Want to achieve something great? Stop working.
FORTUNE — Anyone remember the “Free Agent Nation”? Daniel Pink’s 1997 Fast Company article heralded a bright future in which the skilled workforce bounced from project by project, unchained from a desk or any one particular company. Fifteen years later and in a different economy, “necessity entrepreneurs” using contracted work as a stopgap measure have joined the happily self-employed. The sheen of free agency has tarnished in the meantime.
Whether the numbers of independent contractors swell or contract, however, I’m surprised how little attention has been paid to what effect these agents can have on the culture of the companies that contract for their services. But I didn’t see much of a problem until I began working with large, capital-C corporate firms.
In my mind, the business of being the creative type who swooped into the conference room — hair messy and altogether more casual — who then retreated to work hard (and unseen) on the contracted deliverables, seemed ideal. It also seemed like a fair trade; the talent brought on short-term got to work with big corporate budgets, while permanent staffers got new faces to look at and a change of pace.
Any hopes I had that the freelancer could help change some of corporate America’s pointless and counterproductive mores were quickly dashed, however. Nowhere did those mores pinch more than when it came to what a colleague once dubbed “gestation mode.”
Gestation mode is the fallow period between versions of a deliverable/prototype/piece of content. The basic idea is that creative output requires rest between drafts, and this resting period can’t be skipped if one wants the work done well. Writers are notorious for asserting the importance of time-outs: you write for a while, then you do the dishes, then revise. Or, more likely, you read what you wrote, decide it’s garbage, so take a long walk, and return to it four hours later.
In a piece for The Believer, novelist Zadie Smith pushed the time frame further out. Her advice for anyone who’d finished a novel was, “put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal.” In order to judge the work, one needed to see it objectively. Achieving that psychological distance takes time. A long time.
So why, I wondered, is an understanding so fundamental to creative production still alien to the corporate cultures that have been inviting in the free agent nation for 15 years now? When was the last time a project manager scheduled time for something not to be worked on?
Enlightened modern managers pay a lot of lip service to creativity while they simultaneously make real creativity all but impossible. Even if project managers appreciate the idea of breaks, they look sideways at those who put that thought into practice. Working constantly is seen as efficient, sexy, and the source of all competitive advantages, and in such pressured environments even getting enough sleep becomes suspect.
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Monty Python actor and writer John Cleese had strong opinions about how stupid this was. “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating,” he told his audience in a videotaped lecture, before complicating the idea further by suggesting that some talent was required, namely a talent for not being done yet.
To explain, he referred to an unnamed Monty Python colleague who rarely produced material that really sang. After years of observing the guy’s working habits, Cleese concluded that while this man was smarter, cleverer, and arguably funnier than Cleese himself was, he worked too efficiently. He would land on a solution to a comedic problem, declare victory, and move on. Meanwhile, Cleese tended to discard the first — and often most obvious — solution that came to mind, and keep stewing. By tolerating the slight discomfort of being mid-process for a longer period of time, he produced better material.
Also important was having the time to consider ideas not in terms of their immediate practical purpose but just…because. In this “open mode,” as Cleese called it, a person was not under pressure to get a specific thing done, but could play. Had biologist Alexander Fleming been in a rush, he would have looked at the uncultured petri dish as an irrelevance (because it wasn’t what he was looking for). Instead, in open mode, it was a clue that pointed to penicillin. Alfred Hitchcock, Cleese said, would force his colleagues into open mode by interrupting work sessions and veering off on storytelling tangents that had nothing to do with the script at hand. “We’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard,” Hitchcock purportedly urged his collaborators. “Relax, and let it come.”
All of which makes me think the cigarette break was not just about nicotine but instead involved the baser desire to stand outside and be alone with your thoughts for five minutes. “Staring off into space” is what mothers typically call that behavior, and I can’t recall the last time I saw anyone do it in the office.
As Cleese saw it, “closed mode” was far more common at work. That purposeful, impatient, moderately manic office environment did have its uses, he allowed. Ideally, an employee would be able to switch between the two modes, however. Open — or gestation — mode to find the right solution. Closed mode to get it done.
Gestation mode pertains to larger life projects as well. Lisa Berkovitz, business coach and founder of Project Sweet Spot, says most women who enjoy entrepreneurial second careers typically experienced “aha” moments during rest periods. They realized that thinking clearly about what they wanted to do required a “full un-plugging from what they used to be,” and subsequently used savings not to invest in hardware or real estate but time.
And as for those bosses who’d prefer to keep things unimaginative, Cleese offered the following advice: If you catch anyone pondering, accuse them of laziness or indecision. Establish a permanent atmosphere of looming crisis because once you give people time to think, the next thing you know, they’ll be asking questions and coming up with new ideas.