The Rest Project

Why we get more done when we work less

Another thing to look for when I’m in London: Nick Littlehales’ new book on sleep

Nick Littlehales, a sleep coach who’s worked with many world-class athletes and is a fellow Penguin Life author (I can’t tell you how cool it is to be able to put myself in that category), has a new book, Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps… and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind. The Guardian has an excerpt on the secret of power napping.

One of the most important secrets of power naps (or Controlled Recovery Periods, as he calls them), is that you don’t really need to sleep in order to get benefits. There are people who resist naps on the grounds that “they simply ‘can’t nap.’ But,” it turns, out, “it doesn’t matter:”

What’s important is that you use this period to close your eyes and disconnect from the world for a short while. Falling asleep is great, but so is catching that place on the verge of sleep, when you’re not quite awake but not quite asleep either. It’s tapping into that point of the day when you’re not really thinking about anything at all, when your mind is a blank.

This is what scientists call hypnagogia, and it’s a state that some creatives, most notably Salvador Dali, actively used to tap their creative subconscious. But, Littlehales reveals, even if you never have Surrealist visions of melting clocks, bring in that state does you good.

When doing nothing at your job is disciplined– and profitable

On the Utah-Nevada border
My son on the Utah-Nevada border. His t-shirt reads, “I’m not lazy, I’m energy efficient”

The Wall Street Journal has been running a series on the rise of passive investing (they seem to think it’s bad, since it guts demand for analysts and expensive advisors, even though passive investing tends to outperforming active in the long run), and today they have a piece on Nevada’s $35 retirement billion fund manager:

Steve Edmundson has no co-workers, rarely takes meetings and often eats leftovers at his desk.

With that dynamic workday, the investment chief for the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System is out-earning pension funds that have hundreds on staff.His daily trading strategy: Do as little as possible, usually nothing.

The Nevada system’s stocks and bonds are all in low-cost funds that mimic indexes. Mr. Edmundson may make one change to the portfolio a year….

He generally doesn’t work outside 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. hours. He commutes in a 2005 Honda Element with over 175,000 miles on it. His 2015 salary was $127,121.75, according to a Nevada Policy Research Institute database.

The typical Wall Street Journal reader, working on Wall Street, will probably read that and think, Crazy!

There’s also this interesting nugget:

“Doing nothing is harder than it looks,” says Ken Lambert, Mr. Edmundson’s predecessor and only outside investment-strategy consultant. Harder, he says, because of the restraint needed to practice inaction.

The temptation to do rapid-reaction, or to look busy so your clients will think you’re on top of things, is strong in many fields, and I suspect it less to more than a little hasty and poor decision-making. Kudos to Edmondson for being able to resist.

Maybe I should send him a copy of REST. It sounds like he has time to read it!

Churchill’s naps

I’ve mentioned Churchill’s naps (and the napping habits of leaders, and people who want to be leaders) in several posts, but his history of napping is worth a post.

Churchill got into the habit of napping when he was First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I. His military counterpart, the elderly First Sea Lord John Fisher, was up and working between four and five in the morning, and by the afternoon “the formidable energy of the morning gradually declined, and with the shades of night the old Admiral’s giant strength was often visibly exhausted.” Churchill admired and was fascinated by Fisher, though their relationship was often difficult: both men regarded themselves as strategic geniuses, and their dynamic illustrated “one of Churchill’s strengths,” as Oxford historian Roy Jenkins put it: “although he wanted to dominate those around him, he wanted to do it over first- and not second-rate people.”

But it’s revealing that whatever their conflicts, Churchill recalled that he “altered my [daily] routine somewhat to fit in with that of the First Sea Lord.” Previously he had gotten up at seven in the morning; he now pushed that back to eight, “and I slept again, if possible, for an hour after luncheon.” Churchill found that long nap after lunch had the effect of allowing him “to work continuously till one or two in the morning without feeling in any way fatigued,” and he and Fisher now “constituted an almost unsleeping watch throughout the day and night.”

Even after resigning as First Lord after the Gallipoli disaster in 1915, and during his “years in the wilderness” in the 1930s when he was excluded from public service, Churchill kept up the habit of napping. Churchill didn’t just take a snooze at his desk. He retired to his private room, undressed and crawled into his single bed. After an hour or two, he arose.

During the war, Churchill had a room in the War Rooms set aside to sleep if they were under attack. If not, he headed to Number 10 Downing Street for a bath, and changed into fresh clothes. This may seem fussy, but his valet Frank Sawyers observed,

The effect of this complete break is usually to make two working days out of one– and he literally does twice the amount of work of the average person and exerts himself for twice the length of the conventional eight-hour day. [As a result…] It was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.

So inflexible was this rule that, as his valet recalled, “there was always a bed provided for him in the Houses of Parliament” where he would “get his sleep in before an important debate.”

During the war, Churchill went to great lengths to sleep comfortably when he was traveling. His plane was equipped with a custom-built pressure chamber with a shelf for books and brandy, a telephone, and its own air circulation system to remove cigar smoke. It allowed him to “loll comfortably like an outsized pearl within a gigantic oyster shell,” and gave him the extra oxygen his doctors insisted he have at high altitudes.

Is your brain’s need for stimulation leading to sleep deprivation? You suffer from “Trump Syndrome”!

Science of Us writer Drake Baer lays out the argument that Donald Trump’s, umm, distinctive personality characteristics can be blamed on (or are exacerbated by) sleep deprivation:

Earlier on in the race, Trump trumpeted his sleeping style. “I have a great temperament for success,” he said at an event in Illinois last November. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”

But this doesn’t mean that he only needs a couple hours of sleep; rather, Trump “shows all the scary symptoms of sleep deprivation:”

You can see it in his impulsiveness, whether it’s retweeting bogus crime statistics and anti-Semitic images or taking the bait from Hillary in roaring about Alicia Machado. Experimental laboratory research finds that when randomly assigned people are sleep-deprived for just one night, they’re worse at recognizing whether faces look happy or sad, which speaks to a blunting of empathy, a quality that Trump is astoundingly short on. Similarly, one night’s sleep deprivation increased psychosis-like symptoms in healthy adults.

In fact, as Baer notes, in Scientific American Mind Daniel Barron, a Yale University resident physician and neuroscientist (now THERE’S a combination that guarantees a good night’s sleep) reports that he and his colleagues

often joke about whether patients of a particular temperament are suffering from what we called “Trump Syndrome”– a ravenous late-night craving for stimulation that results in a sometimes sporadic, often slender sleep schedule.

Even if you assume that just about everything Trump does reflects, in his view, that he’s successful the way other people are tall or smart, it’s notable that Trump describes sleeping little as part of “a great temperament for success.”

This is notable because it’s an attitude that lots of people share; and while there are a tiny number of people who can function on very little sleep (just as there small numbers of people who can eat anything and not gain weight, or can sleep absolutely anywhere), that’s a genetic endowment that doesn’t seem to be correlated with Success. (It’s also notable that Trump tries to feminize the need for rest, and make it a sign of weakness.)

But as I explain in REST, many leaders recognized the importance of rest, and felt they made better decisions when they were well-rested. Winston Churchill took long naps every afternoon during World War I (when he ran the Admiralty) and World War II (when he ran Great Britain). When he planning the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, Dwight Eisenhower rented a small cottage outside London, where he and his aide would escape for a day. American presidents are criticized for being slackers whenever they step out of the Oval Office, but downtime is essential for them to recharge and be able to focus during real emergencies.

In contrast, sleep deprivation plays a well-known role in bad decision-making. And that’s not just in laboratory studies, or studies of pilot error or accidents. The Greek-Eurozone negotiations went badly, according to some insiders, because everyone was sleep-deprived. And Baer notes that Bill Clinton has said that “most of the mistakes that he made in his long political career came because he was ‘too tired,’ and he told Jon Stewart that ‘sleep deprivation has a lot to do with some of the edginess of Washington today’.”

As usual, history provides a perfect object lesson in the value of sleep and costs of sleep deprivation. The Nazis were big believers in the use of drugs like meth to deliver superhuman, Aryan-ideal levels of performance among soldiers and pilots, and Hitler was an avid consumer of all kinds of performance-enhancing drugs. Churchill, in contrast, took two-hour naps after lunch, and even during the Blitz, when it was too dangerous to leave the War Rooms and return to Number 10 Downing Street, he would sleep. Which approach won World War II?

If I lose my Amsterdam talk, I’ll have help finding it

The first translation of REST is actually going to appear before the American edition: my super-fast Dutch publisher Kosmos (who also published a translation of The Distraction Addiction) is going to bring out a couple weeks before the book drops (as the kids say today) in the U.S. Which is why I’ll be speaking in the Netherlands at the end of November.

My plan is to deliver my main talk (sponsored by the School of Life) without slides, since I’m in a fabulous space that I don’t want to compete with. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to confine people’s attention to Powerpoint slides when you’re in one of Europe’s great churches.

Normally I do my best to write my talk before I leave, but I will sometimes tweak it a little on the way. Fortunately this helpful guy will be at the Amsterdam airport in case I leave my talk on the plane:

How varied activities contribute to happiness: “‘variety is the spice of life’—but not of an hour”

One of the things I noticed in REST is that the people I was writing about found way stop lead terrifically productive lives, make great discoveries, and create periods of very deep focus to get work done— but they also enjoyed afternoon walks, weekends pursuing hobbies and deep play, long vacations, and sabbaticals.

One way they fit all this in was to rigorously compartmentalize different parts of their day. For many writers, for example, the day would start early in the morning: they would hide in the studies, work really hard for several hours, and not come out until lunchtime.

Delicious Coffee

After that, it was time for a walk, and a little more work in the afternoon (often of a less rigorous sort— talking to one’s agent, answering letters, etc.), or possibly a nap.

Masters of rest

With that kind of apparently leisurely schedule, you can do pretty amazing things. But one key to it is to not mix stuff together. Don’t let yourself be distracted by minor things when you’re doing your hardest work. Don’t let errands intrude on time on walks or in the gym. Don’t try to multitask.

So I was interested to see this article asking “Does Variety Among Activities Increase Happiness?” The short answer is, when you break your time into really small pieces, it does not. Here’s the abstract:

Does variety increase happiness? Eight studies examine how the variety among the activities that fill people’s day-to-day lives affects subsequent happiness. The studies demonstrate that whether variety increases or decreases happiness depends on the perceived duration of the time within which the activities occur. For longer time periods (like a day), variety does increase happiness. However, for shorter time periods (like an hour), variety instead decreases happiness. This reversal stems from people’s sense of stimulation and productivity during that time. Whereas filling longer time periods with more varied activities makes the time feel more stimulating (which increases happiness), filling shorter time periods with more varied activities makes the time feel less productive (which decreases happiness). These effects are robust across actual and perceived variety, actual and perceived time duration, and multiple types of activities (work and leisure, self-selected and imposed, social and solo). Together the findings confirm that “variety is the spice of life”—but not of an hour.

Or as co-author Cassie Mogilner puts it in a Knowledge@Wharton interview,

The findings of our paper give us suggestions for how you [could] schedule your time. When you’re thinking over the course of the day, maybe [you could] do one type of activity in the morning [and another] type of activity in the afternoon. You’ll feel more productive. The reason variety makes you feel happier over these longer periods of time is because it keeps you engaged. It offsets that potential for boredom and burnout….

The ideal takeaway from these findings [is to determine] the optimal way to schedule our calendars — from the hour up to the day and up to the week. This has very clear implications for how we should be scheduling our time. Going back to the effect of perceived variety, if you don’t have a lot of control in your schedule, [it encourages] you to think about the variety or the similarity among your activities, [and] to pull out the optimal or ideal level of happiness.

One reason this is interesting is that we sometimes hear that multitasking is appealing because it increases your sense of engagement and productivity, the feeling that you’re getting lots done or killing your to-do list. This research suggests that that’s actually incorrect, and that the practice of breaking your time into larger chunks is smarter.

Guy Kawasaki: “You are going to work the rest of your lives, so don’t be in a rush to start”

Guy Kawasaki recently spoke at the Project Time Off’s Upside of Downtime Forum about the importance of taking time off, and the need for leaders to practice what they preach.

“Lots of time people confuse working long with working hard,” explained Kawasaki, who has worked in Silicon Valley for decades. “This doesn’t mean there aren’t stretches of long days, but when every day is a long day to show your peers that ‘you’re working hard,’ you’re heading for a downward spiral.”

I know Kawasaki mainly as someone who’s made a career writing about startup life and Silicon Valley, and I’ve tended to put him in the category of people who make the “don’t work yourself to death– take a break when you see pretty lights and hear angels singing.” So it’s interesting to see that he’s actually made the argument for the value of time off and diversion elsewhere, like in this graduation speech:

I was a diligent Oriental in high school and college. I took college-level classes and earned college-level credits. I rushed through college in 3 1/2 years. I never traveled or took time off because I thought it wouldn’t prepare me for work and it would delay my graduation.

Frankly, I blew it.

You are going to work the rest of your lives, so don’t be in a rush to start. Stretch out your college education. Now is the time to suck life into your lungs-before you have a mortgage, kids, and car payments.

Take whole semesters off to travel overseas. Take jobs and internships that pay less money or no money. Investigate your passions on your parent’s nickel. Or dime. Or quarter. Or dollar. Your goal should be to extend college to at least six years.

Delay, as long as possible, the inevitable entry into the workplace and a lifetime of servitude to bozos who know less than you do, but who make more money. Also, you shouldn’t deprive your parents of the pleasure of supporting you.

Or as he told students at Woodside Priory earlier this year, “Take time off. Travel. Live outside the Valley. Outside the US. Outside your comfort zone. It’s a big world. I don’t know anyone who says, ‘I should have started working sooner.'”

Happy Hamilton Day, and walking insights

Mathematical Bridge
Mathematical Bridge, Cambridge

It may not be on your calendar, but Sunday October 16 is Hamilton Day, the anniversary of the day Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton carved his most famous insight, on the algebra of quaternions, on a bridge while walking with his wife. This is one of the more famous examples of an “a-ha” moment in the history of science; because it is well-documented, it illustrates several features of such events that sometimes get overlooked.

Today quaternions are used in 3D game engines and graphics (among many places), because they provide a very efficient way of describing how objects should move. (Slate has a more detailed explanation of them.) Hamilton had long been interested in complex numbers, numbers that include the “imaginary” number i (the number whose square equals -1). Real numbers can be represented on a number line– for example, 1, 2, 3, and 64 can all be placed on the same line– and complex numbers can be mapped onto a plane. What about numbers that can be described using three dimensions, and have more than one imaginary number? How would you perform basic algebraic functions on these “triplets,” as Hamilton called them– e.g., adding them together, or subtracting them, or multiplying and dividing them? Addition and subtraction were not so hard, but multiplication was a challenge.

Punting on the Cam
Hung up on the problem

On October 16, 1843, while walking with his wife along the Royal Canal, “an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance,” he later wrote to one of his sons. “An electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth.” He took out a knife and wrote the equation on a stone on the Broome Bridge, to guarantee the insight wouldn’t be lost. The way to solve the problem, he realized, was not to work with triplets, but to work with quaternions, numbers whose value could be represented in four dimensions, but which could be multiplied more easily.

But there’s more to the story. We often focus on these moments of insight because they’re dramatic, and are good stories; but this can obscure the fact that they’re part of a much bigger process. Graham Wallas argued that there are four stages in the creative process, or the “art of thought” as he called it (interestingly, he never uses the word “creativity” in his study): preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

Moments of illumination, he noted, don’t actually happen without periods of work (the preparation) and rest (the incubation): the flash of insight isn’t a shortcut, but the culmination, of a long process. Your mind needs to have a lot of facts stored, a history of working on the problem, a sense of which approaches to the problem are promising and which are dead ends.

Punting on the Cam
One more view of the Mathematical Bridge

Hamilton’s moment on the bridge on October 16, 1843 felt like a bolt of lightning, but the insight arrived after years of effort: “I felt a problem to have been at that moment solved– an intellectual want received– which had haunted me for at least fifteen years,” he said. In fact, he had been working on it for so long that even his children had developed a ritual: “on my coming down to breakfast,” Hamilton later recalled to one son, “your (then) little brother William Edwin, and yourself, used to ask me, ‘Well, Papa, can you multiply triplets’? Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head: ‘No, I can only add and subtract them.’”

Another characteristic piece of the story is that he was walking when he had the insight. Many stories of illumination take place while the thinker is in motion. Erno Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube, had an epiphany about how to design a connector that holds the blocks in his cube together while allowing them to rotate while walking along the banks of the Danube.

Budapest, Hungary

In his account of the discovery of Fuschian functions, the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré describes a series of a-ha moments that came while boarding a bus, on a walk on a seaside bluff near Caen, and walking down the street in Paris.


And we now have experimental evidence that walking and creativity work together: Stanford psychologists Daniel Schwartz and Marily Oppezzo found that even walking on a treadmill that faces a cinder block wall stimulates creativity.

The Main Quad, Stanford University

Another easy-to-overlook element in the story is that such moments of illumination tend to come to people who have spent time cultivating the ability to move through the preparation and incubation phases. Geneticist and Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock recalled a walk at Stanford when she was working on an especially tricky problem as a turning point in her creative life. She had long gone on walks to help shake loose ideas, but after her Stanford walk she felt a new level of confidence in and control over the process: from then on, she could “summon it when needed, and to use it in the service of scientific discovery,” she told her biographer.

As a teenager, Hamilton had discovered that “A long walk is a fine opportunity for wooing the Muse,” and for much of his life he walked as a way of helping solve challenging problems. His moment on the bridge wasn’t a one-time event, in other words; he had spent years learning how to use walks to shake loose ideas.

The examples of Hamilton and others show, I argue in my book, that we should treat deliberate rest as a skill. Whether he was conscious of it or not at first, Hamilton discovered in his teens that walking was a way to stimulate his creative thinking, and he appears to have used that knowledge to help him solve problems. Likewise McClintock definitely used walks to get her creative mind going. Even if he didn’t plan for them in quite the same way (it’s not clear to me), Poincaré wasn’t surprised that insights came while he was walking. We can learn from their examples, and from more recent work on walking and insight, to help ourselves become more reliably creative.

Speaking at the Westerkerk: Come for the rest, stay for the magnificent 17th century architecture!

I’m going to be going to Amsterdam in November to promote the Dutch edition of my new book REST, and one of the events I’ll do is a talk organized by the School of Life on November 23.

I was looking at the logistical details, and it turns out that the evening will be held at the Westerkerk, a 17th-century Protestant church that’s one of the largest in the Netherlands and looks absolutely spectacular (and has a great view of the city).

When I was younger I did a lot of choral singing at churches, so I’m more familiar performing in this kind of environment than your average non-religious person. Indeed, I find myself writing about subjects that aren’t precisely religious in nature, but do overlap with religious issues, or are explored by theologians and ministers.

And one of my favorite contemplative computing talks took place at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York.

Talking about contemplative computing

Nothing like an audience of thousands of divinities to call out your A game!

So perhaps speaking the Westerkerk will offer a chance to reflect a bit on the religious or spiritual dimensions of rest (what a rich topic!), and at least note the degree to which rest has been seen not just as a respite or idleness, but as an opportunity for restoration and common with the divine– turning it from the absence of work into a time with its own purpose, a purpose that we often forget in our more secular world.

Too often we see rest as either disposable (which it’s not), or just as a negative space defined by the absence of work– which it shouldn’t be. Thinking of it this way impoverishes rest, and reduces our appreciation of its potential and value to us. Arguably, observance of the Sabbath provided a framework for experiencing rest as valuable, and the retreat of religious observance has left us in need of a new foundation for making sense of rest in our lives.

Another book advocating doing less: Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball

Inflating giant balls

Well this looks interesting:

Once the poster girl for doing it all, after she had her first child, Tiffany Dufu, a renowned voice in the women’s leadership movement, struggled to accomplish everything she thought she needed to in order to succeed. Like so many driven and talented women who have been brought up to believe that to have it all, they must do it all, Tiffany began to feel that achieving her career and personal goals was an impossibility. Eventually, she discovered the solution: letting go. In Drop the Ball, Tiffany recounts how she learned to reevaluate expectations, shrink her to-do list, and meaningfully engage the assistance of others—freeing the space she needed to flourish at work and to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships at home.

Packed with actionable advice, Drop the Ball urges women to embrace imperfection, to expect less of themselves and more from others—only then can they focus on what they truly care about, devote the necessary energy to achieving their real goals, and create the type of rich, rewarding life we all desire.

Perhaps between this book (out in February 2017), mine (out in early December), and Tom Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late (out the week before), and Courtney Martin’s The New Better Off (which just came out), we’ll have a bona fide movement.

What’s interesting to me is that these books aren’t written for Jenna Maroney’s Crabcatchers (yes I’ve watched too much television in my lifetime): they’re not arguing that we should just make enough money to pay for the next beach party, but are written to appeal to people who are ambitious and want to do things with their lives (I assume anyone who reads Friedman sees themselves as a potential beneficiary of the trends he so loves to describe).

« Older posts

© 2016 The Rest Project

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑