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Stephen Hawking’s Productive Laziness

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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.

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