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Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too

Many famous scientists have something in common—they didn’t work long hours.

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When you examine the lives of history’s most creative figures, you are immediately confronted with a paradox: They organize their lives around their work, but not their days.

Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.

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How did they manage to be so accomplished? Can a generation raised to believe that 80-hour workweeks are necessary for success learn something from the lives of the people who laid the foundations of chaos theory and topology or wrote Great Expectations?

I think we can. If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they labored but how they rested, and how the two relate.

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The National Archives and Records Administration

Let’s start by looking at the lives of two figures. They were both very accomplished in their fields. Conveniently, they were next-door neighbors and friends who lived in the village of Downe, southeast of London. And, in different ways, their lives offer an entrée into the question of how labor, rest, and creativity connect.

First, imagine a silent, cloaked figure walking home on a dirt path winding through the countryside. On some mornings he walks with his head down, apparently lost in thought. On others he walks slowly and stops to listen to the woods around him, a habit “which he practiced in the tropical forests of Brazil” during his service as a naturalist in the Royal Navy, collecting animals, studying the geography and geology of South America, and laying the foundations for a career that would reach its peak with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Now, Charles Darwin is older and has turned from collecting to theorizing. Darwin’s ability to move silently reflects his own concentration and need for quiet. Indeed, his son Francis said, Darwin could move so stealthily he once came upon “a vixen playing with her cubs at only a few feet distance” and often greeted foxes coming home from their nocturnal hunts.

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Had those same foxes crossed paths with Darwin’s next-door neighbor, the baronet John Lubbock, they would have run for their lives. Lubbock liked to start the day with a ride through the country with his hunting dogs. If Darwin was a bit like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, a respectable gentleman of moderate means who was polite and conscientious but preferred the company of family and books, Lubbock was more like Mr. Bingley, extroverted and enthusiastic, and wealthy enough to move easily in society and life. As he aged, Darwin was plagued by various ailments; even in his 60s, Lubbock still had “the lounging grace of manner which is peculiar to the Sixth-Form Eton boy,” according to one visitor. But the neighbors shared a love of science, even though their working lives were as different as their personalities.

Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier.

After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.) When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner. On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects; the controversial Descent of Man; and The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves.

Anyone who reviews his schedule cannot help but notice the creator’s paradox. Darwin’s life revolved around science. Since his undergraduate days, Darwin had devoted himself to scientific collecting, exploration, and eventually theorizing. He and Emma moved to the country from London to have more space to raise a family and to have more space—in more than one sense of the word—for science. Down House gave him space for laboratories and greenhouses, and the countryside gave him the peace and quiet necessary to work. But at the same time, his days don’t seem very busy to us. The times we would classify as “work” consist of three 90-minute periods. If he had been a professor in a university today, he would have been denied tenure. If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week.

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It’s not that Darwin was careless about his time or lacked ambition. Darwin was intensely time-conscious and, despite being a gentleman of means, felt that he had none to waste. While sailing around the world on the HMS Beagle, he wrote to his sister Susan Elizabeth that “a man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” When he was deciding whether or not to marry, one of his concerns was that “loss of time—cannot read in the evenings,” and in his journals he kept an account of the time he lost to chronic illness. His “pure love” of science was “much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists,” he confessed in his autobiography. He was passionate and driven, so much so that he was given to anxiety attacks over his ideas and their implications.

John Lubbock is far less well-known than Darwin, but at the time of his death in 1913 he was “one of the most accomplished of England’s amateur men of science, one of the most prolific and successful authors of his time, one of the most earnest of social reformers, and one of the most successful lawmakers in the recent history of Parliament.” Lubbock’s scientific interests ranged across paleontology, animal psychology, and entomology—he invented the ant farm—but his most enduring work was in archaeology. His writings popularized the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, which archaeologists still use today. His purchase of Avebury, an ancient settlement southwest of London, saved its stone monuments from destruction by developers. Today, it rivals Stonehenge in popularity and archaeological importance, and its preservation earned him the title Baron Avebury in 1900.

Lubbock’s accomplishments were not just in science. He inherited his father’s prosperous bank and turned it into a power in late Victorian finance. He helped modernize the British banking system. He spent decades in Parliament, where he was a successful and well-regarded legislator. His biography lists 29 books, a number of them best sellers that were translated into many foreign languages. Lubbock’s output was prodigious, notable even to his high-achieving contemporaries. “How you find time” for science, writing, politics, and business “is a mystery to me,” Charles Darwin told him in 1881.

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Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five.

It might be tempting to imagine Lubbock as a modern equivalent of today’s hard-charging alpha male, a kind of steampunk Tony Stark. Yet here’s a twist: His fame as a politician rested on an advocacy of rest. Britain’s bank holidays—four national holidays for everyone—were his invention, and they sealed his popular reputation when they went into effect in 1871. So beloved were they, and so closely associated with him, the popular press christened them “St. Lubbock’s Days.” He spent decades championing the Early Closing Bill, which limited working hours for people under 18 to 74 hours (!) per week; when the legislation finally passed in April 1903, 30 years after he first took up the cause, it was referred to as “Avebury’s Bill.”

And Lubbock practiced what he preached. It could be hard to manage his time when Parliament was in session, as debates and votes could extend well after midnight, but at High Elms he was up at 6:30, and after prayers, a ride, and breakfast, he started work at 8:30. He divided his day into half-hour blocks, a habit he’d learned from his father. After long years of practice, he was able to switch his attention from “some intricate point of finance” with his partners or clients to “such a problem in biology as parthenogenesis” without skipping a beat. In the afternoons he would spend a couple more hours outdoors. He was an enthusiastic cricketer, “a fast, left under-hand bowler” who regularly brought professional players to High Elms to coach him. His younger brothers played football; two of them played in the very first FA Cup finals in 1872. He was also fond of fives, a handball-like sport that he mastered at Eton. Later in life, when he took up golf, Lubbock replaced the cricket pitch at High Elms with a nine-hole course.

So despite their differences in personality and the different quality of their achievements, both Darwin and Lubbock managed something that seems increasingly alien today. Their lives were full and memorable, their work was prodigious, and yet their days are also filled with downtime.

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This looks like a contradiction, or a balance that’s beyond the reach of most of us. It’s not. As we will see, Darwin and Lubbock, and many other creative and productive figures, weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it. And even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier.

Restful Development: According to a famous study, the best violin students were not the ones who practiced the most, but the ones who knew when to stop.Andy Cross / Getty Images

Darwin is not the only famous scientist who combined a lifelong dedication to science with apparently short working hours. We can see similar patterns in many others’ careers, and it’s worth starting with the lives of scientists for several reasons. Science is a competitive, all-consuming enterprise. Scientists’ accomplishments—the number of articles and books they write, the awards they win, the rate at which their works are cited—are well-documented and easy to measure and compare. As a result, their legacies are often easier to determine than those of business leaders or famous figures. At the same time, scientific disciplines are quite different from each other, which gives us a useful variety in working habits and personalities. Additionally, most scientists have not been subjected to the kind of intense myth making that surrounds, and alternately magnifies and obscures, business leaders and politicians.

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Finally, a number of scientists were themselves interested in the ways work and rest affect thinking and contribute to inspiration. One example is Henri Poincaré, the French mathematician whose public eminence and accomplishments placed him on a level similar to Darwin. Poincaré’s 30 books and 500 papers spanned number theory, topology, astronomy and celestial mechanics, theoretical and applied physics, and philosophy; the American mathematician Eric Temple Bell described him as “the last universalist.” He was involved in efforts to standardize time zones, supervised railway development in northern France (he was educated as a mining engineer), served as inspector general of the Corps des Mines, and was a professor at the Sorbonne.

Poincaré wasn’t just famous among his fellow scientists: In 1895 he was, along with the novelist Émile Zola, sculptors Auguste Rodin and Jules Dalou, and composer Camille Saint-Saëns, the subject of a study by French psychiatrist Édouard Toulouse on the psychology of genius. Toulouse noted that Poincaré kept very regular hours. He did his hardest thinking between 10 a.m. and noon, and again between 5 and 7 in the afternoon. The 19th century’s most towering mathematical genius worked just enough to get his mind around a problem—about four hours a day.

The 60-plus-hour-a-week researchers were the least productive of all.

We see the same pattern among other noted mathematicians. G.H. Hardy, one of Britain’s leading mathematicians in the first half of the 20th century, would start his day with a leisurely breakfast and close reading of the cricket scores, then from 9 to 1 would be immersed in mathematics. After lunch he would be out again, walking and playing tennis. “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” he told his friend and fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow. Hardy’s longtime collaborator John Edensor Littlewood believed that the “close concentration” required to do serious work meant that a mathematician could work “four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps).” Littlewood was famous for always taking Sundays off, claiming that it guaranteed he would have new ideas when he returned to work on Monday.

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A survey of scientists’ working lives conducted in the early 1950s yielded results in a similar range. Illinois Institute of Technology psychology professors Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues about their work habits and schedules, then graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced. You might expect that the result would be a straight line showing that the more hours scientists worked, the more articles they published. But it wasn’t. The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.

From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly. Researchers who buckled down and spent 50 hours per week in the lab were able to pull themselves out of the 35-hour valley: They became as productive as colleagues who spent five hours a week in the lab. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this 50-hour bump was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment,” and that most of those 10-hour days were spent tending machines and occasionally taking measurements.

After that, it was all downhill: The 60-plus-hour-a-week researchers were the least productive of all.

Van Zelst and Kerr also asked faculty how many “hours per typical work day do you devote to homework which contributes to the efficient performance of your job” and graphed those results against productivity as well. This time, they didn’t see an M but rather a single curve peaking around three to three and a half hours a day. Unfortunately, they don’t say anything about total hours spent working at the office and home; they only allude to “the probability that” the most productive researchers “do much of their creative work at home or elsewhere,” rather than on campus. If you assume that the most productive office and home workers in this study are the same, this cohort is working between 25 and 38 hours a week. In a six-day week, that works out to an average of four to six hours a day.

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You see a similar convergence of four- to five-hour-long working days in the lives of writers. The German writer and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann had settled into a daily work schedule by 1910, when he was 35 and had published the acclaimed novel Buddenbrooks. Mann started the day at 9, shutting himself in his office with strict instructions not to be disturbed and working first on novels. After lunch, the “afternoons are for reading, for my much too mountainous correspondence and for walks,” he said. After an hour-long nap and afternoon tea, he would spend another hour or two working on easy short pieces and editing.

Anthony Trollope, the great 19th-century English novelist, likewise kept a strict writing schedule. In an account of his life at Waltham House, where he lived from 1859 to 1871, he described his mature working style. At 5 o’clock in the morning, a servant arrived with coffee. He first read over the previous day’s work, then at 5:30 set his watch on his desk and started writing. He wrote 1,000 words an hour, an average of 40 finished pages a week, until it was time to leave for his day job at the post office at 8 o’clock. Working this way, he published 47 novels before his death in 1882 at the age of 67, though he gave little indication that he regarded this as remarkable, perhaps because his mother, who started writing in her 50s to support her family, published more than 100 books. He wrote, “All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary laborers—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”

Trollope’s steady working hours were matched by his contemporary Charles Dickens. After an early life burning the midnight oil, Dickens settled into a schedule as “methodical or orderly” as a “city clerk,” his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day.

While this kind of discipline might seem to be an expression of Victorian strictness, many prolific 20th-century authors worked this way, too. Like Trollope, Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz worked as a civil servant, and he mainly wrote fiction in the late afternoon, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Canadian writer Alice Munro, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Australian novelist Peter Carey said, “I think three hours is fine” for a day’s work; such a schedule allowed him to write 13 novels, including two Booker Prize winners. W. Somerset Maugham worked “only four hours” a day, until 1 p.m.—“but never less,” he added. Gabriel García Márquez wrote each day for five hours. Ernest Hemingway would start work about 6 in the morning and finish before noon. Unless deadlines were looming, Saul Bellow would retreat to his study after breakfast, write until lunch, and then review his day’s work. Irish novelist Edna O’Brien would work in the morning, “stop around one or two and spend the rest of the afternoon attending to mundane things.” Stephen King describes four to six hours of reading and writing as a “strenuous” day.

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Karl Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer saw a similar pattern in a study of violin students at a conservatory in Berlin in the 1980s. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer were interested in what sets outstanding students apart from merely good ones. After interviewing music students and their teachers and having students keep track of their time, they found that several things separated the best students from the rest.

First, the great students didn’t just practice more than the average, they practiced more deliberately. During deliberate practice, Ericsson explained, you’re “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.” You’re not just doing reps, lobbing balls, or playing scales. Deliberate practice is focused, structured, and offers clear goals and feedback; it requires paying attention to what you’re doing and observing how you can improve. Students can engage in deliberate practice when they have a clear route to greatness, defined by a shared understanding of what separates brilliant work from good work, or winners from losers. Endeavors where one can have the fastest time, the highest score, or the most elegant solution are ones that allow for deliberate practice.

Second, you need a reason to keep at it, day after day. Deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not immediately profitable. It means being in the pool before sunrise, working on your swing or stride when you could be hanging out with friends, practicing fingering or breathing in a windowless room, spending hours perfecting details that only a few other people will ever notice. There’s little that’s inherently or immediately pleasurable in deliberate practice, so you need a strong sense that these long hours will pay off, and that you’re not just improving your career prospects but also crafting a professional and personal identity. You don’t just do it for the fat stacks. You do it because it reinforces your sense of who you are and who you will become.

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The idea of deliberate practice and Ericsson et al.’s measurements of the total amount of time world-class performers spend practicing have received a lot of attention. The study is a foundation for Malcolm Gladwell’s argument (laid out most fully in his book Outliers) that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to become world-class in anything, and that everyone from chess legend Bobby Fischer to Microsoft founder Bill Gates to the Beatles put in their 10,000 hours before anyone heard of them. For coaches, music teachers, and ambitious parents, the number promises a golden road to the NFL or Juilliard or MIT: Just start them young, keep them busy, and don’t let them give up. In a culture that treats stress and overwork as virtues rather than vices, 10,000 hours is an impressively big number.

But there was something else that Ericsson and his colleagues noted in their study, something that almost everyone has subsequently overlooked. “Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

The best students generally followed a pattern of practicing hardest and longest in the morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then having a second practice.

How do students marked for greatness make the most of limited practice time? The rhythm of their practice follows a distinctive pattern. They put in more hours per week in the practice room or playing field, but they don’t do it by making each practice longer. Instead, they have more frequent, shorter sessions, each lasting about 80 to 90 minutes, with half-hour breaks in between.

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Add these several practices up, and what do you get? About four hours a day. About the same amount of time Darwin spent every day doing his hardest work, Hardy and Littlewood spent doing math, Dickens and King spent writing. Even ambitious young students in one of the world’s best schools, preparing for a notoriously competitive field, could handle only four hours of really focused, serious effort per day.

This upper limit, Ericsson concluded, is defined “not by available time, but by available [mental and physical] resources for effortful practice.” The students weren’t just practicing four hours and calling it a day; lectures, rehearsals, homework, and other things kept them busy the rest of the day. In interviews, the students said “it was primarily their ability to sustain the concentration necessary for deliberate practice that limited their hours of practice.” This is why it takes a decade to get Gladwell’s 10,000 hours: if you can only sustain that level of concentrated practice for four hours a day, that works out to 20 hours a week (assuming weekends off), or 1,000 hours a year (assuming a two-week vacation).

It’s not just the lives of musicians that illustrate the importance of deliberate practice. Ray Bradbury began writing seriously in 1932 and wrote 1,000 words a day. “For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week,” he recalled, but they never quite came together. Finally, in 1942, he wrote “The Lake.” Years later he still remembered the moment.

“Ten years of doing everything wrong suddenly became the right idea, the right scene, the right characters, the right day, the right creative time. I wrote the story sitting outside, with my typewriter, on the lawn. At the end of an hour the story was finished, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I was in tears. I knew I had written the first really good story of my life.”

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Ericsson and his colleagues observed another thing, in addition to practicing more, that separated the great students at the Berlin Conservatory from the good, something that has almost been completely ignored since: how they rested.

The top performers actually slept about an hour a day more than the average performers. They didn’t sleep late. They got more sleep because they napped during the day. Of course there was lots of variability, but the best students generally followed a pattern of practicing hardest and longest in the morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then having a second practice in the late afternoon or evening.

The researchers also asked students to estimate the amount of time they spent practicing, studying, and so on, and then had them keep a diary for a week. When they compared results from interviews and diaries, they noticed a curious anomaly in the data.

The merely good violinists tended to underestimate the amount of time they spent in leisure activities: they guessed they spent about 15 hours a week, when in reality they spent almost twice that. The best violinists, in contrast, could “estimate quite accurately the time they allocated to leisure,” about 25 hours. The best performers devoted more energy to organizing their time, thinking about how they would spend their time, and assessing what they did.

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In other words, the top students were applying some of the habits of deliberate practice—mindfulness, an ability to observe their own performance, a sense that their time was valuable and needed to be spent wisely—to their downtime. They were discovering the immense value of deliberate rest. They figured out early that rest is important, that some of our most creative work happens when we take the kinds of breaks that allow our unconscious minds to keep plugging away, and that we can learn how to rest better. In the conservatory, deliberate rest is the partner of deliberate practice. It is in the studio and laboratory and publishing house, too. As Dickens and Poincaré and Darwin discovered, each is necessary. Each is half of a creative life. Together they form a whole.

The U.S. National Archives

For all the attention the Berlin conservatory study has received, this part of the top students’ experiences—their sleep patterns, their attention to leisure, their cultivation of deliberate rest as a necessary complement of demanding, deliberate practice—goes unmentioned. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on the number of hours exceptional performers practice and says nothing about the fact that those students also slept an hour more, on average, than their less-accomplished peers, or that they took naps and long breaks.

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This is not to say that Gladwell misread Ericsson’s study; he just glossed over that part. And he has lots of company. Everybody speed-reads through the discussion of sleep and leisure and argues about the 10,000 hours.

This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD. Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance, and improve your life.

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the founder of the Restful Company and a visiting scholar at Stanford. His writing has appeared in such publications as Scientific American, the Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and American Scholar. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

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Excerpted from REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLS, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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