An interview with John Fitch and Max Frenzel

Where did you get the inspiration for the book? 

John’s backstory: John was a workaholic and he eventually ruined his health and a romantic relationship. The constant hustling, late-night hackathons, 80-hour work weeks, and wanting to always be on was his standard. His family, friends, mentors, and girlfriend would often comment that he deserved breaks or should actually enjoy the weekend by unplugging from work. He would brush off their comments and keep working hard for the sake of working hard! They didn’t know the secret he knew: more work equals more success. Boy was he wrong. After a humbling breaking point in his life, he started a new company with a few others who valued rest. Their company had a cultural policy where everyone took mini-sabbaticals after ample deep work and shipping a big project. John was dubious about this, but had a life-altering experience during his first sabbatical. A kind Greek woman passed him wisdom that changed the way he looked at time and leisure. He came to realize the power of having a rest ethic. The quality of his work and life have not been the same since. Going from someone obsessed with always working to being someone who now was a believer in the power of intentional rest, he started to wonder… was his experience an anomaly? Was time off essential for other people too? Were there others that prevented burnout through their own forms of rest ethic? He started a podcast to have conversations with people to find out. After a few episodes and weeks of research, he realized that his company culture was not an anomaly, and there were a lot of people and cultures who also believed that being busy isn’t the only way you accomplish what you want in life. And many don’t see it at all as a way to accomplish anything. Since putting this book together, he has found wisdom in the analogy of juggling. We all juggle many things in our day to day life. We balance work, finances, our health, and relationships. Let’s imagine them all as balls that we juggle. John believes that the work and finance balls are made of rubber, and the health and relationship balls are made of fragile glass. If we mess up and drop the work and finance balls, they can always bounce back. We can start juggling them again. But if we ignore the health and relationships and drop the ball on those parts of our life, they can break and be very difficult to put back together. So he decided to co-author this book for his former workaholic self that said no to too many dinner parties, prioritized an inbox zero instead of enjoying tea with his girlfriend, and was working really hard without getting much done. He hopes that anyone reading the book who is as overworked and overwhelmed as he was, can not only see that they not only deserve time to take a break, reflect, play, and recover, but that what they are working so hard on will also benefit.

Max’s backstory: “Why do I feel so unproductive and uncreative?” It was August 2017 as Max wrote these words in his notebook. He was sitting in a quiet room in an old guesthouse overlooking the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. He was on holiday, a slow trip on local trains through rural Japan. He lived in fast-paced Tokyo and thought it might be nice to get a break for a few days, explore Japan a bit more, and get a fresh perspective. It wasn’t an attempt to escape, He didn’t feel like there was anything he wanted or needed to escape from. He thought everything was great. He loved Tokyo, and also thought he loved his job as AI researcher at a fast growing tech startup! Yet after a few days away from it all, it hit him. Max realized that never since these concepts have had any real meaning to him, had he felt less productive or creative. He also realized that he had never before felt more distracted and unable to focus. He started thinking back to my Ph.D. days.

While doing his Ph.D. in Quantum Information Theory Max rarely felt stressed or busy, but at the same time got a lot of stuff done. He co-founded and ran a startup, worked several hours a week as a private tutor, trained for ultra-marathons, and somehow still found plenty of time to read widely, take naps and meditate daily, work on random creative projects, and hang out with friends. Rarely did he feel stressed or busy. In fact, I rarely spent more than four hours a day actually engaged in work.

After his insight in the mountains that this was no longer his reality, in an attempt to figure out what exactly was wrong and how he could fix it, he started writing articles about the importance of rest and our misguided busyness addiction. John discovered his articles, and invited Max on his podcast, Time Off. From there on John and Max became friends, and one day Max found an email in his inbox asking him if he’d want to write a book together.

How has society’s view of “noble leisure” time changed over the years? 

In Ancient Greece and Rome, leisure was at the center of society. According to Aristotle, we rest for the sake of work, and we work for the sake of leisure. But leisure is defined entirely through itself. It stands at the top of the hierarchy. And it was exactly this leisure-focused life and the time it provided for philosophy, games, literature, family, and sports that allowed culture to blossom. Leisure, as Betrand Russell would later write, was “essential to civilization.” But over time, this appreciation for leisure started to change. As people started collaborating on more complex projects, our perception of time shifted from natural cycles and a task-oriented notion, to timed labor. Time suddenly became a currency that could be traded and had value, and leisure was wasting this value. This became even worse around the turn of the 18th century, when the idea of “time discipline” developed. The middle and upper classes started to worry that the poor wouldn’t know what to do with their leisure, so they invoked religion to give work a divine justification and meaning. The “Protestant Work Ethic” was born. Now leisure wasn’t just wasteful, it was actually a sin. Another century later and the Industrial Revolution takes place. As religion gradually lost its omnipotent grip, the perception of why work was good, or rather the opposite so bad, started to change amongst the elite. Rather than a sin against god, the newly emerging class of industrialists started to equate idleness with another moral vice: theft. They paid for their employees’ time, so they felt like they owned it. Over and over again, the question of work became deeply fused with our morality. Are you productive (good)? Or idle (bad)? Today, we have largely forgotten the religious origins of this morality question, but it’s so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it’s hard to shake off. And this is especially true for knowledge workers, who don’t have eight model T engines to show for their day’s labor. Without any tangible progress indicators or a boss constantly telling us that he owns our time, our internalized sense that time equals value and morality becomes even stronger to compensate. Those who could choose to once again live Aristotle’s idea of noble leisure are often furthest away from it! But we need noble leisure more than ever. Genuinely productive knowledge work is the opposite of busyness and requires taking time off seriously. We wrote this book because we are extremely optimistic that our culture can and should find its way back to noble leisure.

What is the culture of “busyness”? How is it harming us? 

Busyness—essentially productivity without the output—is a bad habit from the start of the industrial era and it still reigns supreme. For entrepreneurs and creatives this is particularly problematic. Like addicts seeking the next quick fix, we are hooked on busyness. Without any tangible progress indicators or a boss constantly reminding us that he owns our time, our internalized sense that time equals value and morality becomes even stronger to compensate. 

In the 2019 edition of their International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The official WHO report states that burnout is characterized by three key components: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” Sound familiar?

Just as a century ago people were overworked beyond healthy sustainable physical capabilities, we are now experiencing something similar with our mental abilities. Where early industrial factory workers were physically drained and exhausted, modern workers in the knowledge factories of the world suffer the same fate on a mental level.

Genuinely productive knowledge work is the opposite of busyness and requires a harder, more thoughtful approach. It requires taking time off seriously. In addition to a solid work ethic, it requires an equally well-established rest ethic. Good knowledge work is, like the work of a craftsman, based on mastery and quality, rather than the sheer quantity of simple and repeatable tasks—which will soon be done by robots and AI anyway.

We need to acknowledge that productivity in creative work is much more multifaceted than the one-dimensional productivity of a manual laborer churning out widgets.

What is “Rest Ethic”? 

Take a deep breath in. You can think of your work ethic as this inhale. Task list—inhale. Project execution—inhale. But you can only inhale for so long before you get very uncomfortable. Eventually we all need to exhale. This exhale is your rest ethic. Even though many of us seem to forget about this, it is just as essential. It allows us to build up our enthusiasm and sustain our passion. Gaining a fresh perspective—exhale. Project ideation and “aha” moments—exhale. Letting big ideas incubate in your mind—exhale. And just as a deep exhale prepares you for a better inhale, your rest ethic enables you to have a better work ethic.

A great rest ethic is not just about working less. It’s about becoming conscious of how you spend your time, recognizing that busyness is often the opposite of productivity, admitting and respecting your need for downtime and detachment, establishing clear boundaries and saying no more often, giving your ideas time and space to incubate, evaluating what success means to you, and ultimately finding and unlocking your deepest creative and human potential.

How does someone unlearn workaholism to prevent burnout? 

The morality of work has been burned deep into our culture and psyche over centuries, and unlearning this is a big task. Rather than making drastic changes, we recommend taking it step by step, and the book is full of actionable advice that people can try to implement in their own life. Entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers encourages us to say “no” more often. The story of Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson teaches us how to use redundancies in our routine and build systems that allow us to disappear for a while. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain recommends a tech shabbat, one day a week on which we try to avoid technology as much as possible. The German writer Hermann Hesse knew how to find joy in the simplest things in life, like a flower, or kids playing in a park, and his story can show us how we can “microdose” on time off. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of project management software Basecamp, help us identify—and fix—bugs in our working culture. Musician Ed “Woody” Allen shows us how we can use a short creative retreat in solitude to get some distance from the daily grind and get our creative juices flowing. 

Those are just a few of the many examples. We strongly believe that everyone has to find their own version of Time Off. Some people may find theirs in solitude, others among friends. Some prefer activity, while others find energy in complete rest. If done right, even work can fall under our definition of time off. We want to present readers with an extensive collection of tools, tactics, and habits that worked for a variety of very successful people, past and present. Using this as inspiration, we encourage our readers to mix and match, try them for themselves, keep what is useful, and ignore the rest.

What constitutes quality time off? 

First, we want to make sure that you don’t just think about “time off” as a vacation. Although vacations are awesome, our book talks about the many macro and micro practices for having more quality time off.

We commonly think of rest as the opposite of work. We either rest, or we are productive. Hear the words “time off,” and you might picture yourself sitting on the couch playing video games or lying on the beach sipping cocktails. But that’s not what time off is about. It is not a call to be lazy, or permission for slacking off. Far from it! Time Off is about the practices that keep us from feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Practices that allow us to live happier, richer, more fulfilled lives. Practices that, somewhat counterintuitively (although we hope that it will seem very obvious after reading the book), allow us to be our most productive and creative selves.

Quality time off is when you are able to detach from your work-work. You are able to disconnect from your main job and instead give your attention to “noble leisure,” an activity which you engage in not just to recover for more work, but because it is actually deeply meaningful to you. And this shouldn’t be thought of as an escapism from work. They are the practices that are so valuable, they rarely have a price tag associated. These practices make life meaningful, beautiful, and interesting. You don’t squeeze in quality time off. You protect it and plan it out as intentionally as you would any of your projects and timelines at work. 

Quality time off is not mere relaxation. It is often active and challenging. It can demand our full attention. It stimulates us and gets us into flow states. It allows us to forget all our other concerns for a while, and be fully present in the moment, without the unspoken anxiety that’s at the heart of boredom. One person’s time off can even look like someone else’s work. Sometimes, all that is required for good time off is a healthy dose of variety.

What are small things people can do every day to recharge? 

Instead of lunch at your desk or a meeting in a conference room, you can go for a walk and discuss or call a loved-one and talk about the little things in life that make you happy. You can talk about hobbies with your coworkers and discuss what value those activities bring to you. If you are having a creative funk and can’t get an idea out, it is OK to press pause and step away because you can’t force creativity. Ideas need time and new environments to properly incubate. You can pick a time where you call it a day and shut off your work-work. Have a wind-down schedule and routine at night that allows you to prepare yourself for bed rather than reading emails as you lay your head down. Starting and ending your day with time off practices outside of work is a great way to ensure you that you show up for work your best self. And developing little time off rituals, like brewing a cup of tea or coffee, or taking 5 minutes to doodle in your notebook, can also be great to sprinkle throughout the day whenever you feel a bit overwhelmed.

Maybe the biggest thing people can do is to actually schedule their time off in the same way as if it was an important work meeting. It will probably take time, but slowly unlearning the guilt associated with this is also important. We hope that with the book we can convince people that they are not harming their productivity with this, but actually allow themselves to become more productive and creative, while at the same time being less overwhelmed and stressed out.

Plus, throughout the book we have several time off pages where we give you creative prompts to help encourage you to put the book down and try them out!

Why is solitude so important? 

Finding our unique and disconnected self has become an increasingly scary and daunting quest for many of us. Rather than relishing and seeking solitude, we equate it with loneliness and are trying to avoid it at any cost. Self-reflection, particularly when we are not used to it and might feel like our life is lacking in meaning due to an underdeveloped leisure life, can be painful and scary. But embarking on this quest is worth the pain. It might unveil some void in our lives that we have tried to ignore, but it will also point us toward filling it

One force that keeps us on the seemingly safe shores of connectivity, far away from confronting our own undisturbed thoughts, is the addictive power of connected technology. And it is not just a connection to others which creates the noise that disturbs our solitude. Solitude can essentially be defined as being free from input. So even when we are physically alone, it doesn’t mean we are experiencing solitude. Most of us are constantly listening to music, playing with a variety of apps, or reading the news. Even the briefest moments of solitude and boredom are banished now and replaced by quick glances at our smartphone. We no longer find any time to just be alone with our own thoughts.

Our work environments have also transitioned to places designed around social and group activities. Teamwork and group projects are more and more highly valued and seen as the gold standard for productivity. We value teamwork and collaboration above all else. But all too often this just wastes a lot of time and attention, leads us to perform visible busyness rather than being productive, and prevents us from actually engaging in undisturbed concentration. Yes, communication is necessary. But the amount of communication and the number of different channels have gotten out of control, and it is completely numbing our ability for deep thought, self-reflection and contemplation, and unhindered idea incubation.

For many, the mention of solitude immediately conjures up the idea of loneliness, isolation, and anti-social behavior. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. If we can not find solitude, we will inevitably find loneliness, no matter how hard we try to drown it out with digital and social noise. Constant online companions and thousands of “friends” or followers don’t fill our inner void. The lack of true and deep connection just amplifies it. The way out of loneliness is to embrace solitude. Solitude actually allows us much more to reflect on our interaction with other people, experience gratitude towards them, and have much more meaningful connections when we do spend time with others.

So to boost your creativity, take a rewarding journey into your own mind, and improve your connection with those around you, consider spending some time in solitude, whether that’s an extended solo trip into nature, or just an evening alone at home with the internet turned off. We’re convinced that the initial discomfort you might experience will eventually give way to a blissful and rewarding experience.

How will AI impact busy work? And will this help us? 

Today, we find ourselves in a culture that all too often wears busyness, stress and overwork as a badge of honor, a sign of accomplishment and pride. Someone who leaves work on time and takes ample breaks during the day can’t possibly be as productive as someone who grinds out long hours of overwork day after day and barely ever leaves their desk, right? The problem is that even though we have largely shifted from manual labor to knowledge work, workers still suffer from the intellectual equivalent of factory work mentality and the remnants of the protestant work ethic, confusing hard work with morality.

But busywork, the kind of work that genuinely justifies long hours and sacrificing time off, is also the least valuable kind of work. And this value is further diminishing all the time. Rapidly. These are exactly the kind of tasks that are ripe for disruption, and ultimately replacement, by AI and other productivity and automation tools. Their days are almost numbered.

Yes, AI will disrupt the job landscape, but the kind of jobs that will remain, as well as newly created, will be centered around human skills such as creativity and empathy. And these skills are highly non-linear with respect to time. More time in does absolutely not correspond to a better or higher output. In fact, it is very easy to put in too much time, to ignore the balancing and nourishing effects of rest, the idea incubation power of high quality leisure, and as a result to diminish one’s output. In the future of work, time off will not be something that is considered a “nice to have” or an enticing benefit that a generous employer provides to attract and retain talent. Instead, the deliberate practice of time off will be one of the key skills and competitive advantages that will allow us to be more productive, creative, and ultimately human.

Anything else you would like to add? 

One interesting fact about the book is that as of today, John and Max have never met in real life. Our friendship and collaboration has so far been completely virtual, and the entire book was created through remote collaboration, with John based in Austin, Texas, and Max in Tokyo, Japan. Similarly the rest of the team is based all over the world: our illustrator also in Tokyo, our editor in Colorado, and our designer and copyeditor both in the UK. 

We found that this kind of global remote collaboration can work remarkably well, if it is planned and approached in the correct way. We are happy to share our insights into how to make this work, and encourage others to try similar approaches, and not be put off by geographic boundaries or long distances.

Find out more about the book at: https://www.timeoffbook.com/

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