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Stephen Hawking’s Productive Laziness

Hawking’s Fixed Schedule Productivity

In the 1980s, at the height of his intellectual productivity, Stephen Hawking used to head home from his office between five and six. He rarely worked later.

Here’s how he explained his behavior to his PhD student Bruce Allen (now a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics):

“Bruce, here’s some advice: The problem with physics is that most of the days we don’t make any major headway (on our projects). That’s why you should do other stuff: listen to music, meet good friends. There’s one exception to this rule: If you find a solution for a given problem, you work 24 hours a day and forget everything else. Until the problem is solved in its entirety.”

I’ve seen this behavior before from other elite level creatives. For them, deep, audacious results are the only currency that matters. The idea of being busy for the sake of being busy in between those big swings seems superfluous.

To be sure, they constantly seek inspiration in reading and daydreams and conversation with other elite producers, but this is a pleasurable background hum that precedes the cacophony instigated by the eventual epiphany.

(For a great study in the reality of “24 hours a day and forget everything else” technical work at the highest level, I recommend Birth of a Theorem.)

Most of us are not Stephen Hawking and never will be. I wonder, however, if there’s not a more general lesson lurking for anyone who wants to produce valuable things: go big when the work demands it, but outside those situations leave plenty of time for music and good friends.

(Photo by Bryan Alexander. The above quote was translated to English from a German newspaper article. Hat tip: David.)

28 thoughts on “Stephen Hawking’s Productive Laziness”

  1. I wish I could forward this to my PI who seems to be into the idea of work for the sake of keeping busy. I like to work as hard as I can while I’m there and then go home at the end of the work day before my brain completely fries itself. He sees this as a sign of laziness and a lack of motivation.

  2. Interesting article. It reminds me of how tricky conventional wisdom can be. Sometimes conventional wisdom that sounds good can actually push us in the wrong direction.

    There is this conventional wisdom that says we should not give up even when we don’t get results.
    Some people then interpret this as regardless of whether results show or not I should still aim to put in the same amount of hours each day. And they feel very good about it, they call it good self-discipline.

    Stephen Hawking’s idea seem almost to be results-oriented, which the common man may abhor. The idea that if I can see the reward coming I do more and if I cannot see any reward in the near future, I do less. (And allow myself to do other things like meeting friends and enjoying music).

    This irony feels familiar. Seems like what Adam Grant described in his book Give and Take. The idea that some givers are at the bottom. But then again, the people at the top are also the givers.

    In this case, people at the bottom are also results-oriented. (I am thinking of people who are addicted to substance abuse or instant gratification.) These people only do something if it feels good for them. If it does not feel good they do not do it. This “feeling good” is like the results. But of course we know that this group of people usually don’t perform well professionally.

    Then in the middle are the people who press on despite results not showing. They press on, sometimes for days, months and years. Despite little improvement.

    Then there are the elite ones. They are turn out to be results-oriented once again. But in a wise way.
    Conventional wisdom really falls short if it is not given a context.

  3. Very true.
    Often when I’m trying to learn a new area, I will take these steps:
    1. Learn the basics thoroughly. This will often involve finding the best standard textbook(s) and working through them in fine detail, taking hand-written notes. Very much using the ideas in Cal’s study books.
    2. Get close to thought-leaders in the field. Once the basics are mastered, follow very closely the current ‘masters’ of the knowledge domain to glean the knowledge that isn’t in the textbooks and find out what they see as the big problems to be solved and which resonate with my own interests. It’s also where we formulate the tests that will verify whether a ‘big problem’ has been solved.
    3. Let problems ruminate in your subconscious – this is where the advice to go and engage in creative pursuits given above is perfect, as is engaging with other ‘elite producers’ in the field. Continue to engage with the thought leaders (which is where digital technologies such as blogs, webinars etc come into their own) but make time for creative thoughts to bubble up.
    4. When inspiration strikes, work full-on to make progress. I find there is often a cycle between intense work on the problem and then going back to ‘productive laziness’ until more creative flow occurs for the same problem, particularly when we meet potentially blocking issues. Conversations with other elite producers are part of the feedback and evaluation mechanism.

  4. This is good advice for advanced academic work.

    For some other types of work, like building a truly big piece of software, thinking in terms of just putting in the hours can be actually useful. In the latter case there are lots of mundane bits to take care of during those uninspired hours. The piddly details are actually important.

    The upside of working on the clock — which I hate doing, BTW — is that it keeps one going when the goals are still far out of reach.

  5. “To be sure, they constantly seek inspiration in reading and daydreams and conversation with other elite producers, but this is a pleasurable background hum that precedes the cacophony instigated by the eventual epiphany.”

    I actually think the “cacophony” is the least important part. Once you have the epiphany, fleshing it out is difficult but fairly mechanical.

    In my view and experience, inputs matter. I think the “pleasurable background hum” is more important. He would not have epiphanies without it.

    Feynman took the idea of inputs to the extreme. See his adventures. And see how dabbled in different things: biology, computer science, figuring out how ants decide how to walk around his tub, and so on.

    I think Einstein was able to come up with his theory of relativity due to having to process new inputs everyday at his desk. He received inspiration from a variety of perspectives. Once he became a recluse — became seduced by the idea that he himself was the source of his genius — he became unable to produce anything of a similar magnitude.

    • I’ve discovered that, when this background hum is not so pleasant, the effect is even stronger. It is better when the background hum is also challenging.

      See Richard Feynman learning Portuguese, drawing, and the bongos. Not so easy.

      Many people think von Neumann was a genius so he could be a polymath. I think the causality is in the other direction. He challenged himself in many different ways, which made him a genius overall.

      I wouldn’t say I’m particularly noteworthy, but I have observed this in myself. The insights I make into my various endeavors flow into each other… and I find that it prevents me from thinking narrowly.

    • No offence, but “I actually think the “cacophony” is the least important part. Once you have the epiphany, fleshing it out is difficult but fairly mechanical.”. Actually this is the problem when we speak with such complicated vocabulary like cacophony and epiphany. Sometimes misunderstandings occur. (But still there is a place for complicated vocabulary in this world because sometimes we don’t want to be too direct.)

      My understanding of how Cal uses cacophony and epiphany is this. Sometimes you get to a point in your research where you can FEEL that something big is about to be discovered. But the problem is that you can see it with your eyes yet. This leads to a somewhat unpleasant sensation of being so near yet so far. This is my understanding of his use of “cacophony”. By the way “cacophony” can literally be defined as an unpleasant distortion of sounds.
      And I understand “epiphany” as the moment when you finally make that discovery that you feel has been coming.

      Darwin, you seem to be implying that you can have the epiphany before the cacophony? From how I understand it, that is not possible. It is like saying you can reach your destination before knowing where to go. So perhaps you interpreted Cal’s words differently?

  6. The machine analogy to the human body does a disservice in making us think there is no reason why we should not be “full-on” all the time — like a machine. There are clearly so many other things going on in the mind alone, that mean we can only expect to be at our best in bursts.

  7. This makes sense. I seem to recall on of the critical moments in breaking Germany’s Enigma code came when someone was taking a long, hot bath. Just be sure to copy that idea down quickly. Sometimes those brilliant inspirations can disappear as fast as they come.

    When questioned, talented writers often say something similar. They began writing in the early morning and quit when they start to fade in the afternoon.

  8. This is very interesting analysis. There are a few instances of such actions that I have experienced and they are all connected to two factors
    1. How much I love to do something
    2. How good I am at it
    Notice that I did not include end result in the mix there. For me the result of such work is work itself and that it gives meaning to the time I have spend while working. For some lucky people the end result also adds material value, but that is only a bonus, not a requirement.

  9. Reminds me of what Andrew Wiles said in an interview, possibly after receiving the Abel Prize: “Once I’m stuck on a problem I just can’t think about anything else. It’s more difficult. So I just take a little time off and then come back to it.”

    And how does he take “time off”?

    “I like to go and visit aesthetically beautiful places near Oxford.”

  10. Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about barbell strategies like this, alternating between two extremes to produce better results than constantly operating at an average pace. He applies it to several domains like exercise (push body to max then rest), reading (read the classics and fun stuff, don’t read average books) and his own writing (he pairs accessible essays with complex technical papers). Nice to see another interesting application of barbell strategies!

  11. In a nut shell from my 3rd grade teacher
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but all play and no work makes Jack a stupid boy.

  12. Though is seems logical to spend hours upon hours working on task in order to complete it, you seem to get more ideas when you give yourself a break for a period of time. Having this balance and knowing when you can be “productively lazy” can be a huge benefit to the effectiveness of your work. I had the opportunity to speak with a man that was CEO of a large international corporation and he said that almost every business man he knew that was President of their company, made time everyday for family and personal fitness. He attributed a lot of his personal success to the balance he had between the time he spent away from his office and time he spent at the office. Newport closed by saying this, “go big when the work demands it, but outside those situations leave plenty of time for music and good friends.” I think being able to find a balance between all the things that are valuable and important to a person is the key to having success.


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