I hear stories of long days all the time. Like some badge of honour, I’m told of multiple 12 or 14 hour days. My clients tell me these stories with the expectation that I’ll be impressed with their dedication.
But I’m not, and you shouldn’t be either.
How about we take an entirely different tack and instead of figuring out how to work more, we figure out how to work less. We figure out how to take more time away from work while doing more work that’s worthwhile.
That’s where Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang comes in. It’s not a book about how to do more, but about how to do less. How to rest and recharge so that the little time we give work happens with full focus instead of half focus split between 27 other things that want our attention.
Many of us are interested in how to work better, but we don’t think very much about how to rest better. Productivity books offer life hacks, advice about what CEOs or famous writers do. But they say almost nothing about the role of rest in the lives or careers of creative productive people. When they do mention rest, they tend to treat it as nothing more than a physical necessity or inconvenience.
The big thrust of the book is to get us to realise how important rest is in getting the maximum creativity out of ourselves.
If you recognize that work and rest are two sides of the same coin, that you can get more from rest by getting better at it and that by giving it a place in your life you’ll stand a better chance of living the life you want, you’ll be able to do your job, and your life’s work, better.
It’s about not wearing long hours as a badge of honour. It’s about not telling people how ‘busy’ you are, but about how much time you take off from work.
Before Soojung-Kim Pang gets into the main two sections of the book, he gives us some foundation principles to explain how to value rest in our lives.
First off is the terrible unit of measure used by so many, the hour.
Measuring time is literally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity, but it’s also very unreliable.
Just because you put in lots of hours doesn’t mean that you did anything of value in those hours. The commonly accepted office day is around 8 hours. Most research shows that in those 8 hours people only do four maybe five hours of real work. The other hours are taken up with distractions of some fashion.
Even in those four hours, did someone do work of any value to the business or were they just looking busy by pushing emails around and ‘consulting’ with colleagues?
A second principle is that no one will value rest for us. We need to schedule it into our days, weeks, months, and lives.
Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.
Part of this comes down to the most productive word in your vocabulary, NO. If you want to rest, say no to meetings. Say no to those three extra projects or sitting on the board or joining the PTA.
Do a few things well and focus on them.
With those founding ideas set out for us, Soojung-Kim Pang moves into the main two sections of the book. First is all about how rest stimulates creativity, we can’t be maximally creative without rest. Second is that rest sustains creativity over the long term. If we want long creative careers, then rest is crucial.
Part I: Stimulating Creativity
Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost super-human capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.
Above is one of the major arguments made early as the author examines how rest stimulates creativity. We don’t need to work long hours, and in fact, we’re much better off working shorter hours. He cites an interesting study that showed scientists which worked 20 hours a week in the office published more than any others.
In fact, those that put 55 hours a week in were only as productive as those that had five hours in the office. They never hit the same productivity as those who put in 20 hours though. There are many other examples cited from other fields that back up this M shaped curve where you’re more productive with fewer hours.
That leads us to question, what did those scientists do to be so productive?
Deliberate practice. Focused work ala Deep Work (my review).
Deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not immediately profitable. It means being in the pool before sunrise, working on your swing or stride when you could be hanging out with friends, practicing fingering or breathing in a windowless room, spending hours perfecting details that only a few other people will ever notice. There’s little that’s inherently or immediately pleasurable in deliberate practice, so you need a strong sense that these long hours will pay off, and that you’re not just improving your career prospects but also crafting a professional and personal identity. You don’t just do it for the fat stacks. You do it because it reinforces your sense of who you are and who you will become.
Note that it wasn’t practice only for practice sake. It was practice that reinforced the sense of who you are. Your WHY to put it in Simon Sinek’s terms.
If you’re going to achieve this productivity, this mastery, then you need to develop a habit of deep focus.
But how do you drop into this area of focused creativity? According to Soojung-Kim Pang, it’s about creating a routine. Working steadily day in day out.
…when your habit is to work steadily, a day when you fall behind isn’t fatal
You don’t worry about trucker’s block because it’s not something that’s real.
You create a routine and stick with it. When things are going bad, you stick with the process. You keep your schedule intact along with the rest and recharge time included.
You don’t let clients violate it. You don’t break up those focused hours with interruptions from any place.
In order to keep rest from being invaded by work or crowded out of your day by a long to-do list, you need to use your routine like a fortification to protect your time.
Around here, that means I only take new client calls on Tuesday. I do all my coaching on Friday. I don’t let anyone push me into a call on Monday or Wednesday or Thursday. Those are big days for my focused creativity.
I work 6 am – 9 am and then take a 3-hour break. During that break I run or take a meandering bike ride, aiming for getting out of the city in some rural setting. I hang out with my kids.
I get away from a screen and the hustle and bustle. With this break I’m ready to head back at it for three more hours from noon – 3 pm and then I call it a day.
One big note here is that I try to get away from the city/cars/busy places into something rural.
When she examined the data, she found that she could tell from their brain waves when people were walking through parks and green space and when they were in busy commercial areas: their minds became calmer and less aroused when they turned from the high street into a park. They didn’t zone out completely, though. Natural scenes engage some of your attention without requiring much conscious effort: they provide just enough diversion to occupy the conscious mind, leaving the subconscious free to do its own thing.
This is not the first piece I’ve read telling us that nature is so much better at recharging us than anything industrial. You may love living in the city, but you’ll get more done and feel less stressed if you prioritise escaping to a place that’s green.
Another thing you do if you want to be maximally effective is nap. My days start early at 4:45 am, and with three small children I don’t always get a full night sleep of seven hours. When that happens, I use part of my rest time for a 30-minute nap.
Sleep scientists have found that even a short nap can be effective in recharging your mental batteries. Naps can even provide an opportunity to have new ideas. Their work shows that you can learn to time your nap to increase the creative boost that it provides, make it more physically restorative, or probe the traffic between the conscious mind and unconscious. Napping in other words, turns out to be a skill.
I wear my nap as a badge of pride.
In much of the world today, naps have fallen out of favor. They’re now something young children do in kindergarten mats, not something for adults, least of all leaders and serious minds.
Even with naps though, you need to sleep properly. Pulling an all-nighter is never a badge of honour. It only shows you’re an idiot.
Sleep deprivation has immediate effects on your ability to focus, make good judgements, perform under pressure, and be creative. Longterm sleep deprivation can affect your mental health and physical condition.
One of the biggest things that my Fitbit did for me was help me realise how little sleep I was getting. I started just barely averaging 6 hours a night and now average seven most weeks.
If you struggle with sleep look at adopting the 10-3-2-1-0 formula to achieve a better sleep.
- 10 hours before bed – no caffeine
- 3 hours before bed – no more food/alcohol
- 2 hours before bed – no more work
- 1 hour before bed – no more screens (no phones, TV’s, Kindle’s, computers…)
- 0 – The number of times you’re allowed to hit the snooze button
I have one paper book on the go all the time for this reason. No reading on my Kindle just before I go to sleep. I didn’t even have an issue sleeping when I started this. Just ask my wife who often get’s the question “When did you come to bed.” and her regular answer is “10 minutes after you”.
I was already out in those 10 minutes of her making a bit of noise in the bathroom.
One thing I add to this formula is at least 30 minutes of exercise in your day. While I run up mountains, walking briskly for 30 minutes counts as well.
With his look at Stimulating Creativity done, Soojung-Kim Pang moves on to how to sustain it.
Part II: Sustaining Creativity
Sustained creativity is more than just a solid week of good work. It’s decades of contribution to your field. It’s staying power when others have burned out.
Sustained creativity knows that in most developed fields it’s not the ‘young genius’ that has the break throughs. It takes a decade to get a solid enough grasp on the foundation material so that you have the knowledge to expand the field.
There are a few key things that are characteristic of prolonged work in a field. First off, it’s taking your vacation days.
Over the course of decades, across professions, in one industry after another, Sonnentangs, findings have been consistent. Workers who have the chance to get away mentally, switch off, and devote their energies elsewhere, are more productive, have better attitudes, get along better with their colleagues, and are better able to deal with challenges at work. They’re also better able to focus intensely on work tasks.
It’s getting sleep, every single night. Rest cites an interesting study about Flow. Well rested programmers we most productive in the morning. Then if they took a break in the middle of the day and came back at it, they had a second burst of flow.
If you didn’t get a good sleep, you started bad and just got worse all day.
Less well-rested programmers, in contrast, didn’t follow the same pattern: their flow levels started low and steadily got worse.
Maintaining a career of contribution means, unplugging. Not checking email at all hours, but honestly putting work away when it’s not work time.
The most creative and most productive workers are the ones who are able to unplug from the office, recover their mental and physical energy, and return to their work recharged.
Did you know that most top chess players have a physical training plan as well? The hours of intense concentration take their toll and being in good physical shape means they can perform at their best.
…studies now show that for people of any age, gender, or athletic ability, exercise can increase brain power, boost intelligence, and provide the stamina and psychological resilience necessary to do creative work.
The same things should go for programmers or creatives, who need to spend long hours focused on hard problems so that they can break through to a solution.
We shouldn’t be surprised that people manage to be physically active and do world-class work. We should recognize that they do world-class work because they are physically active.
Unless you have the physical stamina to stay focused, you won’t be producing your best work.
A long career is also brought about by having interests other than your job.
Under the right conditions, hobbies and physical activities become what anthropologists and psychologists call “deep play,” activities that are rewarding on their own, but take on additional layers of meaning and personal significance.
It’s not about ‘balance’, which means checking work stuff while watching your kid’s ball game.
Unlike efforts to achieve work-life balance that end up smearing the two words together and lead to your multitasking your way through children’s activities, deep play demands exclusive focus.
Deep play is engaging in pursuits that require attention from you. Rock Climbing and Mountaineering are often cited in the book. Ultra-marathons (50k at least usually through the mountains) are also an area where you see a statistical bump in scientists. They have long hours of focus for work, and the challenging work of running 50k and training for it means they have to forget about work and focus only on the task at hand for extended periods of time each week.
Finally, there are sabbaticals. Extended periods away from work to do what you want. Far from leading to retention issues:
Sabbaticals improve employee satisfaction, give returning workers a greater sense of clarity about their jobs and future, and improve retention levels.
Sabbaticals provide a change of pace for the employee to dive into other ideas. According to Soojung-Kim Pang, often we see new ideas come back to the company that benefit it. Ideas that only developed because time was spent away doing things unrelated to work.
If your company wants to succeed and keep good people around, then offering prolonged time off is a sure way to increase retention and bring in great new ideas from employees that are refreshed, ready to tackle the problems at hand.
I’ll finish this off with two more quotes.
Too often busyness is not a means to accomplishment but an obstacle to it.
Today, we treat being stressed and overworked as a badge of honor, a sign of seriousness and commitment; but this is a recent phenomenon, and it inverts traditional ideas of how leaders and professionals should behave under pressure.
They represent truth and sadness. Being busy is not a sign of how awesome you are, it’s a sign of how you can’t set up boundaries. Stop wearing busy as a badge of honour.
Now, do I recommend you read Rest? Yes, I do. More than that, I recommend you incorporate times of no work into your day. I recommend you build in weeks away from anything digital.
If you can read this book and put its ideas into practice, you’re going to get more done and have longer to contribute to your field in a meaningful way.