John Cleese

Want to achieve something great? Stop working.

September 6, 2012: 11:09 AM ET

When was the last time a corporate worker scheduled time for a project not to be worked on? Even if some appreciate the idea of taking a break, they look sideways at those who actually take one.

By Megan Hustad

FORTUNE -- Anyone remember the "Free Agent Nation"? Daniel Pink's 1997 Fast Company article heralded a bright future in which the skilled workforce bounced from project by project, unchained from a desk or any one particular company. Fifteen years later and in a different economy, "necessity entrepreneurs" using contracted work as a stopgap measure have joined the happily self-employed. The sheen of free agency has tarnished in the meantime.

Whether the numbers of independent contractors swell or contract, however, I'm surprised how little attention has been paid to what effect these agents can have on the culture of the companies that contract for their services. But I didn't see much of a problem until I began working with large, capital-C corporate firms.

In my mind, the business of being the creative type who swooped into the conference room -- hair messy and altogether more casual -- who then retreated to work hard (and unseen) on the contracted deliverables, seemed ideal. It also seemed like a fair trade; the talent brought on short-term got to work with big corporate budgets, while permanent staffers got new faces to look at and a change of pace.

MORE: Telecommuting: Lower pay, but fewer annoying colleagues

Any hopes I had that the freelancer could help change some of corporate America's pointless and counterproductive mores were quickly dashed, however. Nowhere did those mores pinch more than when it came to what a colleague once dubbed "gestation mode."

Gestation mode is the fallow period between versions of a deliverable/prototype/piece of content. The basic idea is that creative output requires rest between drafts, and this resting period can't be skipped if one wants the work done well. Writers are notorious for asserting the importance of time-outs: you write for a while, then you do the dishes, then revise. Or, more likely, you read what you wrote, decide it's garbage, so take a long walk, and return to it four hours later.

In a piece for The Believer, novelist Zadie Smith pushed the time frame further out. Her advice for anyone who'd finished a novel was, "put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal." In order to judge the work, one needed to see it objectively. Achieving that psychological distance takes time. A long time. More

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