busyness—essentially productivity without the output—is a bad habit from the start of the industrial era and it still reigns supreme. For entrepreneurs and creatives this is particularly problematic. Like addicts seeking the next quick fix, we are hooked on busyness. Without any tangible progress indicators or a boss constantly reminding us that he owns our time, our internalized sense that time equals value and morality becomes even stronger to compensate.
In the 2019 edition of their International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The official WHO report states that burnout is characterized by three key components: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” Sound familiar?
Just as a century ago people were overworked beyond healthy sustainable physical capabilities, we are now experiencing something similar with our mental abilities. Where early industrial factory workers were physically drained and exhausted, modern workers in the knowledge factories of the world suffer the same fate on a mental level.
Genuinely productive knowledge work is the opposite of busyness and requires a harder, more thoughtful approach. It requires taking time off seriously. In addition to a solid work ethic, it requires an equally well-established rest ethic. Good knowledge work is, like the work of a craftsman, based on mastery and quality, rather than the sheer quantity of simple and repeatable tasks—which will soon be done by robots and AI anyway.
We need to acknowledge that productivity in creative work is much more multifaceted than the one-dimensional productivity of a manual laborer churning out widgets.
Q: What is “Rest Ethic”?
A: Take a deep breath in. You can think of your work ethic as this inhale. Task list—inhale. Project execution—inhale. But you can only inhale for so long before you get very uncomfortable. Eventually we all need to exhale. This exhale is your rest ethic. Even though many of us seem to forget about this, it is just as essential. It allows us to build up our enthusiasm and sustain our passion. Gaining a fresh perspective—exhale. Project ideation and “aha” moments—exhale. Letting big ideas incubate in your mind—exhale. And just as a deep exhale prepares you for a better inhale, your rest ethic enables you to have a better work ethic.
A great rest ethic is not just about working less. It’s about becoming conscious of how you spend your time, recognizing that busyness is often the opposite of productivity, admitting and respecting your need for downtime and detachment, establishing clear boundaries and saying no more often, giving your ideas time and space to incubate, evaluating what success means to you, and ultimately finding and unlocking your deepest creative and human potential.
Q: How does someone unlearn workaholism to prevent burnout?
A: The morality of work has been burned deep into our culture and psyche over centuries, and unlearning this is a big task. Rather than making drastic changes, we recommend taking it step by step, and the book is full of actionable advice that people can try to implement in their own life. Entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers encourages us to say “no” more often. The story of Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson teaches us how to use redundancies in our routine and build systems that allow us to disappear for a while. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain recommends a tech shabbat, one day a week on which we try to avoid technology as much as possible. The German writer Hermann Hesse knew how to find joy in the simplest things in life, like a flower, or kids playing in a park, and his story can show us how we can “microdose” on time off. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of project management software Basecamp, help us identify—and fix—bugs in our working culture. Musician Ed “Woody” Allen shows us how we can use a short creative retreat in solitude to get some distance from the daily grind and get our creative juices flowing.
Those are just a few of the many examples. We strongly believe that everyone has to find their own version of Time Off. Some people may find theirs in solitude, others among friends. Some prefer activity, while others find energy in complete rest. If done right, even work can fall under our definition of time off. We want to present readers with an extensive collection of tools, tactics, and habits that worked for a variety of very successful people, past and present. Using this as inspiration, we encourage our readers to mix and match, try them for themselves, keep what is useful, and ignore the rest.
Q: What constitutes quality time off?
A: First, we want to make sure that you don’t just think about “time off” as a vacation. Although vacations are awesome, our book talks about the many macro and micro practices for having more quality time off.
We commonly think of rest as the opposite of work. We either rest, or we are productive. Hear the words “time off,” and you might picture yourself sitting on the couch playing video games or lying on the beach sipping cocktails. But that’s not what time off is about. It is not a call to be lazy, or permission for slacking off. Far from it! Time Off is about the practices that keep us from feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Practices that allow us to live happier, richer, more fulfilled lives. Practices that, somewhat counterintuitively (although we hope that it will seem very obvious after reading the book), allow us to be our most productive and creative selves.
Quality time off is when you are able to detach from your work-work. You are able to disconnect from your main job and instead give your attention to “noble leisure,” an activity which you engage in not just to recover for more work, but because it is actually deeply meaningful to you. And this shouldn’t be thought of as an escapism from work. They are the practices that are so valuable, they rarely have a price tag associated. These practices make life meaningful, beautiful, and interesting. You don’t squeeze in quality time off. You protect it and plan it out as intentionally as you would any of your projects and timelines at work.
Quality time off is not mere relaxation. It is often active and challenging. It can demand our full attention. It stimulates us and gets us into flow states. It allows us to forget all our other concerns for a while, and be fully present in the moment, without the unspoken anxiety that’s at the heart of boredom. One person’s time off can even look like someone else’s work. Sometimes, all that is required for good time off is a healthy dose of variety.
Q: What are small things people can do every day to recharge?
A: Instead of lunch at your desk or a meeting in a conference room, you can go for a walk and discuss or call a loved-one and talk about the little things in life that make you happy. You can talk about hobbies with your coworkers and discuss what value those activities bring to you. If you are having a creative funk and can’t get an idea out, it is OK to press pause and step away because you can’t force creativity. Ideas need time and new environments to properly incubate. You can pick a time where you call it a day and shut off your work-work. Have a wind-down schedule and routine at night that allows you to prepare yourself for bed rather than reading emails as you lay your head down. Starting and ending your day with time off practices outside of work is a great way to ensure you that you show up for work your best self. And developing little time off rituals, like brewing a cup of tea or coffee, or taking 5 minutes to doodle in your notebook, can also be great to sprinkle throughout the day whenever you feel a bit overwhelmed.
Maybe the biggest thing people can do is to actually schedule their time off in the same way as if it was an important work meeting. It will probably take time, but slowly unlearning the guilt associated with this is also important. We hope that with the book we can convince people that they are not harming their productivity with this, but actually allow themselves to become more productive and creative, while at the same time being less overwhelmed and stressed out.
Plus, throughout the book we have several time off pages where we give you creative prompts to help encourage you to put the book down and try them out!
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: One interesting fact about the book is that as of today, John and Max have never met in real life. Our friendship and collaboration has so far been completely virtual, and the entire book was created through remote collaboration, with John based in Austin, Texas, and Max in Tokyo, Japan. Similarly the rest of the team is based all over the world: our illustrator also in Tokyo, our editor in Colorado, and our designer and copyeditor both in the UK.
We found that this kind of global remote collaboration can work remarkably well, if it is planned and approached in the correct way. We are happy to share our insights into how to make this work, and encourage others to try similar approaches, and not be put off by geographic boundaries or long distances.
Time Off is Timeless and Universal
Did you know that Albert Einstein would regularly sail the seas with his wooden boat to find serenity? Or that Beethoven developed his body of work all while spending his afternoons embarking on lengthy walks, stopping at a tavern to read the newspaper? Throughout the pages of this book, we will introduce you to a wonderful and diverse cast of real people—innovators, game changers, Nobel Prize winners, thought leaders, billionaires, prolific artists, Greek gods, as well as the guy and girl next door—who practice time off through a variety of refreshing habits, mental models, and actionable principles. You will be surprised by how many of them have found their own version of success without being overwhelmed or burned out. They created quality work not in spite of taking time off, but because of it.
Is it possible to grow a successful company in an internet-driven era without raising millions of dollars and working around the clock to stand a chance for survival? Absolutely! And we can benefit from exploring the stories of those who have done it, such as Stephan Aarstol, Jason Fried, and Brunello Cucinelli.
Do you have to sacrifice your various passions and specialize in a single narrow domain in order to stay competitive. Not at all! In fact, as artificial intelligence becomes better at specialized tasks, range and a broad set of interests might be the best way to stay relevant, and people like software engineer (and rapper) Brandon Tory and journalist Tim Harford can show us how.
Can you appreciate leisure if you are in a complex leadership position with tens of thousands of people depending on you? You must, if you want to be an effective and empathetic leader! Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius firmly believed this two millennia ago, and business magnate Richard Branson still does today.
Can you be world class in your chosen field without sacrificing rest and your private life? Hell yes! Top athletes like LeBron James and Firas Zahabis know this. And so do renowned chefs Alice Waters and Magnus Nilsson, as well as actress Lupita Nyong’o.
Even if you do not sit at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, happen to be a Roman emperor, run your own business as a freelancer, or aim to be a pro athlete or top chef, there are many ways in which you can incorporate time off into your daily routine at the office, or while away from it, as the examples of Ursula K. Le Guin, Pete Adeney and others show.
What connects all these people is their refusal to subscribe to the idea that busy and full-speed are the only path to success. “Get the outwork myth out of your head,” urge Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. “Stop equating work ethic with excessive work hours. Neither is going to get you ahead or help you find calm.” But a good rest ethic can.
As we will see shortly, the greatest minds in history understood the need for time off. But this is not an outdated concept. Even though most of us seem to devalue it today, time off is as applicable—and essential—now than ever. Those of us who recognize this ancient wisdom and put it into practice are reaping tremendous benefits.
Throughout this book we will explore the many facets of time off by diving deeper into specific topics such as creativity, sleep, and play—all backed up by scientific arguments, a wealth of inspiring stories, and concrete actionable advice for cultivating your own rest ethic. Toward the end of the book, we will share with you our vision of a not-too-distant future in which, thanks to developments in automation technologies and AI, creativity, innovation, and yes, even human-ness—those things machines can’t replicate—will be in the highest demand. And to access (and excel in) that future, we’ll need a solid rest ethic and a deep appreciation of leisure more than ever before. We’ll need time off.
Max Frenzel (Tokyo) and John Fitch (Austin) have both spent time working in software startups where many are worshiping the mantras that are so pervasive in our current working culture. Max got his Ph.D. in Quantum Physics and has been an AI researcher.
John is an entrepreneur and business coach. At breaking points in both of their work experiences, they realized that many of the commonly held beliefs aren’t useful, but destructive.
As a result, they decided to be more intentional and deliberate with their approaches to work and time off. Their quality of work and life have improved ever since, and they now want to share that transformation with others.