I don’t know if you do crosswords, but have you ever experienced that thing when you just get stuck with a few last clues? However much you ache your brain you just can’t get them. So you put it down. The next day, you glance at it again, and, guess what, the answers seem obvious, and you rattle them off without a thought.
The brain’s like that isn’t it? You can’t seem to control when it works well and when it doesn’t.
When I was a young copywriter, I was properly struggling for my job. I had a creative director whose feedback was most often "just fuck off and do a good ad". I used to be terrified I wouldn’t crack the brief and so I thought about it all the time. I mean ALL the time. I would think about it all day. I would think about it on the bus on the way home. It would lurk in my mind distracting me when I went to the pub with friends. It would wake me up at 2 in the morning.
I wasn’t doing good work, and I was a mess, frankly. Permanently anxious, tired, terrified of being fired. It was too much. So I stopped. I consciously said I would not think about work outside the office. It helped.
I kept my job and my sanity, and gradually the work became easier. Fortunately, nowadays it’s become accepted that time out is time well spent.
There’s a book called Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. (A dream title, no? Like "Why drinking is good for you".) Anyway, it’s authored by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, who says: "When our minds don't have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active. When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems." The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of what pops into your head as an "Aha!" moment.
Of course, as a creative, when you do have a decent idea, it’s kind of annoying, because you never know where it came from, and you can’t just replicate the technique.
The one technique you can replicate, however, is taking time out. And that applies to all of us in the thinking business – not just copywriters like me.
Which is why I applaud the recent moves to develop an etiquette around the use of email. In France, they’ve recently introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ law, and as far back as 2012, VW banned after hours emails.
Work email has been emotively described as "an electronic leash to employees" but I prefer "assumed connectedness" where we (the bosses) expect replies at all hours.
At our agency we have had a long hard look at this. Many of the team here said they feel obliged to respond when, say, they get an email from a partner. On the other side of the coin, many of us with families find it best to get work done later in the evening.
So we’ve agreed this: no-one’s expected to respond to emails after hours, and the more senior managers will try to refrain from sending stuff ‘til the next day or after the weekend.
People shouldn’t feel that they have to be always on, just because their boss is always on or the Internet is always on. For one, it’s about that crazy thing called Having a Life. But it does have an additional benefit; it’s very good for that thing that we in our industry are paid for: it’s great for Having an Idea.
John Townshend is the chairman and co-founder of Now