Mind & Body

To Boost Your Performance at Work, Do Things Other Than Work

To perform better at work, it seems obvious that you should spend more time at the office doing ... work. Right? Well, not exactly. New research suggests that doing activities seemingly unrelated to your profession — like visiting an art museum or climbing a mountain — can improve your job performance. Cross-training isn't just for athletes.

The Power of Getting Out More

In a recent study, 36 first-year medical students at the University of Pennsylvania were randomly split into two groups. One group was given "art training" — six custom, 90-minute lessons on observation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The lessons encompassed a mix of exercises, which ranged from identifying colors and shapes in paintings to supporting claims about a given work of art. Meanwhile, the second group in the study was given a free museum membership, but no specific training.

Afterward, both groups were tested on their ability to describe various works of art, along with retinal scans and photos of people with various eye diseases. The group that got the art training demonstrated significant improvement in their observational and descriptive skills — they were more successful than the other group at describing every type of image, including the medical ones. In other words, looking carefully at art is not a purely "artsy" skill; it can also help you analyze retinal scans.

This result may seem very specific to eye care, but it has much broader implications, which David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell (yes, that Malcolm Gladwell) delve into in another article in the same journal issue. They argue this study is less about ophthalmology than it is about the power of hobbies — or as they put it, the Temin effect.

The Temin Effect

They named this effect after biologist and Nobel Laureate Howard Temin. His research on the transmission of genetic information disrupted the entire field of biology in a way "disruptive" tech startups can only dream of. Temin wasn't just a biologist, though; he also enjoyed reading about philosophy and literature. Epstein and Gladwell argue that this was far from a distraction from his work. Instead, it informed it, helping him to think outside the box.

It's not just Temin whose off-the-clock interests may have helped him make groundbreaking discoveries. Nobel Prize-winning scientists at large have more hobbies than the Average Joe, Epstein and Gladwell note. The typical scientist, however, has about the same number of hobbies as the typical person.

Hobbies help people make interdisciplinary connections and achieve deeper understanding, according to Epstein and Gladwell. To teach observation, for instance, medical schools often encourage students to look for a specific, memorized list of clinical signs. But in the art world, it's taught in a more open-ended way, better suited to complex and anomalous cases that don't fit an established pattern.

This doesn't just apply to the medical profession. Anyone can find surprising, illuminating connections between their hobbies and their job. Ultimately, Epstein and Gladwell are pushing back on the concept of specialization. Perhaps it makes sense to have tightly-defined roles in some workplaces, but as a person, it's worth looking to the Renaissance man for inspiration. And that doesn't just mean dabbling in different academic subjects — it can also mean playing pick-up basketball, or learning to sail.

In fact, a recent study by the HR platform Namely found that the high-performing employees take the most vacation time. Those with the best marks in performance reviews took five more vacation days a year on average than the lowest performers. This supports the idea that if you want to be good at your work, you need to spend time doing things other than work. So go ahead — put in that PTO request and buy those airline tickets or plan that cross-country road trip. You'll be a better worker when you get back.

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The history of U.S. workers passing up vacation time is longer than you'd expect. Get the full story in "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure" by Juliet Schor. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice August 14, 2018

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