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.

Pastors, workaholics, and “Leading from a Place of Rest”

The term “workaholic” was coined in 1971, in a book called Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. The author Wayne Oates wasn’t a lawyer or HR executive; rather, he was a professor of psychology and pastoral care at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.

Oates had seen lots of workaholics among the pastors he worked with. It’s a field that people see as a calling. It requires a very high level of commitment and self-sacrifice, years of training, and financial sacrifice. The job has a variety of demands, from the administrative and organizational to the spiritual and intellectual. And it’s very difficult to set boundaries: not only do you have to be prepared to deal with emergencies, your to-list is infinite, and there’s always the sense that you could do a little more good if you just put in a little more time.

Sound familiar? What Oates was describing was a combination of circumstances– high levels of intrinsic commitment, professional demands, organizational demands, high standards for performance (and a worry that failure or detachment could be catastrophic), and a career dynamic in which success is almost certain to lead to greater responsibility and burnout— that you see in doctors, lawyers, military officers, and which has spread into other industries.

Recently, John Wright, a national director of Vineyard Churches in the UK, gave a talk about the importance of rest in the work of ministry. “Leading from a Place of Rest” that deftly weaves together Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor, Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick, and my book Rest.

Leading From a Place of Rest – John Wright from Vineyard Churches UK & Ireland on Vimeo.

John Wright looks at the importance of Rest as one of the keys to freedom in Leadership.

This is a freedom that only comes when we are not striving and struggling through busy times, but trusting in God and doing those things that he has uniquely created us to do.

God asks us to build rest into our lives because he understands the crucial role that it plays.

It’s a great talk, and well worth listening to, no matter what your calling.

Captains of industry and their hobbies

Grand Central Station

[Note: Every book project leaves material on the cutting-room floor that deserves to be published somewhere. This is a piece based on some research that didn’t make it into REST, and which I recently wrote up for LinkedIn.]

Overwork is one of the great problems of modern life. The pace of business is accelerating, companies demand longer hours, smartphones allow us to carry the office around with us 24/7, and being busy is a badge of honor. But while overwork now has the quality of a public health crisis, for professionals, entrepreneurs and executives in America it’s nothing new. In 1878, a doctor lamented in the New York Times that rest was a “forgotten art.” In the 1890s, Harvard philosopher William James lamented Americans’ love of overwork, and argued his fellow citizens would be more productive if they embraced “the gospel of relaxation.”

But one of the early twentieth century’s most consistent critics of chronic busyness and overwork was one of the most unexpected: Bertie Forbes, the pioneering business journalist and founder of Forbes magazine.

Bertie Charles Forbes was born in 1880, and spent his childhood in the Scottish Highlands. At seventeen he became a reporter in Dundee; in 1901 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War, then in 1905 moved to New York, where he became of the leading financial reporters of his day. He then started the B. C. Forbes Publishing Company; his eponymous magazine first appeared in 1917.

One of Forbes’ specialities was the biographical profile of industrialists, bankers, and inventors who oversaw the growth of its modern industrial and corporate America. In his profiles of leading businessmen (and in the early twentieth century they were pretty much all men), Forbes almost always noted the strategies his subjects discovered– often after periods of overwork and burnout– for maintaining their health, restoring their mental and physical energy, and balancing hard work with recreation. He anticipates by a century current research (summarized in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) that finds that rest doesn’t just restore mental and physical energy, but– when taken in the right ways– can stimulate innovative thinking and sustain creative lives.

These profiles almost always called attention to the hobbies of the era’s industrial giants. Andrew Carnegie “lived a well-diversified life in New York, with frequent trips to Europe, interspersed with journeys to the Orient and other distant places,” and “no man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than” Coleman du Pont. Teddy Roosevelt was an exemplar of the busy public figure who “boisterously… enters into recreation.” US Steel president James Farrell and mining entrepreneur August Heckscher were avid sailors. Railroad magnate James “Empire Builder” Hill was an accomplished violinist. Retail pioneer John Shedd praised golf as “one of the greatest blessings of modern times… for it has drawn men of responsible affairs away from their tasks into the open air.”

Others, Forbes reported, preferred more down-to-earth pursuits. Charles Nash would hunt and fish in the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin when he wasn’t running Nash Motors and turning around distressed companies. Tire giant Harvey Firestone spent weeks camping, albeit in the company of figures like naturalist John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Warren Harding. “Tramping and camping in the woods is the best thing I know of for developing, not only a man’s physique, but his mentality and his soul,” inventor Cyrus McCormick told Forbes.

Executives’ respect for the restorative power of rest sometimes influenced company policies. Dodge CEO Frederick Haynes declared that while he “would never think of putting up a recreation building at the plant” since “men want to get away from the plant after their day’s work, to be with their families,” his company supported worker-organized clubs and teams. George Reynolds implemented a five-day week at his Chicago bank, arguing that in modern finance, “The pace is so rapid and the pressure so great that a man cannot stand up against it… if he works more than five days a week.”

For someone who subtitled his magazine “Devoted to Doers and Doings,” this attention to recreation may seem odd. But Forbes argued that the right kind of rest, taken in the right doses, was essential for success.

According to Forbes, successful people revealed that “How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.” It was essential to recognize that “Real recreation quickens aspiration,” and helps “to increase our fitness, enhance our usefulness, spur achievement.” Too many people ”confound recreation with dissipation,” wasting their time on idle amusements and subverting their careers. Other more senior executives “are committing suicide by overwork.”

But this did not mean that recreation was the purpose of life, or that work was to be avoided. America’s industrialists had “taught effete aristocrats of Europe that industry is no disgrace, that honest work and money-making soil not the best of hands.” Indeed, the idle rich “are of all men the most miserable,” Forbes argued, for “[w]ithout toil there can be no blissful relaxation or recreation.” Hard work and healthy rest balanced and justified each other. “The person who has no work,” Forbes said, “can have no recreation, no relaxation.”

So what sorts of rest were the most restorative? Choosing a hobby, Forbes argued, couldn’t be done on a whim; “You need to settle that wisely and not by chance.” Recreation had to balance a busy life. Office workers and sedentary professionals needed sports and exercise; merchants and traders would benefit from retreats in contemplative and artistic activities; executives bearing the solitude of leadership needed the companionship of others in similar situations. Forbes was especially keen on exercise, advising readers to join a golf club or gym, or even “move into the country where you will have to walk a mile to catch the train even in the dead of winter.”

Forbes was not along among early business writers in taking rest seriously. Walter Dill Scott, who pioneered the use of psychology in advertising, advised his busy readers on the need to balance long hours with a hobby “so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind.” Winston Churchill wrote that “The cultivation of a hobby” is “of first importance to a public man.

Today, businesses and busy professionals are beginning to rediscover that, as Forbes put it, “Whether we use our leisure to re-create power or dissipate power is of decisive moment.” Efforts to improve work-life balance, encourage workers to take vacations, unplug in the evenings, get more exercise, or even take catnaps during the day all recognize that rest need not be work’s competitor, but can be its partner. Neuroscientists and psychologists are documenting the value of walks for stimulating creative insight, of time in nature for restoring emotional balance, and of a healthy social life for promoting resilience.

And as I explain in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, many highly creative, prolific, and successful people organize their days around bouts of hard work and “deliberate rest,” and choose leisure that stimulates their creativity, supports good habits, and sustains long creative lives. The careers of Nobel Prize-winners, authors, artists, and even generals show that, as Forbes wrote a century ago, success “is most often won during non business hours, the hours that are spent away from the bench or the office; the hours during which we are our own masters; the hours we are at liberty to use or misuse.”

It’s high time we re-read Forbes’ lessons, and applied them to our own lives.

Music to work to

I listen to music almost constantly through the day, and when I was working on REST I did some reading about music and the brain, and the different kinds of music people work to. It helped me make some sense of the music I listen to through the day, and why certain kinds work and others don’t.

At the most general level, creative people listen to music to drown out other auditory distractions; or to improve their mood, focus, or some other emotion. (If you’re in a boring job, you might listen to music to pass the time, which is a different kind of situation.) The research says that for most people,

  • Instrumental music is less distracting than vocal music, because we have a hard time not paying attention to voices and lyrics (especially problematic if you’re writing).
  • Simpler music is good for when you mainly need to focus and aren’t trying to generate a sense of urgency, or feel upbeat.
  • After that, things get more complicated and idiosyncratic. We all have different musical histories; different kinds of music that we find energizing versus distracting; and different needs through the day.

For example, let me share what I listen to, illustrated by Spotify playlists. I often get up to write between 5 and 5:30, and the purpose of music in the morning is to help me stay in a calm, walking-up-but-not-quite-there state. For that, something like the Yundi Chopin nocturnes is just the thing.

I also like Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations (or the Calefax Reed Quintet’s arrangement of the variations), or the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I also like the Budapest String Quartet’s late 1930s recordings of the Beethoven String Quartets: I find the old, slightly shaky sound to be very romantic in a black-and-white, Europe-before-the-storm kind of way.

During the day, I usually want something that has more spark to it. When I was writing REST, I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks. Here are two:


The thing I find great about movie music is that the good stuff is great, but it’s almost always the case that composers have written music that’s meant to stir and energize, but not distract, viewers: the music is meant to underline and accentuate a scene, not call attention to itself. When I’m writing, this is perfect: I want the emotional charge, and just enough of my attention diverted so my creative mind has more freedom to operate.

Then there are times when I need more of an energy boost. For that, I have another playlist that’s highly idiosyncratic.

What this highlights is that while there are some general rules about what makes for good music to focus to, your own musical history and the associations you have with particular songs also matter. “Regiment,” the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration, is from an album I discovered in college; I’v loved Pat Metheny’s work since high school; Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” are from the Matrix soundtrack; Moby’s “Extreme Ways” is used at the end of the Jason Bourne movies, which I love.

I might also listen to Led Zeppelin, again because it’s music that I know really well, and because generally Robert Plant is incomprehensible so the words aren’t so hard to tune out.

So don’t assume that there’s a perfect playlist that works for you, or music that will be guaranteed to put you in a super-productive frame of mind (requiring employees to dance to Pharrell William’s “Happy” will NOT make them more productive). Rather, you should think about what you want to get out of the music (focus, more energy, or whatever); think about what you like; and then experiment. Don’t copy my choices, or anyone else’s. Make your own.

Words every author should memorize

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own)

Happiness and LSE podcasts

rerum cognoscere causas

I’m a fan of podcasts. When I take the dogs out walking in the evening, I’ll often listen to a podcast, since the dogs generally have little to talk about. (In the mornings I’m often still focused on writing, and so I listen to music– not so much because I want to concentrate, but because I want to let my mind wander, and I can’t do that if I’m listening to a podcast.)

Recently I discovered the London School of Economics Public Lectures and Events podcast, and I’m really enjoying it. The audio quality is middling, but the intellectual quality is outstanding. It helps to be familiar with these kinds of events already: they’re not TED talk-level short and smooth, but if the frayed edges of academic conversation strike you as charming rather than irritating, you’ll learn a lot.

I particularly found this event about “the origins of happiness” to be really interesting. It’s a talk by Richard Layard, an LSE economic and the author of Thrive, Happiness, and coauthor of the new book The Origins of Happiness.

The event was to commemorate the publication of the new book The Origins of Happiness, which Princeton University Press is releasing in the US in a couple weeks. Here’s a description of the book:

What makes people happy? Why should governments care about people’s well-being? How would policy change if well-being was the main objective? The Origins of Happiness seeks to revolutionize how we think about human priorities and to promote public policy changes that are based on what really matters to people. Drawing on a uniquely comprehensive range of evidence from longitudinal data on over one hundred thousand individuals in Britain, the United States, Australia, and Germany, the authors consider the key factors that affect human well-being.

The authors explore factors such as income, education, employment, family conflict, health, childcare, and crime—and their findings are not what we might expect. Contrary to received wisdom, income inequality accounts for only two percent or less of the variance in happiness across the population; the critical factors affecting a person’s happiness are their relationships and their mental and physical health. More people are in misery due to mental illness than to poverty, unemployment, or physical illness. Examining how childhood influences happiness in adulthood, the authors show that academic performance is a less important predictor than emotional health and behavior, which is shaped tremendously by schools, individual teachers, and parents. For policymakers, the authors propose new forms of cost-effectiveness analysis that places well-being at center stage.

This resonates with me for a couple thanks to my work on companies that are implementing shorter working hours, for a couple reasons. First, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to trade income for greater control at work, and more free time. Working in a place that has a 5- or 6-hour day requires being able to focus and work harder than at a place where you are there for 8 or 10 hours, and it requires being able to work under conditions where you have a higher degree of autonomy and responsibility.

Second, it strikes me that if income inequality is less of a source of unhappiness than relationships and personal health, then as a matter of public or economic policy, giving people more time– which translates into more time for family and friends, and more time for yourself– could be the more important long-term aim. (This is not to say that inequality should be ignored or tolerated, but I suspect there are plenty of CEOs who’d have an easier time accepting shorter working hours for their company than higher taxes on themselves.)

Their new podcast on solitude versus loneliness is well worth listening to, too. But I need to add Layard’s work to my to-read list.

“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days:” Daniel Pink on time of day and performance

Daniel Pink has an excerpt from his new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, that talks about the rather large effect circadian rhythms have on our daily performance:

Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health. Anesthesia is one example. Researchers at Duke Medical Center reviewed about 90,000 surgeries at the hospital and identified what they called “anesthetic adverse events”— either mistakes anesthesiologists made, harm they caused to patients, or both. Adverse events were significantly “more frequent for cases starting during the 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. hours.” The probability of a problem at 9 a.m. was about 1 percent. At 4 p.m., 4.2 percent. In other words, the chance of something going awry was four times greater during the trough than during the peak.

I think everyone has been in those after-lunch meetings where the room gets heavy, and people struggle to stay alert and pay attention. This is not just a function having had one too many martinis with lunch: it’s a universal thing. Yet the modern workday is organized with the assumption that every hour is identical to every other, and that we operate with the same level of effectiveness on any kind of task whether it’s 9:01 AM or 4:58 PM.

Indeed, in my study of companies that have shortened office hours, one of the consistent things they do is craft the workday to better match people’s daily rhythms: they let people work on their most important tasks when they’re most energetic, and put off less significant things (and many meetings) until later in the day, when you might have less energy and attention– but you might also need to spend less, as well.

Making to-do lists before bed can help you fall asleep (and solve problems)

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest reports on a new study that finds that making lists before bed can “help you fall asleep more quickly.”

Before they tried to sleep, half of the participants spent five minutes “writing about everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days”. The others spent the same time writing about any activities they’d completed that day and over the previous few days.

The key finding is that the participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep more quickly. They took about 15 minutes to fall asleep, on average, compared with 25 minutes for those in the “jobs already done” condition. Moreover, among those in the to-do list group, the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep, which would seem to support a kind of off-loading explanation. Another interpretation is that busier people, who had more to write about, tended to fall asleep more quickly. But this is undermined by the fact that among the jobs-done group, those who wrote in more detail tended to take longer to fall asleep.

I write in REST about the creative benefits of stopping work in mid-sentence. It makes it easier to resume work the next day, and it gives your creative subconscious a chance to work on problems while your conscious self does other things. (John Cleese talks about discovering this when he was first writing comedy; Linus Pauling developed a whole method for solving problems around intentionally thinking about problems before bed.)

And when I’m deep in writing, I will spend a couple minutes before bed making a list of the things to write about the next morning. I’ve never tried to figure out if there’s a correlation between list-making and how well I sleep, but when I’m writing I rarely have trouble falling asleep. So maybe that’s an unintended benefit.

Anyway, while this is an early study, it suggests yet another reason to make brief lists before bed: not only will to help you solve problems faster (and even make progress while you sleep), it’ll help you sleep better.
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“Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before”

In the MRT
Commute time on the Singapore subway

The Guardian has recently has been publishing some terrific essays on the future of work. Peter Fleming’s piece earlier this week (and for that matter, his various other Guardian essays) turns out to have been just the start: it was followed by John Harris’ piece asking “What happens when the jobs dry up in the new world?” and now Andy Beckett’s long essay on “the radical idea of a world without jobs:”

Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before. We know work’s multiplying problems intimately, but it feels impossible to solve them all. Is it time to start thinking of an alternative?

The piece is a high-altitude survey of the work of David Graeber, Benjamin Hunnicutt, Peter Fleming, and other writers who Beckett describes as

members of a loose, transatlantic network of thinkers who advocate a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater. They call this future “post-work”.

I’m not sure how much of it I agree with– I still find psychological research on the value of work to be pretty compelling– but as someone who’s written about the need to recognize the value of rest, I’m definitely intrigued by this literature. Anyway, the Beckett essay is well worth reading, especially if this literature isn’t yet familiar.

BlackRock pressing for greater social responsibility

This is an interesting development: BlackRock, the world’s largest investor, is preparing to tell companies in its portfolio, “Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Support:”

Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, is going to inform business leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock….

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” he wrote in a draft of the letter that was shared with me. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

As the article notes, this is the latest example of investors trying to get companies to take their social responsibilities more seriously.

“The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored:” Peter Fleming on working hours and the future of work

Peter Fleming has a piece in The Guardian on the dawning realization that our working hours need a reset:

Following 30 years of neoliberal deregulation, the nine-to-five feels like a relic of a bygone era. Jobs are endlessly stressed and increasingly precarious. Overwork has become the norm in many companies – something expected and even admired. Everything we do outside the office – no matter how rewarding – is quietly denigrated. Relaxation, hobbies, raising children or reading a book are dismissed as laziness. That’s how powerful the mythology of work is.

Technology was supposed to liberate us from much of the daily slog, but has often made things worse: in 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked their work email outside of office hours. Today, with the help of tablets and smartphones, it is 50%, often before we get out of bed….

Thankfully, a sea change is taking place. The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.

In fact, the observation that overwork is costly and counterproductive goes back to the 1860s and 1870s. The French communist Paul Lafargue in The Right to Be Lazy noted:

In his study of machines M.F. Passy quotes the following letter from a great Belgian manufacturer M. Ottevaere: “Our machines, although the same as those of the English spinning mills, do not produce what they ought to produce or what those same machines would produce in England, although the spinners there work two hours a day less. We all work two good hours too much. I am convinced that if we worked only eleven hours instead of thirteen we should have the same product and we should consequently produce more economically.” Again, M. Leroy Beaulieu affirms that it is a remark of a great Belgian manufacturer that the weeks in which a holiday falls result in a product not less than ordinary weeks.

We’ve known for a long time that overwork is problematic; but I suspect that it is becoming both worse, and more obviously counterproductive.

And the solutions are closer to hand. In my recent research on companies that have shortened their working hours, I’ve been impressed at how even in high-stress, demanding industries it’s possible to go from an 8-hour day (or really a 10-hour day) to 6 hours. We often talk about shorter work days or work weeks as nice in theory but completely impractical; in fact, they’re both nice in theory, and entirely practical. You don’t have to be a political radical, or motivated mainly by desires to redistribute wealth or spread employment (though both can be laudable goals); you can be interested in creating a company that is stable, profitable, and built for the long term, and see shorter hours as a great way to help you reach those goals.

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