Leisure is the new productivity

Story highlights

  • In the United States, white-collar workers work longer than peers in most advanced countries
  • Brigid Schulte: We need to recapture our lost leisure; more work doesn't raise productivity
  • She says companies reward workers for how long they sit at their desks, not for what they do

Brigid Schulte is author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has the Time," a fellow at New America and a staff writer at the Washington Post. This is the second in a series, "Big Ideas for a New America," in which the Washington-based think tank New America spotlights experts' solutions to the nation's greatest challenges. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)What if I hadn't worked so hard? What if . . . I had actually used . . . my position to be a role model for balance? Had I done so intentionally, who's to say that, besides having more time with my family, I wouldn't also have been even more focused at work? More creative? More productive? It took inoperable late stage brain cancer to get me to examine things from this angle. --Eugene O'Kelly, former CEO, KPMG

While working on "The Last Supper," Leonardo da Vinci regularly took off from painting for several hours at a time and seemed to be daydreaming aimlessly. Urged by his patron, the prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie, to work more continuously, da Vinci is reported to have replied, immodestly but accurately, "The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less." --Tony Schwartz, "Be Excellent at Anything"
    In his 1932 classic essay, "In Praise of Idleness," Bertrand Russell heralded a coming time when modern technology would bring shorter work hours and time for leisure to be enjoyed equally by everyone.
      Work and leisure both would be "delightful," and the world would be the better for it. "Every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving . . . Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness and dyspepsia."
      Brigid Schulte
      Russell, along with scholars like Josef Pieper, author of "Leisure, the Basis of Culture," thought that it is in moments of leisure that civilization gets created. Both were extraordinarily productive, despite their call for what may today be seen as slacking.