Leisure Is Our Killer App

The capacity to let our minds wander can give humans a surprising edge against advancing technologies in the battle for jobs.

Depending on which forecasts you believe, we should be either moderately concerned or extremely concerned about robots taking our jobs in the near future. From truck drivers to lawyers to those designing the robots themselves, nobody is safe from being replaced by software, algorithms, and machines. Now that we are face-to-face (or face-to-screen) with that threat, an entire cottage industry has emerged around dispensing advice on how to prepare for it. Much of this advice centers on mastering skills that robots ostensibly cannot.

What skills are needed to avoid being automated out of a job? One article suggests the answer is all of them: “The more skills, knowledge, and experience you have, the less likely you are to be replaced or automated, so acquire whatever you can, as fast as you can.” But this “more is more” approach isn’t sustainable, especially given the rapidly changing nature of work and the imperative to keep learning and adapting.

When recommending specific areas for development, management and technology experts tend to focus on two broad classes of skills that distinguish people from machines — what I’ll refer to as sociability and variability. But homing in on those areas can still lead to burnout, leaving us even more vulnerable to obsolescence.

It’s Exhausting to Be Human

Akin to social and emotional intelligence, sociability involves understanding others’ emotions and seeing situations from alternative points of view, or what social psychologists call perspective-taking. It’s a skill set that enables empathic collaboration with colleagues and customers, and many organizations are making it a priority for employee development. The retail pharmacy chain Walgreens, for example, launched an initiative for its pharmacists and beauty consultants to undergo empathy training to help cancer patients find products to manage treatment side effects such as hair loss, dry skin, and fatigue.

The push for employees to master sociability — increasingly common now that empathy has become a corporate buzzword — may partly be a response to the rise of automation. In research I conducted with Harvard Business School marketing professor Michael Norton, we found that people are particularly averse to robots taking jobs that require social and emotional skills (think social worker), but they are more comfortable with robots taking jobs that require analytical skills (think data analyst). Though the respondents were speaking for themselves, not for their employers, organizations seem inclined to divvy up work along similar lines.

Variability, the second skill set experts urge us to develop in the automation age, is our capacity for managing change and variety at work. Robots are extremely good at doing the same thing over and over, and so, we logically assume, humans should be more dynamic. What does variability look like in practice? It largely involves three things: detecting outliers, multitasking, and learning. Detecting outliers means responding to information that is rare or unexpected. People tend to do this more effectively than machines. Recently, for example, automaker Tesla attempted to fully automate its assembly line but discovered its robots could not manage “unexpected orientations of objects,” which then required the attention of human workers. Multitasking and learning, the other two manifestations of variability, are workplace skills we’ve been talking about for some time. In the current era, however, they’ve taken on greater urgency as pressure builds for employees to work faster and stay relevant.

Despite evidence that work involving sociability and variability can feel meaningful and motivating, applying these skills nonstop is exhausting. Jobs that require high levels of sustained sociability — for instance, nursing and customer service — are some of the most susceptible to burnout and what psychologists call compassion fatigue, which can impair job performance and increase turnover. Jobs that require a great deal of variability — those for which people must continually shift between roles or tasks, develop new skills, or keep many things cooking at once — can be similarly draining, with negative consequences for job performance and turnover.

Leisure as a Solution

Because sociability and variability, the qualities that set us apart from machines, are so taxing, leisure has become increasingly necessary for workers who fear being replaced by automation.

Those who feel threatened should relax? Yes, that’s my argument, not because people are worry-free, but because worrying tends to make matters worse and leisure could actually give them an edge.

Some organizations are recognizing the importance of leisure for preventing burnout generally — forcing employees to take more vacation, giving them dedicated free time at work, turning off work email after hours, and my personal favorite, implementing an on-holiday autoreply to email, as Daimler has done. To encourage employees to take real time off, the German automaker allows them to select an email setting that automatically deletes messages sent to them during vacation, lets senders know that the recipient will never see the messages, and encourages senders to email again after a specified date or to contact someone else. Programs like this one typically intend to reverse or prevent the negative effects of an always-on work culture. The 24-7 workplace simply keeps us plugged into our work, whereas the push toward sociability and variability makes that work more demanding. Leisure can mitigate the depleting effects from both sources.

The Benefits of a Wandering Mind

Beyond reducing employee burnout, however, leisure serves an additional function in the age of automation. Leisure itself is an activity that robots cannot perform, and it might actually make us better thinkers and workers.

When I visited the San Francisco Bay Area to interview people in the technology industry for my research on the psychological consequences of automation, I asked everyone I met the same question: “What is something a human can do that a robot cannot?” Henry Wang, a former venture capitalist associate who worked on investments in companies involved in artificial intelligence, gave my favorite answer: “A robot’s mind cannot wander.” Of course, this is supposed to be the advantage of robots, because it allows them to always stay on task. But this also means they cannot experience any of the benefits of mind-wandering, a state that occurs when we are at leisure.

Several lines of research suggest that mind-wandering is associated with specific cognitive benefits. One study showed that adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, whose minds are prone to wandering off task perform better than non-ADHD adults in real-world creative pursuits such as the visual arts and score higher on a laboratory test of creative original thinking. In other research, participants who twice took a simple creativity test (for instance, “How many unusual uses can you generate for a paper clip?”) performed better the second time around if given a nondemanding activity such as a simple memory task to spur mind-wandering before retaking the test. They came up with ideas that were more unique.

What explains these findings? Recent studies led by Dartmouth psychologist Meghan Meyer (and coauthored by me) suggest one possible answer. We found that people who are highly successful in real-world creative pursuits and laboratory creative tasks are better at thinking beyond the here and now and show increased neural activity in brain regions involved in this type of thinking. In other words, highly creative people think more deeply about different points in time (the past and present), different places, and alternative realities. What does that have to do with the cognitive benefits of leisure? By encouraging our minds to wander, leisure activities pull us out of our present reality, which in turn can improve our ability to generate novel ideas or ways of thinking.

Again, this is something robots don’t experience. You can turn a machine off and on to reboot it, but this simply simulates sleep. Leisure is more than that. When we let our minds drift away from work, we return to our tasks capable of tackling them in more inventive and creative ways. By prioritizing leisure, we can nurture and protect the qualities that set humans apart and improve work in the process.

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