It was a grim period.
The year 1665 marked one of the most severe outbreaks of the black plague ever witnessed in England. The characteristic "buboes" - dark, swollen spots on the face and chest - spelled swiftly impending doom for those afflicted. They would experience a progression of symptoms, including headaches, chills, weakness, and ultimately succumb to the black death.
In a scene familiar to a post-COVID audience, England shut down. All who could fled London in an effort to escape the contagion, including King Charles II and his family. Parliament was postponed, public gatherings were banned, and commercial activities came to a standstill.
The streets bore witness to the grisly scenes of death carts transporting the dead - an estimated one-fifth of London's population - to massive communal burial pits.
Amidst the chaotic atmosphere, a young student was forced to return to his family farm when Cambridge University abruptly shut down. He had graduated without any notable achievements or accolades; he was an mediocre scholar at best. At home, detached from the pressures of university life, he immersed himself in his own self-directed studies and reflected on what he had learned at school.
Those two years proved to be the most fruitful and productive in his life. During this period, he created integral calculus, confirmed the composite nature of light, and developed his gravitational theory to the extent that he could confidently calculate the moon's orbit, upheld by the Earth's gravity. When he returned to Cambridge in 1666, he began to solve problems in ways the world had never seen before.
Historians call this time of Isaac Newton's life his anni mirabiles, "miraculous years". Those two years remain carved in history. Biographer Richard Westfall stated that "for the most part, his future endeavors as a mathematician would be founded upon the insights gained in 1665." Newton himself attested that "in those days, I dedicated myself to Mathematics and Philosophy more than at any other time." It was during this period of solitary exploration, detached from academia, that he embarked on the path that would ultimately define him.
Newton's case is not unique. A common thread emerges in the lives of the world's greatest individuals: a preceding period of extended free time. During this time, they stepped away from the constraints of their formal obligations and immersed themselves in a space where they could think and reflect, where they were free to indulge and follow their own curiosity in a natural, relaxed way.
Consider Albert Einstein. From 1902 to 1909, Einstein worked as a patent clerk, during which he published his own groundbreaking four annus mirabilis papers. Einstein wrote that "the peace of the secular monastery and the material reassurance for the hard times" were profoundly helpful, and even described the patent office as his "worldly cloister" where he incubated his most nuanced ideas.
The father of humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers, wrote that "it has seemed to me that my most fruitful periods of work are the times when I have been able to get completely away from what others think, from professional expectations and daily demands, and gain perspective on what I am doing. My wife and I have found isolated hideaways in Mexico and in the Caribbean where no one knows I am a psychologist; where painting, swimming, snorkeling, and capturing some of the scenery in color photography are my major activities. Yet in these spots, where no more than two to four hours a day goes for professional work, I have made most of whatever advances I have made in the last few years."
Similarly, the birth of the Unix operating system can be traced back to a pivotal moment of free time:
In August 1969, Ken Thompson’s wife Bonnie took their year-old son on a trip to California to show off to their families. As a temporary bachelor, Ken had time to work. “I allocated a week each to the operating system, the shell, the editor and the assembler [he told me]… and during the month she was gone, it was totally rewritten in a form that looked like an operating system.”
Maybe this is a greatly exaggerated myth, but how terrifying would it be if that was true? Is it possible that Thompson was burdened by responsibilities his entire life, and then in a brief moment of freedom did some of the most important work anyone has ever done?
These were some of the most brilliant minds we had, and they were each nearly unable to fulfill even a tiny fraction of their potential. We should ask how much more each of them could have accomplished, but also how much we’ve lost from would-be inventors unable to find even a month of genuine free time with which to pursue their dreams.Source: The Death of Wilbur Wright by Applied Divinity Studies
There's no denying that free time is powerful. There is something about it that allows the mind to flourish and enables revolutionary ideas to take shape. Even Steve Jobs spent seven months in India before founding Apple.
But what is the power of free time? I think of it as the power of a wandering mind.
The philosophers called this aspect of free time leisure. "Leisure has one and only one essential criterion, and that is the condition of perceived freedom," wrote psychologist John Neulinger, while philosopher Josef Piper defined leisure as "an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being 'busy', but letting things happen…. leisure is a form of silence… leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation."
The essence of free time lies in its ability to break the cycle of repetitive thinking, to invite reflection and ignite inspiration. It opens up space for exploration and introspection, enabling intellectual knowledge to step outside the boundaries of familiar patterns and engage with new stimuli. It provides the mind the opportunity to wander and meander, to forge new neural pathways and forster the birth of unique insights, allowing fresh perspectives to take shape. It liberates the mind from the confines of routine, preventing it from being trapped in the same old mental loops that result from doing the same old things. To generate novel ideas, the mind needs to lie fallow and allow neurons to wander, forging new and creative connections with each another.
Breaks have a unique way of solidifying knowledge that is qualitatively different from persistent intensive work over extended periods of time. When I was living in a different country, I was fascinated by how my language fluency made significant leaps every time I returned from a trip to my country of origin. Later I discovered that this is a well-documented phenomenon. Many of us can cite examples from our personal lives where important projects or realizations in our lives came about through periods of time off, even involuntary ones like a layoff or hospital stay.
In the metaphor of Matthew Inman of the webcomic The Oatmeal, creativity is "breathing out"; for it to work, you need to "breathe in," too.
An interesting point is that all of the aforementioned examples involve free time that came after disciplined, rigorous work. Einstein would certainly have been less effective at thinking about physics had he not just finished his degrees in math and physics; Isaac Newton had also just finished his BA. There is an interplay between leisure and focused work: leisure acts as a catalyst for crystallizing and integrating knowledge, yielding transformative results when it coincides with a foundation of work and preparation. "Chance favors only the prepared mind," wrote Louis Pasteur, father of microbiology; the benefits of free time kick in once the rigor and background knowledge are already there. An argument for leisure time is not necessarily an argument for work-life balance - there is sometimes something about intensely focused work for days or weeks that is hard to replicate. But time off makes that hard work sustainable in the long term.
The power of time off is well-known in the academic world, where sabbaticals are a well-entrenched benefit for academics, and many professors only teach two semesters out of three. But for some reason the professional world has not taken advantage of its power, where paid leave is scattered and even unpaid leave tends to be looked down upon. But the power of leisure is cumulative; it needs to be consecutive to be useful. “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening the ax,” said Abraham Lincoln.
So often I hear people say things like, "I love my job - I just wish there wasn't so much of it." A pattern I see often with highly-productive employees is that they find themselves stuck in a "work hard, burn out, and quit" cycle. They work intensely for a few years, reach a point of exhaustion, and quit, take off 6-12 months for travel or athletics or other pursuits, and then repeat the cycle anew.
Rather than lose these high-performers, companies could implement a "crop rotation" approach—allow employees to intersperse highly productive cycles with optional periods of rest and rejuvenation, when their minds can lie fallow and develop fresh ideas and enthusiasm and return with new maturity and new competence. This would allow organizations to foster a culture of sustained creativity and excellence.
Here are some suggestions that enable that without impacting the bottom line:
The practice of mental rest finds its roots in ancient traditions, interwoven within the tapestry of societies like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. These practices offer timeless wisdom - a wisdom of purposeful rest, stillness, and reflection that is increasingly relevant in a modern world consumed by bustling schedules and ceaseless obligations.