Know when Not to Work: What Darwin & Churchill can Teach you about Productivity

Minute Read

Charles Darwin was one of the most controversial figures of our time, but he was also known to be a person who was absolutely obsessed with being productive. In fact, when sailing around the world on the HMS Beagle, he wrote a letter to his sister, Susan, that “a man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” Furthermore, he was stuck on the decision as to whether to marry because one of his concerns was “loss of time— cannot read in the evenings.”

Darwin though, seemingly lived in paradox, as later on in life, when he moved to the countryside to raise a family, his work consisted only of three ninety-minute periods per day. With that kind of schedule today, he’d be fired from a job within a week, let alone be considered for tenure as a university professor in today's day-and-age.

Yet most of what we know from Darwin’s research and thought experiences came from this latter part of his life. If he didn’t take the time to methodically write down and research his thoughts, it’s likely we wouldn’t know his name today. He lived a relatively comfortable life but managed to leave a lasting impact on all of humanity in as little as 4-hours a day.

It’s easy to dismiss Darwin’s era in the 1800’s as free from the ping from our phone on the latest chat or email notification. However, it’s not just how the internet, social media platforms, and phones have changed the wiring of our brain, but also our view of what it means to be productive in the first place.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he popularized the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master something, but what’s missing is the 12,500 hours of deliberate rest and 30,000 hours of sleep that must accompany that.

The Stimulant Epidemic

Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend towards taking stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin to get ahead. As one academic researcher noted in the recent Netflix documentary, Take Your Pills, when he went to college, kids used to take drugs to zone out, now they take them to zone in.

Stimulants, including caffeine, should be seen as a tool to use in certain situations, but we’ve become a culture that seems to view them as a crutch. As somebody who has been diagnosed with ADHD and has taken stimulants, I’m not going to debate whether it’s real or not. Stimulants have however become America’s #2 health crisis, only right behind the opioid epidemic.

The problem isn’t so much the physical addiction, but rather a mental addiction in feeling that one needs them just to stay ahead. Movies like Limitless have popularized the idea of a drug that can make you smarter in a society that seems to constantly demand higher levels of productivity.

We live in a culture that seems to enforce the idea that working hard and grinding it out is the rule and not the exception.

In some ways though, we’re steadily improving as a culture; whereas as a decade ago it was seen as a badge of honor to brag about how little sleep you had the night before, it’s become more common knowledge that less sleep is bad. In fact, a recent study showed that even one night of bad sleep can have severe consequences on your brain health.

All too often, it’s the expectations set by the employers that tend to sway the working tendencies of the rest of the company. If you’re in a company where the employees tend to work longer hours, you’ll almost feel like an outcast if you leave when your shift ends…or worse…

The Evil Eye from Your Boss

How Culture Affects Productivity

It shouldn’t be a surprise to know that the peer-pressure and work-standards imposed by a society can have a dramatic impact on health, and perhaps the opposite impact we might think on productivity.

When you look at European countries like France for example, they’ve gone so far as to set limits on the time bosses can send their employees emails. They have more laws to protect employees and limit working hours, which in turn actually makes several countries in Europe to have the highest GDP output per hour worked. It turns out that setting constraints on work and imposing mandatory time-off tend to improve worker productivity as a whole.

In America, we work on average, about 33.5 hours a week but we’re #5 in terms of overall productivity. Compared to France, they take the 7th spot but only work on average around 28.2 hours each week. That’s almost 2 whole weeks of extra personal time that the average worker gets in France over the US average.

Europe as a whole tends to have more labor laws and protection for employees, but in Asia, it’s a whole other story. Specifically, South Korea and Japan tend to have almost doubled the number of people working over 50+ hours per week compared to the US.

Korean children spend as much as 14 hours a day in school, and the culture itself enforces a high standard of output and success. In fact, South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any country and even has a dedicated Suicide Rescue Team.

This is partly where the stereotype comes in that the Asian kids at your school were smart. It’s not that kids in Asian societies have genes that make them inherently smarter, but their society enforces higher standards of learning, discipline, and expectation. This stereotype even applies to Asian kids who were born and raised in the US, and this creates an underlying insecurity that they must be smart in order to meet the expectations of those around them, and in some ways — the cycle repeats itself.

Shoelace Strings

What effect do you think that all this over-abundance of uppers, lack of sleep and work-place stress has on a molecular level? Well, it’s not good.

Think of shoelace strings and the little plastic cap that prevents fraying. That’s sorta like telomeres, which are the caps at the end of our chromosomes (those enzymes that reproduce tissue in our body). Essentially, every X number of years we’re a completely new person as our cells have replicated and our old cells have died out. Stressful events have been known to shorten our telomeres which can in effect, make us age faster. Essentially, aging is that 0.01% copying error that happens with each copy, much like how copying an analog videotape multiple times will render the quality less and less each time.

What this means from a worker productivity stand-point is that most management decisions (at least in a public company) are driven by placing more importance on next-quarters profits over what it might be 5-years from now.

In an effort to make shareholders happy, companies have sacrificed the health and well-being of the individual worker to drive up those profits for the next quarter. In turn, this increases healthcare costs across the board due to stress, chronic fatigue, and burnout, which is a form of depression.

What I’m getting to is that in the long-term this is not only bad for the company or the workers but even the shareholders who stress out all the same.

So what is the answer to all this? Well, let’s talk about Churchill for a moment.

Bombing Raids of WW2

Churchill was a very productive man for his time, let alone his late age in which he was called to duty by his country. He had a very rigid daily routine, getting up at 8 am and then sleeping again for an hour after lunch. This seemed to give him enough energy to continue working till one or two in the morning without feeling fatigued.

During the war, it was purported by those who worked closely with him, that he was literally able to do twice the amount of work that the average person did and for twice the length of the average eight-hour working day.

Churchill's Sleeping quarters in the Bunker.

Churchill despised sleeping in the bunker so much that he often preferred to sleep in his bed at Number 10 Downing Street even during some raids.

Even when Churchill was traveling, he made great lengths to ensure he’d be able to rest, going so far as equipping his warplane with a custom-built pressure chamber with books, brandy and an air circulation system to remove cigar smoke. (Source: Deliberate Rest)

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like trying to get a quality night’s sleep when you are responsible for the entire well-being of your nation-state. In today’s world, it seems like there are a plethora of inventions, drugs, and recommendations on how to sleep better, yet insomnia has slowly been on the rise and isn’t going away anytime soon.

Tim Ferris was the first to coin the term “Monkey Mind”, which he used to describe the common problem of lying in bed and being able to shut off your own brain with the countless stream of thoughts it seems to cling to.

We might never know how many nights Churchill struggled to go to sleep, worrying about the future of his country, but we know from those who knew him that he was an incredibly productive person and the consistent theme throughout his life was how he prioritized his sleep above all else.

What’s just as important as sleep? Rest, with Purpose.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Life is a Journey, not a destination”, but what does that mean when it comes to our work?

It’s easy to default to a mode of only thinking how to maximize productivity, but if we’re only ever grinding away trying to achieve a goal, then it’ll lead to burnout and overall life dissatisfaction. Countless studies have shown that a 20-minute nap is just as restorative as a cup of coffee, yet it's easier to choose the coffee over a nap.

When all we’re seeking to do is get through the arduous labor by downing Adderall, Energy Drinks and pulling all-nighters, it can easily make life miserable to the point you find yourself binge-watching an entire series on Netflix, only to feel terrible while doing so.

We tend to think of rest as watching tv or playing video games, but this is, in fact, the least restorative form of rest. A recent study showed that the restorative effects of watching TV tend to max out at about 20-minutes.

So what does that mean? Finding time to pursue active hobbies, passions, exercise outside of work can often be more restorative to your mental wellbeing than sitting on the couch and doing nothing all weekend. It might seem strange to think that exercising or playing the piano could be more restorative than doing nothing, but our exhausted mental-state has more to do with the chemicals flowing through our body than not having energy all-together.

Exercise releases adrenaline and epinephrine, which are the same chemicals released when we have caffeine. Sure, the caffeine is an easier choice, but over-time the tolerance makes it a futile effort. Simply attempting to pursue an activity such as exercising, learning a new language or even meditating can have much more profound effects than any drug or supplement can provide.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you went on a vacation?

They're something most of us don't take advantage of, and admittedly while they can be exhausting in their own right, they've demonstrated to have profound impacts on our mental health. Psychologists have shown that we tend to reap the benefits of a vacation even weeks or months afterword.

Consider incredibly successful people like Bill Gates and Paul Mitchell. Both take a week-long sabbatical every-year where they step away from all work-related inputs and stressors. Gates himself has commented on how some of his most creative ideas have come from this.

It is neither wealth nor splendour, but tranquillity and occupation, which give happiness. —Thomas Jefferson

Rest + Play + Sleep = Happiness = Ultimate Productivity Hack

In a culture that seems to idolize workaholism, and a society in which companies prioritize short-term gains, not only risk the long-term stability of the company but potentially even the very health and well-being of its shareholders.

I was once so dedicated to my work that I’d say to myself, “I’m not trying to achieve happiness, I’m trying to achieve greatness.”

When I said that to myself, it wasn't from a perspective of grandiose egocentrism, but rather as a way of justifying the long grueling hours I was dedicating myself to my work.

What I failed to consider though is that to work hard, one must be happy. In hindsight, I found it funny how I was externalizing my happiness to what I wanted, yet was unable to achieve happiness for brief moments at a time.

Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.
― Naval Ravikant

You’ve probably never heard of a depressed entrepreneur who ended up creating a multi-million dollar company. Quite the reverse is what typically happens; a happy entrepreneur becomes depressed and burnt out, often on the brink of suicide from neglecting all the other parts of their life that once made them happy in the first place.

What I came to eventually discover was that in order to become an HSP (Highly Successful Person), you must be willing to put your wellbeing before any business, job, or passion. After reading enough non-fiction books, I came to internalize the importance of focusing on myself first and the business second.

In Tim Ferris’s recent book, Tribe of Mentors, he discovered that the large majority of the successful people he interviewed all shared some form of a mindfulness routine. This goes to show an important point, the people with the highest output prioritize time for themselves on a regular basis.

We all know that we need to eat healthier and exercise more often, but until we start to act in a way that aligns with our values and beliefs, we are sacrificing our long-term self over the short-term.

It was only after I started looking at my own habits and realizing that I wasn’t maintaining a proper mind, body, and soul that I started to make the correlation between my string of burnouts, depression, and reclusiveness.-

There is a great book written by Neil Pasricha that attempts to explain the mathematical formula behind how to live a happy life. The Happiness Equation helped shape my own view of happiness and would definitely recommend it wherever you are in your life

In retrospect, the answer was always right in front of me. Deep down inside I knew that I should’ve been reading books instead of playing video games, exercising instead of watching tv, seeking genuine relationships instead of lurking on Reddit.

Most of us already know our struggles, but we so rarely stop to think about them which is the first step towards taking action. It’s ingrained in our DNA to wait until something catastrophic happens before we begin to change. It’s much like how password security is an after-thought until after your email or phone is hacked. Chances are, your levels of motivation to change the password skyrocketed to top-priority once the hack occurred.

Have you ever been hacked, lost your phone, had your social security or password stolen? Chances are, after the incident your motivation to be more secure against a similar threat in the future went way up.

The same can be applied to the person who just received a 6-month diagnosis to live. Theoretically, they’re still the same person, but their shift in perspective and what they value just had a dramatic shift.

The point is, now is the time to take charge of your health, well-being, and happiness. Establish a morning routine to set each day off on the right foot, systematically start to analyze and break your bad habits and replace them with good ones. Set constraints on how long and when you work, so that you can have a more consistent output that gets restored with quality sleep, a weekend free from worry, and the occasional vacation to remind you to appreciate the world in which we live in.

The next time you're stressed, burnt out, depressed and asking yourself where your life is headed, first take time to ask if you’ve established a solid foundation and a healthy way of living. Are you living a balanced life that is true to your values? Are you being kind to yourself and those around you? Are you allowing yourself to view rest and play as equally important as you do your work?

If we all ask ourselves these questions on a regular basis, then maybe we too can live a life like Darwin or Churchill, one that is full of meaning, all-the-while maintaining a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

The best rest for doing one thing is doing another until you fall into a sound sleep. It is the vigorous use of idle time that will broaden your education, make you a more efficient specialist, a happier man, a more useful citizen. It will help you to understand the rest of the world and make you more resourceful.
—Wilder Penfield, “The Use of Idleness”