Summertime is a great time to rejuvenate one’s batteries. Maybe even a chance to get away from email for a while. It may be that “quiet time” is needed year round. Quiet time spawns creativity. And creativity can generate innovation, which is in short supply in the world.
A study by McKinsey Global Institute found that emails are a major problem these days. Many workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them. 80% keep working after leaving the office, 69% can’t go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work emails at the dinner table. “Please pass me the salad and my iPhone.”
We all thought the internet would produce a huge productivity miracle. It hasn’t happened- at least not yet. Last year, Professor Robert Gordon of NorthwesternUniversity, in a controversial essay, outlined why he believes that the impact of computers and the internet is much smaller than industrial revolutions from 1750 until 1900, which gave us steam engines, indoor plumbing, electricity, highways, efficient factories, automobiles and air conditioning. Dr. Gordon even suggests that the tremendous economic progress of the last 250 years may have been a “blip” in human history.
The internet has changed industries forever such as retailing, music and publishing. Consumers have benefited from lower prices. It has made it easier for workers to unchain themselves from their office desk. Yet, according to a report by Smithers & Co, the GDP per hour in the U.S. has grown at a rate of only 0.3% per year since 2010, compared to a 1.5% annual rate for the 20 years before then. Productivity tends to fall in recessions, but this has been a recovery.
Professor Robert Shiller (co-founder of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices) authored an excellent article Sunday in the NYT entitled “Why Innovation is Still Capitalism’s Star.” Dr. Shiller said it well, “Capitalism is culture. To sustain it, laws and institutions are important, but the more fundamental role is played by the basic human spirit of independence and initiative; the importance of an entrepreneurial culture.” Dr. Shiller quoted Professor Edmund Phelps, a Nobel laureate, who suggests that in free-market capitalism, “from 10,000 business ideas, 1,000 firms are founded, 100 receive venture capital, 20 go on to raise capital in a initial public offering, and two become market leaders.”
Certainly, there are lots of business gurus who suggest we all can get more work done. We can “Lean In” with Sheryl Sandberg. We can conduct “Business at the Speed of Now” with John Bernard. And, you can “Book Yourself Solid” with Michael Port. Alternatively, we might take Ronald Reagan’s approach to work. As we know, President Reagan believed in not overdoing things: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody,” he said, “but I figure, why take the chance?” Queen Victoria’s prime minister, Lord Melbourne, extolled the virtues of “masterful inactivity.” And Jack Welch, while CEO at GE, spent an hour each day in what he called “looking out the window time.”
The world needs more innovations. Innovations come from creative people. Creative people need big chunks of uninterrupted time to think. Schumpeter in The Economist suggested that “leaning in” may not be the right strategy, but perhaps should be replaced with “leaning back”. Perhaps we all need to not only savor our “quiet time” during summer, but also fight tenaciously to maintain it throughout the year.