Like many of you, I just returned from a summer vacation, but one that was shorter than I would have liked: five days and four nights. But I'm lucky; many of my friends didn't take any vacation this summer. Research shows that Americans work more hours than anyone on the planet. In 2004, the average American worked 1,824 hours. Compare that to the Dutch, who worked 1,357 hours apiece, or the Swedish, at 1,585 hours. Americans work more annual hours even than the Japanese (1,789). Each year, thirty percent of Americans fail to use even their measly ten vacation days. (see note 1)
This is a problem, because creativity researchers have found that the best new ideas come to people when they step away from work and do something completely different. In my book, GROUP GENIUS, I tell a story about how the CEO of Citibank, John Reed, in 1976 had a vision for a new kind of bank while vacationing on a beach in the Caribbean. If you work all year round and rollover your vacation days, you're not realizing your full creative potential.
You can't use this research to argue you should live on the beach! The insights don't come if you haven't been working hard before leaving town. Creativity researchers have found that the most creative people invest long hours in their chosen field. It's not the sheer total number of hours, but the way that those hours are used. Top creators engage in deliberate practice: concentrating fully on what they're doing at the moment, constantly working to become better. Even just three hours a day, over ten years, adds up to the 10,000 hours total that researchers have shown is the minimum required for top creative performance. (note 2)
But here's a puzzle: if more vacation days made people more creative, then Europe would be leaping far ahead of the U.S. in innovation. But just the opposite seems to be happening, so clearly, more vacation isn't a panacea. (Europe's lack of innovation is due to other structural features of those economies, but that's a story for another post.) The U.S. would be a more innovative economy if Americans took longer vacations. You'll be more likely to have good new ideas if you do. (Of course, only if you've been working hard with "deliberate practice" while you're still on the job.) Every summer, take at least a two-week vacation--and leave the Blackberry and the laptop back at home. And while you're at work, try to take at least 15 minutes each afternoon to let your mind wander. It's worth it, because you could have that breakthrough idea that pays for itself later.
note 1. My figures are taken from a 2006 article by Gornick, Heron, and Eisenbrey
note 2. For details, read any of the papers by K. Anders Ericsson, such as: Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 273-305.