Hard Work's Overrated, Maybe Detrimental.

A co-founder of Flickr argues that hard work often doesn't amount to much—and neuroscience offers some backing for the claim.

overrated hard work

Caterina Fake, who, with her husband Stewart Butterfield, founded Flickr, knows a thing or two about bliztkreig work schedules. But she points out that late nights are seldom very useful in the grand scheme of things. Hard work? Overrated:

When we were building Flickr, we worked very hard. We worked all waking hours, we didn't stop. My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon and I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, his being Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee—14-18 hours a day. We agreed that a lot of what we then considered "working hard" was actually "freaking out". Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn't have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn't—and other time-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, even making it home in time for dinner.
Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen. But you can save yourself a lot of time by working on the right thing. Working hard, even, if that's what you like to do.

overrated-workThat raises the question: How do you set aside the mind space to see patterns, make connections, and read what people want? How do you find the right thing to work on?

Fake points to the salient example of Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA. They spent a lot of time lollygagging and goofing off, going to parties and bullshitting over coffee.

That might seem like a historical footnote, but our everyday experience vindicates it. After all, have you ever had a great idea at your desk? But how often does that bulb go off in the shower, or in bed?

Modern neuroscience actually supports this apparently lackadaisical approach. It turns out that the best way to find breakthrough ideas might be to avoid working hard. As the Wall Street Journal reported this summer:

By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.
"People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who reported the findings last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As measured by brain activity, however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."
She suspects that the flypaper of an unfocused mind may trap new ideas and unexpected associations more effectively than methodical reasoning. That may create the mental framework for new ideas. "You can see regions of these networks becoming active just prior to people arriving at an insight," she says.

The researchers found support for the idea that blinding insights favor a prepared mind—that is, you've got to really internalize the problem at hand if you're to find any sort of solution. (For more on that, check out this article from last year in the New Yorker, by Jonah Lehrer.) But to actually bring those insights to life, you've got to step back. (See why graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister advocates taking time off.)

But if the daydreaming hypothesis is right—and it seems hard to deny—more hours at your desk are actually counterproductive. You'd do better by setting aside lots of playtime, to let your mind wander. Only then will you stumble your way onto what's important.

Modern office design is actually converging upon this idea, without any prodding from neuroscience—for example, Facebook's new offices seem to be organized more around living rooms and DJ booths than cubicles. Elsewhere in office design, conference rooms are quickly being crowded out by lounge spaces. In other words, the very types of places that Watson and Crick found so useful.

[Via Kottke]

[Photos Courtesy of The U.S. National Archives]

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  • Christopher Chapman

    This is more than true. No one creates or innovates at a desk. They go out and find inspiration. The more you change your environment the more sparks you have that can lead to innovation.

    Velcroe was discovered when George de Mestral was walking his dog had some burrs snag his wool coat. He looked at them up close...and the rest is history.

    Gutenberg was at a friends wine press while taking a break from trying to invent a way to mass produce printing. He then invented a press that is responsible for the age of enlightenment. Basically the first spread of knowledge comparable to the invention of the internet.

    There are many more examples, Da Vinci invited the modern pendulum for clocks while sitting in church watching the incense swinging back and forth...

    Ill have more about this on my blog. Home you enjoy!

    Christopher Chapman

  • Judith Myers

    I so believe in the premise of this article and the power of play and daydreaming to creat successful business ideas and plans.

  • Chris Reich

    I'm not sure the nail has been exactly hit. Some people thrive and do their best work under pressure and while working hard---even through long hours. True, I get some of my best ideas during a long drive to a meeting! I've sometimes pulled off the highway to make notes for a project I'd been working on for weeks. Flash! New idea.

    But what I think is most important is the rhythm of the day. If one is in a flow, be it working hard or cruising through a 'to-do' list, the important thing is to establish a rhythm that suites the individual.

    If I have a proposal to write, I like to sit down, think it through and work until I complete the first draft. When I'm constantly interrupted, it breaks the flow and disrupts my rhythm. Some people on the other hand prefer to take take frequent breaks, step away from the work a while. They return refreshed and ready for a new round.

    Point is, the article is close but I think not exactly on point.

    Chris Reich

  • Joseph Steig

    Sorry, but just don't see the analogy between discovering DNA and creating Flickr. Completely different kinds of work. One requires synthesizing all sorts of know-how into a new concept; the other requires the grinding out of innumerable tasks to create a company. Better analogy would be the creation of the IDEA of Flickr. I remember my (only) conversation with Stuart long long ago in which he said "We've been doing this MMOG but now we're thinking about this photo sharing concept. Do you know any angel investors who might be interested?"

  • Ziona Etzion


    Then again it takes creative and self directed people to be challenged to start with.

    Sleep for me also activates problem solving and bring up ideas.

  • Ed Loessi

    There's no doubt in my mind that problem solving and new ideas come when you are not concentrating and can let random thoughts come in and out of the picture, which is fine if that is your job in a company.

    I also agree with Caterina that as you gain experience in building companies you tend to worry less about the un-important and if you can exchange that previous worry time with random thought time you will move forward much more quickly.

    The great experiment really is can people self monitor their time effectively, can I know when I should be working and when I should be problem solving and creating breakthroughs. There are of course the point to companies that have these unique work environments designed to spur great work but the majority and by a wide wide margin of people don't work in those environments and there are plenty of successful companies.

    Good article and lots to consider, I think I will now take a walk in the woods and see what I can see .....

    Ed Loessi

  • Juho Hartikainen

    Thanks, this was a very inspiring article! Bliztkreig is spelled blitzkrieg though :)

  • Jared Weinstein

    True. But Watson and Crick took it easy while Rosalind Franklin worked like hell.