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)


(From the Happinez Festival, September 2017)

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, including Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Turkish.

I also have a masterclass on “The Power of Rest” on the Calm app.

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.

Turns out the German word for management consultant is “Managementberater”

I learned this courtesy of a new article, “Pausen auf der Arbeit: Wie Abschalten die Produktivität erhöht” that talks about Rest and other books.

I think “management berater” is a great description of what we do!

“Japanese companies are beginning to embrace… the idea of a four-day workweek”

The Japan Times has an article about “Japanese companies warming up — slowly — to four-day workweek:”

Once synonymous with long work hours, Japanese companies are beginning to embrace — or at least consider — the idea of a four-day workweek.

Although the concept is nothing new and the number of companies adopting the system fluctuates, it is increasing over the long term.

As of 2018, according to a labor ministry survey, 6.9 percent of privately held companies with 30 or more full-time employees had introduced the system in some form. A decade ago, the figure was 3.1 percent.

As I’ve noted earlier, Japan has some of the biggest companies in the world that are currently operating on a shortened workweek: Zozo adopted what it calls the “Rokujiro” 30-hour workweek in 2012. This article is more about companies adopting four 10-hour days, but still, it’s another straw in the wind.

Greetings from Seoul, where I’m researching four-day weeks in Asian companies

I’m in Seoul for the next several days, doing some publicity stuff for REST (my dad tells me that the translation is really top-notch), and also doing some interviews and fieldwork for my next book on four-day weeks.

One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions of the four-day week is that most of the discussion centers around companies in Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand (whoever Perpetual Guardian hired to do their PR, they really delivered value for money!). Likewise, the policy discussions mainly cite European trade unions and talking heads.

One of the things I’ve found in my research, though, is that some of the biggest companies shortening their workdays and workweeks are in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I’ve found big tech companies doing 30-hour weeks, little ryokans (traditional inns) operating on a 4-day week schedule, and a big manufacturing company that switches to 4-day weeks during the summer.

Likewise in Korea, there are a whole host of hip tech startups, cosmetics companies, and publishers that have shortened their working hours. (Tech and cosmetics are big industries in Korea, and people still read a lot here.)

Coming over here to see how they do it feels important, for a couple reasons.

First, I really think I’m tracking a global movement that is in its infancy, doesn’t really have a strong collective sense of itself, but in the next few years could become a really serious thing. And because of the size and number of companies, you can’t study this without studying Japan and Korea. The world’s biggest company that does 30-hour weeks is in Japan, and some of the most successful startups working shorter hours are in Korea. Talking about European companies is a good start, but it’s not the end.

Second, for American audiences, when you talk about companies in Sweden and Netherlands, this is what they imagine:

When nations that have powerful unions, strong social welfare, and a words for “cozy evenings by the fire wearing hand-knit socks” opt for working less, it’s both totally unsurprising, and remote. It’s hard for American companies to imagine following the Nordic model in… just about anything. However, when you talk about it being done by companies that are in countries whose languages have words for “working yourself to death,” those same audiences are more likely to sit up and take notice.

Third, while of course there are some serious differences in corporate and national cultures, Japanese and Korean companies are adopting shorter workweeks for pretty much the same reasons that their counterparts in London and Copenhagen are; they do the same things to make them work; and they see the same benefits. So I can make the case that shortening the workweek, for all its variations by nation and industry, follows some underlying rules no matter where you are. (Rules that, needless to say, I’ll lay out in my book!)

Finally, because of geographical and cultural proximity, China is more likely to learn from the Korean and Japanese companies than from companies in the West. There’s already some discussion in China of aiming for a 4-day week by 2030; and if they do, that’ll be a titanic move in the global economy, not to mention a huge change in the lives of a billion-plus people.

So that’s why I’m here. To get this part of the story. Of course, I’m also here for the street food!

The Wellcome Trust thinks about four-day weeks

The Guardian, which really owns the beat on the shorter workweeks trend, reports that the Wellcome Trust “is considering moving all of its 800 head office staff to a four-day week in a bid to boost productivity and improve work-life balance.”

A trial of the new working week at the £26bn London-based science research foundation could start as soon as this autumn, giving workers Fridays off to do whatever they want with no reduction in pay. Some parts of the organisation already operate a no-emails policy in the evenings or at weekends, but this would mark a more dramatic change….

The core of the organisation’s work is processing and assessing grant applications for scientific research across biology, medicine, population health, the humanities and social science. That is the kind of predictable process that might be well suited to a shorter week, it believes.

The Trust isn’t well-known in America, but it’s “the world’s second-biggest research donor after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out. On the outside, grantmaking doesn’t look like the most strenuous of jobs, but from what I’ve seen from friends who work at American philanthropies, the people who work there are very dedicated, really want to make world-changing moves (when you’re at the Gates and Wellcome level, at least), and have to both think really deeply and go to a lot of meetings; and when the founder is still alive and involved, that can put a lot of pressure on people to deliver results. This combination of a need for serious insight, to develop a vision of what the world’s problems are going to be years from now and to work with people who are coming up with solutions that’ll address those, to build consensus within the organization for this program line and that specific project– it’s a nontrivial exercise.

Sick days and overwork vs shorter hours

The New York Times has a piece about “The Death of the Sick Day,” about how

the sick day is disappearing from the office vocabulary, even as we hit peak flu season. Once, a sick day was just that — a day away from work to focus on recovery…. But in recent years, it has become something murkier in definition and more reflective of our highly competitive, 24-7 work lives. The shifting definition and expanding mobility of the office — thanks to remote work and the rise of contractors in the gig economy — is also making the sick day somewhat passé, at least for some jobs.

The fact that many people feel that their jobs would be at risk if they took off a day to recover from an illness is a painful indicator of the state of modern work.

It also brought to mind something I’ve kept hearing when interviewing people whose companies run 4-day weeks: their sick days go way down. They argue that first of all, their people are healthier. They have more time to exercise and cook real food, which means their baseline levels of health and disease resistance go up. As a result, they’re just sick less often, and when they are, the three-day weekend gives them a greater chance of resting and keeping a mild illness from turning into something more serious.

You could also add that having a 4-day week means that they’re also more likely to be able to deal with other family members’ illness, without having to call in themselves.

And of course, we should contrast this situation to the health of people who chronically overwork and deal with stress in the office: they’re much more likely to get sick, to have chronic or stress-related illnesses, and to cost companies (or the national health service) in the long run.

“I have learned not to feel guilty whenever I close the laptop”

Stem cell researcher Dr Cristina Lo Celso talks the Academy of Medical Sciences about her work, and rest. This bit in particular jumped out at me:

I have learned not to feel guilty whenever I close the laptop to watch a movie or try some new recipes. Usually the best ideas come during or after breaks, and things that take hours to work through when I am tired will likely be solved in minutes once I am rested.

I think for lots of us, learning to not feel guilty when you stop work will have a ring of familiarity to it.

Lo Celso also has a nice bit about “learning to experiment outside the lab,” by trying new things in one’s non-work life. I’m convinced that one of the things doing sports can do for knowledge workers is give them a degree of physical courage, or ability to handle stress and discomfort, that translates into greater capacity for intellectual courage and risk-taking. (John Ratey’s Spark is great on the cognitive benefits of exercise.)

Circadian rhythms and work rhythms

The New York Times has an interesting piece about efforts to match work schedules to circadian rhythms:

At the Denmark offices of the pharmaceutical company AbbVie, employees design work schedules that take advantage of their biological strengths. A nine-hour training program helps them identify when they are ripe for creative or challenging projects, typically mornings for early risers and afternoons for late risers. Lower-energy periods are meant for more mundane tasks, like handling emails or doing administrative chores. Workers save commuting time by avoiding rush hour traffic, and can better mesh their personal and professional lives — for example, by getting their children from school in the afternoon, then working from home in the evening after the kids are in bed.

Employee satisfaction with work-life balance has risen from 39 percent 10 years ago, when the program launched, to nearly 100 percent today, according to company surveys. Last year the Denmark division of Great Place to Work, a global organization that ranks companies based on employee satisfaction, named AbbVie the top middle-size company in the country. “The flexibility actually empowers people to deliver the best possible results,” said Christina Jeppesen, the company’s general manager.

When I first started reading up on circadian rhythms and focus, it struck me that many of us spend some of our potentially most productive hours stuck in traffic. We hit a wakefulness peak– a period when we have the most energy and are most awake– about one or two hours after we wake up; we also have another, less intense one in the later afternoon.

But for most of us, that period gets spent inching our ways down the highway, not actually doing productive stuff. Far better, I thought, to spend that time at home working, and then come in later, after you’ve done a couple hours’ work.

Within groups, though, it’s worth thinking about how you might factor in chronotypes to match the kinds of work you’re doing:

Stefan Volk, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, has suggested that businesses can leverage chronotypes to maximize team success. For example, members of a surgery team should have similar chronotypes because they need to be in top form simultaneously. But at a nuclear power plant, workers should have different energy peaks, so that someone is always on the alert.

“the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach”

From the opening page of Rosamund E. M. Harding’s The Anatomy of Inspiration:

We venture to suggest, therefore, that the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach…. Such historical research should be regarded as scientific and of psychological value and not merely read to pass amusingly an idle half-hour.

I’m definitely going to enjoy this!

Insecure overachievers

For some time, I’ve talked about why overwork has become the new normal, even for people who are fairly economically secure, or who have lots of control over their time.  Most of us, I think, have an intuitive grasp of what’s going one.

For one thing, many of us don’t work in fields that have “natural” starting and end-times, or clear external measures of productivity. At sunset we can’t look back on how many acres we’ve harvested; when the factory whistle sounds, we don’t have a bunch of widgets we’ve stamped out. Knowledge work and services can stretch out across our days and work their way into the cracks of our calendars. They’re also inherently hard to measure. Consequently it’s easy for the amount of time we spend working, and how seriously we take our jobs, to become proxies for productivity.

Performing busyness is a good way to avoid getting more work piled on your plate, and looking indispensable. It’s a kind of corporate protective covering, a way of fitting in. When everyone does it, living a more balanced life makes you look like a slacker, and feel like you’re not doing your bit.

There’s also a self-defeating cycle that keeps up overworking. You can sustain a push for a few weeks, but eventually chronic fatigue sets in, and productivity drops. To keep up, though, you need to put in even more hours, which might help a little in the short run but then leaves you more tired, and even less productive. Which we try to overcome by working even more.

Finally, Silicon Valley and the finance world has bequeathed us with a vision of success that’s a sprint rather than a marathon, a race against your own obsolescence. In an earlier era, success came by working your way up the ladder, waiting your turn, and building your career; now, it’s a rocket ship driven by the energy generated by the fast decay of your technical skills or business model.

Cass Business School professor Laura Empson had an additional explanation: insecurity.

The core of Empson’s insight is that, as she puts it on her Web site,

belonging to an elite organization can help counteract the sense of insecurity felt by many high-performing individuals, and how social control mechanisms within the firms’ strong cultures can provide a degree of ‘comfort’. However, there is a dark side to this:… comforting social control can lapse into cult-like conformity, and… exacerbate existing tendencies to overwork.

As she explains in Harvard Business Review,

A professional’s insecurity is rooted in the inherent intangibility of knowledge work. How do you convince your client that you know something worthwhile and justify the high fees you charge? The insecurity caused by this intangibility is exacerbated by the rigorous “up or out” promotion system perpetuated by elite professional organizations, which turns your colleagues into your competitors….

[E]lite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers” — some leading professional organizations explicitly use this terminology, though not in public. Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy….

Paradoxically, the professionals I studied still believe that they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice. They do not blame their organizations, which after all have invested in work-life balance initiatives and wellness programs. Instead, they blame themselves for being inadequate.

It’s good to see someone else providing what seems a very plausible explanation for overwork.

If you’re not into reading, Empson also has a BBC1 radio show about insecure overachievers.

A quick update, and more news soon

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I realize I’ve posted very little in the last few weeks (though I’ve posted lots of labrador pictures), because I’ve been doing a lot on the next book. I’ll have some good news about the project that I can share before too long; in the meantime, I can say that the writing continues, and indeed I’ve discovered a whole crop of companies in Japan and Korea that are practicing 4-day or 4.5-day weeks, which nicely expands my project without making it totally unmanageable. (I’ll be off to Japan, and I hope Korea, in the new year to study these companies a little more closely.)

The more I get into it, the clearer it become sot me that this really is a global movement that just needs to be made aware of itself to really catch fire. We talk about the 4-day week as some kind of great aspirational goal, or as some semi-utopian thing, when in fact companies all over the world are doing it right now, and indeed making shorter hours a cornerstone of their cultures and success.

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