The Rest Project

Why we get more done when we work less

Sleep appears to reset the brain for improved memory and learning

The Penn campus at night

We all know that periods of sleep deprivation have an adverse effect on mental performance. Particularly when you’re young, you can tolerate an all-nighter or weeks of sleep deprivation, but it’s always a race against the clock to finish exams, papers, presentations (or a film shooting schedule, or delicate economic negotiations) before you collapse.


For a long time, researchers have known that sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation, and that during periods of little to no sleep, our ability to form memories and recall things on command degrades. Exactly why this is so, however, is something scientists are still working out. However, as the Guardian reports, a new study reveals one mechanism that’s responsible:

researchers show for the first time that sleep resets the steady build-up of connectivity in the human brain which takes place in our wakeful hours. The process appears to be crucial for our brains to remember and learn so we can adapt to the world around us.

The loss of a single night’s sleep was enough to block the brain’s natural reset mechanism, the scientists found. Deprived of rest, the brain’s neurons seemingly became over-connected and so muddled with electrical activity that new memories could not be properly laid down….

The results are a boost for what is called the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis of sleep, which was developed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003. It explains why our brains need to rest after a day spent absorbing all manner of information, from the morning news and the state of the weather, to a chat over lunch and what we must buy for tea.

Known more simply as SHY, the hypothesis states that when we are awake, the synapses that form connections between our brain cells strengthen more and more as we learn and eventually saturate our brains with information. The process requires a lot of energy, but sleep allows the brain to wind down its activity, consolidate our memories, and be ready to start again the next morning.

For those who can get to it, the original paper is in Nature Communications: “Sleep recalibrates homeostatic and associative synaptic plasticity in the human cortex.” Here’s the abstract:

Sleep is ubiquitous in animals and humans, but its function remains to be further determined. The synaptic homeostasis hypothesis of sleep–wake regulation proposes a homeostatic increase in net synaptic strength and cortical excitability along with decreased inducibility of associative synaptic long-term potentiation (LTP) due to saturation after sleep deprivation. Here we use electrophysiological, behavioural and molecular indices to non-invasively study net synaptic strength and LTP-like plasticity in humans after sleep and sleep deprivation. We demonstrate indices of increased net synaptic strength (TMS intensity to elicit a predefined amplitude of motor-evoked potential and EEG theta activity) and decreased LTP-like plasticity (paired associative stimulation induced change in motor-evoked potential and memory formation) after sleep deprivation. Changes in plasma BDNF are identified as a potential mechanism. Our study indicates that sleep recalibrates homeostatic and associative synaptic plasticity, believed to be the neural basis for adaptive behaviour, in humans.

In REST, I have a chapter on sleep as the original deliberate rest. Indeed, one of the most striking things I found with the people I studied was how many of them were really protective of naps and sleep: they seemed to be exquisitely aware of how their performance was affected by lost sleep.

Morning edits

Even the people who woke up super-early, and did some of their best work before they had fully shaken off drowsiness, didn’t scrimp on sleep: they went to bed earlier. Taking advantage of that more fluid mental state when you’re just awake and the world is still quiet is NOT AT ALL the same thing as staying up all night.

Shorter working hours don’t always reduce work-to-family interference

One of the strategies that companies and countries use to try to reduce “work-to-family interference” (a term sociologists use for a concept that’s fairly close to work-life balance) is to shorten work hours. The theory is that shorter work hours give people more freedom and time with their families. Good things, right?

Well, a new study by Leah Ruppanner and David J. Maume on “Shorter Work Hours and Work-to-Family Interference: Surprising Findings from 32 Countries” published in Social Forces finds that things are a little more complicated. Here’s the abstract:

For many, work interferes with their home life. To mitigate this encroachment, many welfare states have legislated shorter workweeks. Yet, the effectiveness of this policy on work-to-family interference is mixed, thus requiring additional investigation. We address this gap by applying multilevel data pairing the 2005 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) for individuals in 32 nations (N = 20,937) with country-level measures of legislated weekly work hours, mean reported weekly work hours (aggregated and differentiated by gender), and individualistic/collectivist orientations. We find that legislated work hours have no impact on individuals’ reports of work-to-family interference. By contrast, shorter normative weekly work hours, aggregated and by gender, are associated with greater individual work-to-family interference. We find an equivalent pattern in individualistic countries. While we document individual-level gender and parental differences, we find no differential effects of long workweeks for these groups. We explain these associations through the heightened expectations perspective, arguing that increased resources heighten expectations of work–life balance and sensitivity to work-to-family interference.

So the problem is that for lots of people, having more flexible schedules or more time creates a higher expectation that you’ll do a great job juggling family and work. Implementing the solution unintentionally creates a new performance standard, and keeps the problem hard to solve.

This is a classic problem in economics, first (I think) articulated in Jevons’ Law. In the 19th century, Stanley Jevons observed that as factories became more efficient, factory owners didn’t consume less coal, and thus save themselves some money; instead, they consumed the same amount of coal (or even more), and used the “savings” to produce even more goods. Likewise, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains in her book More Work for Mother, the electrification of household technologies didn’t lead to a decline in the number of hours women spent doing housework: instead, it led to higher standards of cleanliness, and a gendering of housework that freed men from household obligations.

This is not to say that more free time, or other savings, are automatically bad; but these studies all make clear that we have to be thoughtful about these gains, and not fall into the trap of unintentionally raising our standards and thus setting ourselves up for failure.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield: “People can only think really hard for 6 to 8 hours a day”

I talk briefly about it in REST, but I’m planning a piece that’s a deep dive into thinking about working hours in the tech industry, and how some companies are moving away from the idea that insane hours are unavoidable. For example, Business Insider reports:

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield doesn’t believe in long working hours. 

It’s why one of Slack’s internal mantras is “work hard, go home.”

“The most productive employees from my experience are those who go home at 5:30PM, but are hyper-focused at work,” Butterfield said at a press gathering on Friday. “People can only think really hard for 6 to 8 hours a day.”

The article goes on to explain how Butterfield sees chatbot apps as enabling people to work faster and go home. It’s as good starting-point as any, I suppose!

The story behind the chair on the cover of REST

This is the cover of REST. I wasn’t involved in the design: authors usually aren’t, unless they have design backgrounds, otherwise they’re a lot more likely to mess up a cover than improve it.

Final REST cover

I liked the cover from the beginning: it’s simple, uncluttered, and to the point.

I also liked it because the chair happens to remind me of one of my favorite places: The Orchard, a tea house near Cambridge. When my wife and I were on sabbatical, we went there several times: it’s a lovely walk or ride from Cambridge to Grantchester, via a ridiculously photogenic meadow that was bought by Trinity College around the same time Copernicus was thinking about the solar system.

The Orchard

Once you get it adjusted properly, this kind of chair is super-comfortable, excellent for an afternoon of lounging with a good book, with a cup of tea and a scone. 

I hadn’t had any contact at all with the cover artist, and I don’t know how much of the book they read before starting work. So I was especially delighted when I saw the chair on the cover or REST. I thought, clearly this is meant to be.

Finally, this year for Father’s Day, my wife and daughter found a version of the chair:

Father's Day present: a chair like the kind we sat in at The Orchard-  and that graces the cover of my next book!

So now I can work at home in a version of the chair that’s on the cover of my book, which in turn reminds me of the place where I started thinking seriously about rest. (Not the very first place, but I prefer the chair to a terrifying clown marionette.)

REST is done

Today I emailed my copyeditor the index of REST.

The main body of the book is now completely done, and it can go off to the presses. The version you can preorder is the version that my copyeditor now has.

A couple weeks ago I received the page proofs for the book. (This is why blogging all but stopped.) For those who haven’t been through the process, the page proofs are the next-to-last stage in the publishing process. The manuscript has been revised, it’s been laid out with the final margins, font, etc.; it LOOKS like a book, and reads differently.

Morning edits

At this point your job as an author is to make tiny changes, because the indexer is already reading the book, and it now costs time and money to make changes that materially affect the flow of the book. So if you delete a sentence, you need to write another sentence of the same length, or add a couple words and a paragraph break, or engage in some other kind of trickery to keep changes from flowing across pages.

However, if you’ve done your job and followed your editor’s instructions, at this point you might see the odd typo. More likely, you’ll see that you didn’t realize you’d used a word repeatedly: I found three uses of “overlooked” in three pages, for example, and I tend to start paragraphs with the words “So” and “In other words.” Very occasionally, you’ll see a way to say something better. I rewrote a couple sentences of the introduction that I think materially improve the book. But I had to be careful to cut other lines, and not create overflow problems.

Sending back the page proofs!

After I finished the main text, I went through the bibliography, which was 50 pages long, and made some cuts, though there wasn’t actually THAT much fat to cut.

Finally, it was time to send it back. I went to my local copy store, and made a copy of the whole manuscript. This is a step that doesn’t change— I did this with my first book fifteen years ago, and with my dissertation twenty-five years ago!

Making a copy of the page proofs, just in case!

Finally, I was time to put it in the envelope, and send it back to the copyeditor.

Sending back the page proofs!

So now we’re into final assembly, and dealing more with the book as commodity than content. A couple weeks ago we asked some people to read it and give us blurbs, and those are now just starting to come in (the initial feedback is very good, but of course these are hand-picked people who are essentially being asked to say nice things, so take that with a grain of salt).

I’m beginning to have some contact from foreign publishers who’ve bought translations to REST: we’ve already sold German, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese (and maybe Spanish?), and while I wasn’t very involved in the translations of DISTRACTION ADDICTION, I’d prefer to lend more help to the cause this time.

And then there are plans for long-lead magazine pieces, book excerpts, lists of journalists and producers to send promotional copies to, ebook ideas, and so on. Promoting and supporting a book is work. With my last book, I thought that books just kind of survive and thrive on their own, and my work was done. But a published book isn’t an adult, ready to leave the nest and make its own way; it’s a toddler, and still needs lots of help.

Plus I have the feeling that as good as this book is, there’s still plenty more to be said about the subject of deliberate rest, and how companies and schools and individuals can apply it. That’s not to say that the book is inadequate or incomplete; it is to say that the world is a big place, rest is a big subject, and no single book could do it justice.

This looks interesting: The Soul at Work

Capital has managed to overcome the dualism of body and soul by establishing a workforce in which everything we mean by the Soul—language, creativity, affects—is mobilized for its own benefit. Industrial production put to work bodies, muscles, and arms. Now, in the sphere of digital technology and cyberculture, exploitation involves the mind, language, and emotions in order to generate value—while our bodies disappear in front of our computer screens….

[T]oday a new condition of alienation has taken root in which workers commonly and voluntarily work overtime, the population is tethered to cell phones and Blackberries, debt has become a postmodern form of slavery, and antidepressants are commonly used to meet the unending pressure of production. As a result, the conditions for community have run aground and new philosophical categories are needed. The Soul at Work is a clarion call for a new collective effort to reclaim happiness.

Source: The Soul at Work | The MIT Press

Another reason world needs REST

A depressing piece on workplace suicide in The New Republic:

Workplace suicides are sharply on the rise internationally, with increasing numbers of employees choosing to take their own lives in the face of extreme pressures at work. Recent studies in the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Taiwan all point to a steep rise in suicides in the context of a generalized deterioration in working conditions….

[T]oday’s globalized workplace is characterized by job insecurity, intense work, forced redeployments, flexible contracts, worker surveillance, and limited social protection and representation. Zero-hour contracts are the new norm for many in the hospitality and healthcare industries, for example.

Now, it is not enough simply to work hard. In the words of Marxist theorist Franco Berardi, “the soul is put to work” and workers must devote their whole selves to the needs of the company.

For the economist Guy Standing, the precariat is the new social class of the 21st century, characterized by the lack of job security and even basic stability. Workers move in and out of jobs which give little meaning to their lives. This shift has had deleterious effects on many people’s experience of work, with rising cases of acute stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, burnout, hopelessness and, in some cases, suicide.

Source: Working Ourselves To Death | New Republic

“vacation is serving their business, and their productivity, and their success at their work”

“If a vacation is done well, it gives your ego all this extra time to refuel, by not trying to manage your brain, not trying to be on task, not trying to maintain the sort of memory trails that you maintain when you’re at work,” says [Amanda] Crowell. “The problem is that people go on vacation and they feel guilty about it. They don’t seem to recognize that the vacation is serving their business, and their productivity, and their success at their work. So they’ll check their email once a day, or they’ll take a quick call, or they’ll be thinking about work.”

Source: A vacation re-entry survival guide: Return to your regular life filled with new energy and perspective — Quartz

New study finds correlation between book-reading and longevity

A new study finds that people who read books live longer than those who do not. Researchers looked at “3635 people who were 50 or older,” and found that on average, “readers were found to live for almost two years longer than non-readers.”

Why is that?

In the paper, the academics write that there are two cognitive processes involved in reading books that could create a “survival advantage”. First, reading books promote the “slow, immersive process” of “deep reading”, a cognitive engagement that “occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented”.

“Cognitive engagement may explain why vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills are improved by exposure to books,” they write. Second, books “can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival”, they say.

“We had seen some mixed effects in previous literature that seemed to indicate that there may be a survival advantage to general reading; however, we were impressed with the magnitude of the difference of effect between reading books and reading newspapers/magazines,” said Bavishi.

I’m not sure I find the survival argument that convincing– we’re not talking about people living by their wits in a Game of Thrones world– but still it’s an interesting result.

Source: Book up for a longer life: readers die later, study finds | Books | The Guardian

Rest and its discontents

If you’re in London, there’s a cool-looking exhibition on rest opening at the end of September at the Mile End Art Pavilion:

Rest & its discontents is a major new exhibition exploring rest and noise, tumult and work, through site-specific installations, artists’ moving image, performance, drawing, poetry, data, sound and music. The show draws on Hubbub, a two-year residency undertaken by fifty international artists, writers, social scientists, broadcasters, humanities researchers, scientists and mental health experts in The Hub at Wellcome Collection in London, and led by Durham University. Their investigations have revolved around the dynamics of rest, stress, exhaustion, cities, sound, noise, work and mind wandering.

The exhibit seems to be the culmination of a project which started a couple years ago (right as I was starting work on the book).

I briefly visited Hubbub on my last research trip to London, and it’s a pretty cool place.

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