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.