Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

Arianna Huffington and I talk about REST at DLD17

“You will consider how and why you rest in a completely new light after reading this book.” (Wendy Suzuki, author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life)

“You’re holding some terrific advice in your hands on the virtues of walking, napping, and playing. Pang has written a delightful and thought-provoking book on the science of restful living.” (Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think)

My new book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less is available at your local bookstore, on Amazon, on Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere. It’s published by Basic Books in the United States, and Penguin Books in the UK (as part of their wonderful new Penguin Life series). It’s also been translated in a number of other languages.

Here I’m collecting links to promotion-related activitiesarticles about the book and deliberate restreviews, as well as information about talksinterviewsradio shows, and other media appearances.

I’m also continuing to collect research and stories about the subjects I cover in Rest: stories about the role of deliberate rest in creative lives, research on the neuroscience and psychology of creativity, the challenges of busyness and overwork, and so on.

“I resolved never to read a mathematical book for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, without a break”

Last night I was out with some friends at a birthday celebration at our local pub, and– as often happens among people of a certain age– the conversation turned to back problems. I confessed that one of the great epiphanies of my life was the discovery that, after many hours of sitting (usually in terribly un-ergonomic positions) the way to deal with a sore back was to exercise, not to be sedentary. The lesson that exercise can be a cure for physical ailments became to basis of a more general assumption that we’re usually better off when we choose activity over inactivity– an idea that runs around in the subtext of REST.

These kinds of small but significant moments of enlightenment are often lost to history, in part because they sound mundane and slightly embarrassing: you’re supposed to have epiphanies on the road to Damascus, not in the gym. But this morning I found another example in John Maynard Keynes’ obituary of his Cambridge mentor, economist Alfred Marshall. (This is not as weird as it sounds: it’s a famously well-done piece of work. As the Wikipedia biography of Keynes notes, “Joseph Schumpeter called [it] ‘the most brilliant life of a man of science I have ever read.’ Marshall’s widow was ‘entranced’ by the memorial, while Lytton Strachey rated it as one of Keynes’s ‘best works’.”)

In the obituary, Keynes quotes Marshall’s account of an epiphany he had about the nature of work and rest:

An epoch in my life occurred when I was, I think, about seventeen years old. I was in Regent Street, and saw a workman standing idle before a shop-window: but his face indicated alert energy, so I stood still and watched. He was preparing to sketch on the window of a shop guiding lines for a short statement of the business concerned, which was to be shown by white letters fixed to the glass. Each stroke of arm and hand needed to be made with a single free sweep, so as to give a graceful result; it occupied perhaps two seconds of keen excitement. He stayed still for a few minutes after each stroke, so that his pulse might grow quiet. If he had saved the ten minutes thus lost, his employers would have been injured by more than the value of his wages for a whole day. That set up a train of thought which led me to the resolve never to use my mind when it was not fresh; and to regard the intervals between successive strains as sacred to absolute repose. When I went to Cambridge and became full master of myself, I resolved never to read a mathematical book for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, without a break.

I had some light literature always by my side, and in the breaks I read through more than once nearly the whole of Shakespeare, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (the only Greek play which I could read without effort), a great part of Lucretius and so on. Of course I often got excited by my mathematics, and read for half an hour or more without stopping: but that meant that my mind was intense, and no harm was done.

You never know when inspiration will strike– or perhaps, you never know what apparently ordinary event can lead to some life-changing discovery.

Oliver Burkeman on the four-hour working day

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman talks about REST in his latest column, “Let’s hear it for the four-hour working day,” and makes a connection that I confess I hadn’t thought of:

Half a century ago, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins caused a stir by suggesting that people in hunter-gatherer societies aren’t ceaselessly struggling for survival; on the contrary, they’d built “the original affluent society”, by keeping their needs low, then meeting them. Crunching numbers from Africa and Australia, he calculated the average number of hours hunter-gatherers must work per day, to keep everyone fed. That’s right: it was “three to five hours”.

That number keeps popping up. And thanks for the great piece, Oliver!

Boredom is hot!

Just in time for the end of summer and back to school, more pieces about the virtues and challenges of boredom.

My friend Martin Schwirn points out this piece by Lyn Lenz about how the desire for fulfilling idle days, and the demands of programming a full summer, conflict:

I love the idea of summer. I love the idea of pool days with my kids, watermelon on the patio, building secret forts in the attic during rainstorms, and spoiling our dinner with ice cream. But the reality of summer is altogether something else. The reality of modern summers is an inane slog of scheduling sitters, negotiating work time with my husband, begging grandma’s to babysit, purchasing pool passes, museum passes, and whatever other pass seems appealing at the time. Then, there are camps. This year, my daughter’s teacher suggested three different academic camps for her to attend and the school sent her home with a summer workbook. She’s six.

Then there’s this long New York Times Book Review piece on “The Boredom Boom:”

Say you were bold enough to gather together seven of the recent or upcoming books about boredom. To stack the deck, say you were to do this gathering during a week of intense, attention-imperiling humidity — a week when, purely coincidentally, you’d just reached page 508 of “Moby-Dick,” and thus had arrived at a kind of sweet spot in your appreciation of lengthy descriptions of rope. Would you crack a single one of the boredom brigade open? Or would you soon be found desiccated and near-dead in your apartment, eyeballs dangling from their sockets?

Quietly asserting itself in books and personal essays since 2015, the “boredom boom” would seem to be a reaction to the short attention spans bred by our computers and smartphones. The words “boring” and “interesting” didn’t exist in English till the 1800s, a period when…

… Whoa, is that a candy-colored hula hoop on that book jacket?

The New York Times misses REST, but then again they already reviewed it, so that’s okay.

“make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer”

Scottish author James Kelman tells the Guardian how he got his start, and how he writes:

I’m at the desk most mornings between 5.30 and 7. Every day is the same. I developed the practice under pressure of external commitments and obligations. I began writing while a young fellow in London in the mid to late 1960s, working at any job I could find. Most began at 8 am, and went on for ever. By the time I came home I was too tired for anything. I discovered a first principle of art: a weary mind in a weary body. So I did my own work first – my writing – which meant rising two hours before leaving the house.

In 1969 I met Marie and we married the same year. I continued writing and working after the same fashion. In my mid 20s I was driving buses. We had two kids by then. If a shift began at 5 am I would have managed an hour on a story before taking the first bus out of the garage. It was a wrench leaving the story but better that than trying to write in the aftermath of a 12-hour shift.

I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer. It worked. During the formative years I discovered another first principle: “writer’s block” is an economic luxury. It was inconceivable that I could steal time to write and be unable to write.

This is a geat example of how writers discover early morning routines: as often as not, they’re forced it in by circumstance and schedules, and only after doing it for a while do they discover that there are creative benefits to early hours.

The idea that you should “make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer” is also an important one. I’ve always loved John Le Carré’s description of being careful to give his country second best when he was writing novels on the train to and from work. This isn’t license to do a bad job on the job, but it is a reminder that you should be honest about what’s your most important work, and let your expenditure of time and energy– and especially those hours during which you can do your best work– reflect those priorities.

“the best players know the importance of freshness and rest:” Ed Smith on practice and rest

Former professional cricketer Ed Smith has an essay in the New Statesman explaining how “the best players know the importance of freshness and rest.” The nice thing about the essay is that, in addition to the brief mention of my book, he traces how the ideals of the amateur and professional in sports have changed the way people view practice– and how each obscured certain important facts about both the virtue of practice, and the value of rest:

The amateur ideology was a narrative myth about accidental excellence, gifts conferred at birth that had been protected from the evils of the marketplace, washed down with false modesty for public consumption. The professional ideology denied converse truths: effective practice rests on focus not relentlessness; the best players seldom practise the most hours; freshness is as important as dedication; and rest is bound up with discipline.

I’ve liked Smith’s writing for some time, ever since I came across another New Statesman piece of his, a 2012 essay about the importance of practice, but not too much practice:

When I was a professional cricketer, before each season – just before the team got together as a group – I would block out a few consecutive days and dedicate them entirely to practising batting. My only goal was to become a better player, to develop new skills. This wasn’t the humdrum practice that happens throughout the season. This was my selfish time: it was as close as my cricket practice got to a creative exercise.

Which days ended with me batting signi­ficantly better than I started out? The best days followed the same pattern – an intense morning session, around two and a half hours long, followed by a shorter, lighter afternoon session, perhaps lasting an hour or 90 minutes. In total, then, I would do about four hours, just as Russell wanted.

Strangely, when I spent many more hours practising, spreading the work across the whole day, my game stood still or even slightly de­teriorated. Quite simply, you cannot work all day, at least not at a high level. When you are performing near your limits, you use up your psychological resources very quickly. The obvious point follows: stopping practising at the right moment is a vital form of self-discipline, every bit as important as “putting the hours in” and “giving it your all”. There is an optimal amount of work.

Smith was one of the few people I’ve read who caught the important point that Anders Ericsson makes, in his classic article about deliberate practice, that rest also matters. As he said back in 2012:

Nor should we trust the popularised social science alleging that “geniuses” evolve inevit­ably from 10,000 hours of practice. In his study of talented young musicians in Berlin, K Anders Ericsson asked what separated the outstanding soloists from those who were merely good. The difference was not – as is often misquoted – that the best players practised more. Instead, they practised intensely and then allowed themselves more time to relax and recoup.

This is essentially the same pattern that explains the 4-hour paradox that I describe in this essay (which is part of REST): that some people of tremendous accomplishment organize their whole lives to give themselves space to think and be creative, but they labor at the desk or blackboard as little as four hours a day. What they’re doing is creating time for highly focused work, which in turn creates more time for deliberate rest. Indeed, I think the very best of them are quite a bit like world-class athletes: they’re able to shrink their work day quite dramatically, and even if we can’t get ours down to four hours (any more than we can run as fast as Usain Bolt or play tennis as well as Roger Federer), we can still learn from them about how to improve our own working lives.

“rest is as important” as “ticking off all those items on our to-do list:” Readers on REST

One of the great pleasures of having written Rest is coming across feedback on Twitter or blogs from readers who’ve enjoyed the book and put it to use in their lives. I’ve posted about some of of these reader reviews (and videos) before. Today, I came across three such mentions, on three continents, and that seemed worth a post.

First, Vineyard Churches communication director Mark Crosby tweets from Wales (or maybe somewhere warmer?):

(I always like seeing the book in the wild!)

Actually, John Wright tweeted nice things about the book too…

…though it kind of looks like the book is about to get chucked in the pool.

Second, Northcote, Australia-based coach Tess Bartlett writes about “How to transform burn out to intentional rest.” As she so elegantly put it, “rest is as important, if not more important, than ticking off all those items on our to-do list,” and she has a number of concrete suggestions for how to make more space for rest in a busy life.

On the other side of the world, in New York, lawyer E. David Smith writes about how reading Rest encouraged him to reset his daily routine to better reflect what really matters to him, without neglecting the practice he founded:

I started leaving the office at 5:15 p.m. instead of 7:30 p.m. I started concentrating on my kids and giving them the attention they really needed. It wasn’t that they’d been neglected before, but it has been incredible seeing them blossom – getting used to having me around more, and knowing they can come to me anytime. That is my number one priority.

None of this has taken a thing away from my clients….

I wish I could tell you how much my life has improved since I’ve started taking these simple steps to refocus.

It all hinges on one simple fact: my business exists to support my family, not to take me away from them.

Of course, I’m grateful for positive reviews of the book, like Nilanjana Roy’s very thoughtful review in the Financial Times and Arianna’s incomparable review in the New York Times; but it’s really gratifying to see people take the book and make it their own.

“Children are always busy, even when they don’t look it:” Kids and deliberate rest

The Atlantic has an excerpt from a new book by psychologist Lea Waters, The Strength Switch, talking about the importance of free time and mind-wandering (or “free-form attention,” as she calls it) in childhood development.

free-form attention is what the brain defaults to when it’s off-task, allowed to move in any direction it wants. It happens when the brain is in what scientists call the resting state. In the 1990s, neuropsychologists began to delve into free-form attention and found that it has many benefits, including for children’s learning and their brain development. To shift instantly into free-form attention, all an individual has to do is goof off.

Now just any kind of goofing off won’t do. There’s a constructive form of goofing off that is restorative to the brain and therefore important for strength-based parenting—parenting that focuses on kids’ strengths instead of their weaknesses. Good goofing off is active; the mind is not simply being “fed” stimuli. Rather, the activity engages the mind in a way that simultaneously gives it free rein. Good goofing off happens when the person participating is competent enough at the activity that he or she does not have to focus closely on the process or the techniques. It happens when reading, cooking a familiar recipe, shooting baskets, or simply daydreaming.

Waters calls those periods when you’re not focused on specific tasks “deliberate rest,” which is of course a term I’ve used in my book; we use it in somewhat different ways– I’m talking about a particular set of practices that people discover and can get better at, while she’s talking more about mind-wandering.

Still, we both see focus and deliberate rest (whichever way you define it) as working together:

The ability to toggle between directed attention and free-form attention improves with practice, making the brain most effective. The brain can snap to attention when necessary and then downshift to deliberate rest mode whenever possible in order to maximize mental alertness, process information, and bring forward that knowledge to apply to the next attentive time.

Looks like a book worth checking out.

Honolulu fights ‘smartphone zombies’

More of Kauai
Just enjoy the sunset!

The city of Honolulu has passed a law that “targets ‘smartphone zombies’,” people crossing the street while using their smartphones and not looking where they’re going:

“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” [Honolulu mayor Kirk] Caldwell said.

The ban will go into effect in late October and will run from $15 to $99, depending on the severity of the offense.

I was recently in Hawaii, though on a different island, and was struck by how reflexive checking phones in restaurants, taking selfies, etc. has become. Even in an island paradise, many of us feel the need to keep our phones out and active all the time.

When the world doesn’t provide us stimulation, it’s offering us a gift: More on creativity and boredom

More people seem to be getting interested in boredom. Now the World Economic Forum has a video about the value of letting your mind do nothing at all:

It’s kind of a follow-up to a piece by Silicon Valley author Jordan Rosenfeld about why we should “Learn how to be bored instead” of constantly reaching for our phones during down moments. Since writing The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I’ve become more of a fan of taking those moments and just doing nothing at all, staring into space and letting my mind wander.

Of course, what Rosenfeld and the World Economic Forum are talking about isn’t really boredom, per se, but rather treating those moments when you don’t have to focus on anything– that time in line at the store, for example– as an opportunity and positive thing, rather than a negative space defined by an absence of stimulus. As I argued in my Maria Shriver Sunday paper article this weekend, boredom isn’t a state that’s determined by the world around us. It’s conjured by us.

Boredom isn’t like a thermometer that measures how dull our environment is. it’s a more complex reaction of our selves and our surroundings. We might be bored by a movie that we’ve seen many times; we might find a conversation at a reunion dull because our lives and our classmates’ have gone in very different directions; or we might find a place dull because we were dragged there by our stupid parents who think stupid Renaissance paintings are cool. All kinds of things can be boring, as this piece of graffiti in Oxford reminds us:

Capitalism is Boring

Still, the underlying idea that when the world doesn’t offer us stimulation, it’s offering us a gift, is one that is worth repeating, even if I think we need a better term than “boredom” to describe it.


On rest and value of boredom

Over the weekend I had a short piece in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, which was dedicated to “the benefits of boredom.” My piece explains why “Rest and Boredom Are Scientifically Beneficial for Your Brain:”

We treat boredom as something that we can banish from our lives, like smallpox or polio. But boredom isn’t a disease. We don’t catch it. We cause it ourselves. Boredom is a state of mind, a reaction to the world rather than a reflection of the world. Sure, we can be bored standing in line or waiting around for a delayed plane. But we can also be bored of a once-favorite haunt, or under-stimulated by a too-familiar restaurant. Teenagers are geniuses at weaponizing boredom: kids are brilliant at being stubbornly bored by this dumb thing in this dumb place that their dumb parents have dragged them to.

This suggests that we can modulate even control, our reactions to situations that normally trigger boredom. But why should we? In a world where we can binge-watch television in line at the grocery store, why should we ever let those empty moments stay empty?

The answer is, those moments when we don’t have to focus on anything in particular, and can allow our minds to roam free, are actually quite valuable.

I first realized that boredom was a state of mind that we could control, and that when we’re young we weaponize it, when I was at the British Museum with my kids. We were at the Rosetta Stone, which of course is one of the great jewels in the Museum’s collection, and one of the single most important archaeological artifacts in all of history.

From today's visit to the British Museum

There was another family there, and while the parents were explaining why the Stone was important (and by implication why it was cool that they were there), one of the kids Was. Not. Having. It. He was determined to stay disengaged, no matter what. (It’s not the child in the striped shirt. That’s my son, six years ago!) It struck me just how forcefully the kid seemed to want to be unimpressed, and wanted his parents to know just how stupid the whole thing was. I doubted that he could come right out and say it, but conspicuous boredom made his feelings pretty clear.

Rosetta Stone

This is probably something I did plenty of myself when I was younger. Of course there were times when I legitimately felt like there was nothing for me to do– this was my default state from roughly third grade through high school– but there were probably times when I was bored to make a point. For kids, who don’t have a lot of choice in their lives, the ability to be bored is probably a useful form of rebellion: you can drag me to all these places, but you can’t make me like it, even if it’s something really cool.

But like most of us, as I’ve gotten older and busier, I now have a greater appreciation for the value of those periods when I have nothing I need to focus on; it’s less something to flee from, and a little more a luxury. It can even be good for you.

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