In the United States, we work among the longest hours of any advanced economy, and we tend to most highly prize workers who log the most hours at the office. But what if we’re wrong? What if the most productive and creative work gets done when we also take what author, consultant and futurist Alex Pang calls “serious rest?” He explains:
Q: What is “serious rest,” and why do you argue that it’s critical for doing better work?
Pang: When I was writing The Distraction Addiction, I had a chapter about digital Sabbaths, restorative practices, the things people do as a way of recovering some balance in their lives with their digital existences. In the course of that, I was looking at the life of Charles Darwin, and his daily practice of taking long walks on what he called his “thinking path.”
This was a man who was arguably the most important scientist of the last 300 years. He published a dozen books. He’s still read by lots of active scientists. But when you look at his daily schedule, you see he worked – conducting experiments, doing things a university committee or project leader would recognize as labor – about four hours a day.
At first I thought, well Charles Darwin was a super genius. Of course he didn’t need to spend thousands of hours in a laboratory. This is a one off.
Then I got more curious. I started poking around at the lives of other writers, scientists, artists. And started to realize there were a lot of really creative people who followed a similar rhythm in their daily work: they spent four or five hours a day on their most intense work, the stuff that required the most focus and the most attention. That would be the centerpiece of their day.
They might spend, another 10 hours writing letters, applying for grants and other things. But their really critical work occupied only about four or five hours.
The other interesting thing I realized is that there were pretty consistent patterns in how they rested, or what they did with the rest of the day. An awful lot of them were more physically active than you might have imagined writers or scientists of being.
Charles Dickens walked about 10 miles a day. Scientists I looked at turned out to be avid, sailors, hikers, skiers.
Q: And they worked four-hour work day? That seems impossible!
Pang: Right! I began to think about the lives of these wonderfully creative and productive people – and how they managed to be so fantastically productive while working what seems like an irresponsibly small number of hours per day.
We think if eight hours of work a day is good, ten must be better, 12 must be awesome and 16 even better. We live in an era in which overwork is rather literally like a drug. All the cool kids, the really successful people, all seem to be doing it. So there’s both some peer pressure and the sense that, in order to be successful, you’ve got to do it, too.
It feels good at first. You get a kind of high. But it starts to taper and wear off. You’ve got to do more and more to get that same initial buzz. And while it may seem to work for a little while, in the long run – and it’s not going to be that long – it’s probably going to kill you.
Q: So that’s where serious rest comes in?
Pang: I realized that there’s a second way to build a career and be creative. That involves a more measured, paced kind of way of working that takes rest really seriously. When you give rest space, it allows you to be really productive and really creative. But it lets you do so for your entire life.
The last thing that convinced me was reading (psychologist) Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to be really great, like it’s this magic number. He looked at conservatory students and saw that future recording artists, future first chairs, practice more than other musicians, but they do so in a consistent, deliberate manner. And they sleep more –about an hour more a day than others, and usually a nap in the afternoon.
So just as they were engaging in deliberate practice, they were also engaging in what they called deliberate rest. And they were more thoughtful about what they did in their downtime, and why they did it. It seems to me, that rest turned out to be an important part of how they became who they are.
Q: If rest makes us more productive and creative, why don’t we do it? Or why don’t people believe it?
Pang: This is a battle we’ve been fighting for the last century, when Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James began talking about the American mania for overwork and how stupid it is.
James knew firsthand that overwork leads to all kinds of stresses in ourselves and our family lives: he worked himself into a breakdown as a student at Harvard and felt the effects of it more or less the rest of his entire life.
James was fighting a long American suspicion of people who lead leisurely lives. It goes back to the Puritans. The idea that work is virtuous and leisure is suspect, is kind of woven into the DNA of American culture. In business, it’s always easier to make the argument for working more rather than working less. There are always competitors, there’s always more stuff to be done. And our understanding of business and work is that – if you want to get more out of it, you put more into it.
This is an especially tricky thing today, as fewer of us are working in places that have very set schedules, like factories, and as more of us take on responsibility for scheduling ourselves. And as we have more kinds of work for which there is no immediate, tangible output, like a bunch of widgets we can point to that show how productive we were.
These performative dimensions of work become more and more important both as a way of showing how dedicated you are, how productive you are, and defensively, to keep from getting more work thrown at you. It is, in a way, in our best interests to look constantly overworked and overstressed.
Q: A lot of people work in cultures that expect and reward overwork. And if you aren’t in a position to change that culture, what do you suggest people do?
Pang: Take rest seriously. Recognize that it is an important part of your creative life, your productive life and just your life. In order to honor it, give it time to work its magic.
Pare down your life to just a few critical things. There is now an awful lot of stuff that I say no to – little projects, stuff at the kids’ schools, volunteer stuff. I often regret having to say no, but I make the calculation, in order to do the kind of work I need to do, I really need to focus on doing the work, and doing rest, and doing stuff with my family. And the dogs. That’s pretty much my life. But it turns out, that’s a full life.
Start with your evenings and weekends. It’s really difficult to change a workplace culture. It is easier to begin to change how you work or whether you work outside it. We really underestimate the value that disconnecting from the office, both psychologically and digitally can make for us. The better you are able to disconnect, when you’re away, the better a job you can do while you’re there.
Practice what (sociologist) Robert Stebbins calls serious leisure – one really absorbing, rewarding hobby. That’s one thing that a lot of really creative people do, especially if their regular jobs are very busy.
If you have the flexibility, play with your schedule to figure out the rhythm that works best for you. There’s lots of research on ultradian rhythms, our cycle of natural energy peaks and valleys about every two hours or so. So take 90 minutes of really focused time, and taking a break, doing something completely different, like going for a walk around the block. If you can incorporate this practice into your days, it makes it easier to say it’s not slacking, but life hacking.
Do what you can to cultivate focus for the first part of your working day. That means, to the extent possible, don’t schedule meetings and don’t keep your email open.
Make a point of being on email just a couple specific times in the morning and a couple, specific times in the afternoon. Do the same with voice mail. Then you create more space for yourself in which you can focus.
Finally, alternate between focused work and serious rest. Really creative people discover that rest is a skill, the way breathing is a skill for singers or running is a skill for athletes – something that we all do, but can learn to do better. They also know that work and rest build on each other. You really need both, in order to do a good job, and to have a good life.
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