“Welcome to the workin’ week. I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you.”
– Elvis Costello
One of the great luxuries of the 21st century is vacation without e-mail. If I had to choose between a pampered resort with constant internet access or a dowdy motel without any cellphone service, I’d go for the motel every time. There is something truly decadent about turning off e-mail, quitting Twitter, signing off Facebook and going to the beach. The first few hours are a bit bumpy – I hallucinate the ping, ping, ping of my inbox – but I eventually get over the anxiety of my digital disconnectedness. And then I begin to enjoy it.
This blog post is an elaborate rationalization for why such lazy vacations are so useful. While it’s always tempting to sneak a peek at e-mail in between poolside naps, or to drop by the office on Christmas afternoon, that’s a terrible idea. The reason is simple: When we feel distant from our work – when it seems wonderfully far away – we are able to think about work in a new way. As a result, seemingly impossible problems – that challenge we’ve been struggling with for months – are suddenly solvable. We have the breakthrough while on break.
Look, for instance, at a recent experiment (“Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition”) led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University.
He randomly divided a few dozen undergraduates into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that this activity was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that it was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant distinction would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: When students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles and Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world.
In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came from California (2000 miles away), and not from Indiana. Here’s a sample problem:
A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied