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.

Leanne Spencer on fitness vs. weight

Great talk by author and fitness expert Leanne Spencer (she’s founder of Bodyshot Performance) about the importance of focusing on fitness rather than weight. She starts with some startling and depressing statistics: the average woman in Britain spends 17 years dieting, and that 25% of 13 year-old girls skip meals to keep from gaining weight.

But, she argues, it would be much better to concentrate and work on “what we can achieve with out bodies rather than what they look like,” to shift– both individually and as a society “from fatness to fitness.”

Recently I came to a similar conclusion. I decided that my objective in my workouts and exercise was not to try to look a certain way, but to improve my strength and flexibility– to concentrate, as Leanne puts it, “not on appearances, but on functional fitness.”

I recently recorded an interview with Leanne for her Remove the Guesswork podcast, and we talked a bit about how exercise turns out to contribute to creativity and longer creative lives. It’ll be fun to see it up.

Erling Kagge on silence as “the new luxury”

An interesting short interview in Natural Awakenings with author and publisher Erling Kagge, author of a new book about the importance of silence:

Why do you consider silence, “the new luxury”, more important now than ever before?

Silence in itself is rich. It is a quality, something exclusive and luxurious, and also a practical resource for living a richer life. Silence is a deep human need that in our age, has ended up being scarcer than plastic bags from Louis Vuitton. To me, silence is a key to unlock new ways of thinking.

Shortening working hours and unintended consequences:

Koreans have had some of the longest working hours in the developed world: longer than the workaholic United States, Europe, and even Japan (which is often Korea’s benchmark in economic and business matters). While this solid work ethic has been important for the country’s economic growth, it’s had its downsides, and for years advocates have argued that limiting working hours would improve productivity, family life, and quality of life.

Long hours can also enable bad behavior among bosses. As a recent New York Times article explains,

South Koreans often suffer from a work culture they call gapjil. This word describes the imperious sense of entitlement that authority figures feel over their employees, whom they expect to wait on them and cater to their whims.

The most famous example is the “nut rage” incident, in which the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air threw a tantrum over how she was served nuts on a flight.

Recently the government acted to rein in working hours, passing a law that went into effect on July 1 that shortens the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours. The aim was to boost productivity and expand employment. President Moon Jae-in pointed to studies showing that

labor productivity [would rise] with every percentage point of weekly work hours reduced. During his campaign, he pledged to create 500,000 new jobs by enforcing a 52-hour workweek.

But as this Guardian article explains, the way the government has gone about doing it is having some unfortunate unintended consequences.

For their part, white-collar and office workers

have rejoiced at the new law. Some have long complained of a culture that expected employees to stay late despite a lack of work.

Others say bosses would routinely assign extra tasks outside normal hours, leading many employees to procrastinate all day since they knew they had to stay late regardless of workload.

I’ve heard from junior people at companies like Samsung and LG that “you don’t leave until the boss leaves, and the boss never leaves,” and that the long hours don’t translate into more work, but rather higher rates of presenteeism. When you know you’re going to be at the office until 9 for no particularly good reason, you’re more likely to engage in what Frederick Winslow Taylor referred to as “soldiering.”

But the new regulation intended to combat long hours in Seoul’s steel and glass office towers has backfired for many doing manual or irregular labour, with people flocking to poorly regulated industries and facing pay cuts.

Something like a third of Korean workers labor in jobs with irregular hours, and the new limits– and threats of jail terms for employers who violate them– have led to substantial cuts in pay for these workers.

As a result, lots of them are taking second or even third jobs to make up the loss of wages.

[W]orking-class people have largely mocked the new law for forcing them to take second or third jobs, saying: “Instead of a life with dinner, there’s a new life where you have to skip dinner.”

About 20,000 people have flocked to become on-demand chauffeurs since the new law passed, according to Kim Jong-yong, head of the Korean Association of Relief Drivers.

It’s not clear that if this was something that the government just didn’t anticipate, or what; but it sounds like a real problem is unfolding, and it illustrates how policies meant to shorten working hours and improving the lives of workers need to pay close attention to their effects on both salaried and hourly workers, and not overlook irregular workers.

Companies trying to work with these policies maybe haven’t always thought through the implementation very carefully. Indeed, the head of the German-Korean Chamber of Commerce recently warned that this could hurt exports. Not to put too much faith in national stereotypes, but when you have a German technocrat warning that you’re being too inflexible, you might have a problem.

Less dramatically, perhaps, the new law has also cost restaurants and benefitted grocery stores, as more people are able to go home and cook:

South Korean workers are leaving their offices and factories earlier thanks to a mandated shorter workweek, which seems to be bad news for restaurants and bars….

Supermarkets and online grocers, on the other hand, have benefited from workers spending more time at home. “We do not have exact numbers yet, but sales of fresh foods like fish and meat are rising,” said a Lotte Group executive. Demand has grown now that people are going home earlier than before and making their own dinners.

E-commerce website operator eBay Gmarket reports that for the July 1-9 period, sales of imported meat jumped 88% on the year and kimchi rose 36%. Sales of coupons for restaurants, meanwhile, dropped 25%.

“There has been no change in daytime customers, but a big drop-off at night,” said the 50-year-old owner of a shop that sells food from South Jeolla Province. July sales so far have plunged 20% to 30% on the year. “I am thinking of installing a ticket machine for orders to reduce staff,” he added.

Aging and work

Last week I was on BBC Radio 4’s morning show talking about REST and the need to change work and careers in a world where life expectancies are going up. Since then, I’ve seen several other pieces about this subject.

In the Globe and Mail, Linda Nazareth asks, “Should we consider delaying full-time work until 40?” As Paul Johnson has pointed out in our BBC Radio 4 conversation, you could see retirement as a system in which we bank the time we’ve saved by improved productivity at work, and spend it at the end of our lives. But, as Nazareth points out, longer lives should make us rethink retirement, and not just along the lines of raising retirement ages:

if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired….

Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives.

In conversations about the challenges of work-life balance, I’ve argued that one of the big problems we all face (but women in particular) is that we work in a system in which we’re expected to invest most intensively in our careers at exactly the same time we start families. And forget about prioritizing one over the other: we’re supporsed to work like we don’t have kids, while raising kids like we don’t have jobs.

I’m hardly the only one to notice this: in her article, Nazareth draws in part on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, whose work on extending careers could help ease these pressures was the subject of a recent article in Quartz by Corinne Purtill:

For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.

But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen…. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.

I wrote about how Australian historian Inga Clendinnen pioneered this kind of model decades ago, and that her example suggests that we think of work-life balance as something that plays out over years and decades, and that our lives would be better and easier (or at least we would be more forgiving and realistic about our lives) if we didn’t expect every day to be a jewel of work-life balance.

I also suspect that shorter working hours could help with this, by allowing more time for important but competing activities, and by offering a model of work that would support longer, more sustainable careers.

Talking about REST on BBC Radio 4

Ready for my closeup on BBC Radio 4!

So I was just on BBC Radio 4’s morning show (it’s night here in California, but 8 hours ahead in London, people are having their coffee and checking the weather). I was on with Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, talking about careers, aging, retirement, and the challenge of making work suitable for populations that have longer life expectancy (and increasingly, social safety nets and retirement systems that suck).

This was a bit of a last-minute thing: I got a message from a producer this morning asking if I was available, we did a sound check a couple hours later, and they rang me up a couple minutes before the segment ran.

I find that I perform better in these situations when I don’t just rely on my natural brilliance and extemporaneous speaking ability, but actually do some prep– which for me means writing some note about the subject beforehand. (I’ve written other posts about doing radio.)

Here’s what I wrote out and was trying to get across:

People who have very long and productive careers often alternate periods of intensive focused activity, with periods for recovery and reflection. This is true at the weekly level (i.e., detaching from work and having hobbies or other things that occupy your time), and at the level of years (having sabbaticals or other longer breaks).

This is a more sustainable pattern because, as recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists has shown, humans effectively focus for 4-5 hours a day. We’re also more creative when we have time built into our schedules for both hard work and deliberate rest. Finally, we vastly underestimate how much checking email after-hours erodes our ability to recover and recharge, and both our technologies and professional norms make that problem worse.

Whether consciously or not, parents who take time off with their young children, professionals who burn out after a decade in a high-pressure job, “digital nomads” who spend their 20s doing projects while traveling the world, etc. are all trying to find alternatives that play around with more extended periods of time off, or remix work and other things.

But companies have yet to make sense of these experiments, and instead see the traditional linear career as the norm, and these experiments as concessions or deviations. They also see long hours as a sign of dedication and productivity, and have generally been unwilling to share increased productivity with workers in the form of either higher wages or shorter hours. Finally, we see this problem of work-life balance mainly as one to be solved by individuals, not as an organizational design or policy challenge.

However, there are companies (mainly in software, advertising, and financial services) that have shown that it’s possible right now to shift to a 4-day week, or a 6-hour day, simply by using existing technology more productively, making meeting more efficient, and redesigning the workday to give people longer periods of focused, uninterrupted time.

Companies moving to 4-day weeks show that ever-longer hours are not inevitable, nor are they necessary for a company to make money and do good work. And if we can move to a 4-day week just by using our time and technology more wisely, this suggests that by designing new technologies like robots and AI with an eye to helping workers become more skilled and productive, and sharing the resulting time savings with workers, a 3-day week— or Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour workweek— could be closer to hand than we think.

The challenge we face now is to figure out how we can put these parts together: to do things like shorten the work day, rebuild the wall between work and private time, and design careers that allow for longer breaks and sabbaticals.

It’s not that you find the paragraph that best fits the question the presenter asks and then read it, but rather, the point of the exercise is to get you thinking about a subject, and give you a starting-point.

You’ll also notice the post-it that says “Answer JUST the Question.” This is a constant issue with me: I tend to want to answer a question and then discuss the implications, or a related point, and in a short-format radio show, you have to curb than instinct, and let the presenter guide the conversation. (BBC presenters, in my experience, are really outstanding, so it’s best to let them lead.)

Having a serious microphone is also a MUST for things like this. I love my Yeti Blue mic, and adding the wind guard and stand has only improved both the audio quality and ease of use.

I think I’m slowly getting better at these things. It’s not something that comes effortlessly, but it is possible to improve!

Now to bed, as I have to be up very early tomorrow!

How to have a more restorative vacation

Erica Alini interviewed me a couple days ago about rest and vacations, and now how an article in Gobal News about “The smartest vacation: How to get the most R and R, according to science.“

It’s a more important subject than you might think at first, because so many of us overwork and treat vacations like a Miracle Cure-All, a couple weeks when we can de-stress, relax, recover the energy we’be poured into our jobs, and generally make up for months of overextension and mistreatment.

But too often, we design vacations that don’t do us as much good as they could. We overstuff them with activities, or sneak in a little work, or do other things that degrade the restorative value of our vacations.

On a recent episode of my podcast I talked with Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist who specializes in vacations, about her research and findings. She has a number of insights about what makes vacations truly restorative, and some excellent advice about how we can better approach vacation design.

One thing she highlighted was the importance of control as something that affects whether a vacation is good or bad. If you do what you like and don’t have to face unexpected problems, you’re a lot more likely to rate vacations as good, and you’re more likely to benefit from them. This helped me explain why over the years I’ve gone from taking vacations that were really packed with activities, to vacations that feature one or two big things a day (at most), and more time for either doing “nothing at all,” or for exploring things we discover on the ground. If you have a crazy vacation schedule (kind of like your normal life!) and feel like you need to see Absolutely Everything in order for it to have been a success, two things are likely to happen. First, you’ll fail to cross everything off your list, and that will affect your level of satisfaction with your vacation. Or, you’ll push to do it all, but turn the vacation into a slog.

The most interesting thing de Bloom said was that her research has led her to take non-vacation rest more seriously. The more she gets into the science of recovery, and understands the factors that make vacations successes or failures, the more de Bloom appreciates the value of taking evenings off, of putting work away on weekends, of cultivating hobbies. Vacations are great, but maybe the biggest problem with them is that we expect too much of them.

I certainly understand the temptation to Do It All, especially if you want the kids to be exposed to new things, or you spent a lot of money to get to your destination; and if the point of the vacation is to educate your kids, or to see lots of things, then go for it.

But if the point of your vacation is to actually recover the energy you’ve drained while working, or to step back from the precipice of burnout, then you could be better off doing less.

New things on vacations

I’ve been thinking a bit about vacations, partly because I’m off to England tomorrow for some research, some interviews, and a little time off with my wife.

Big Ben and Parliament

My latest piece on Thrive Global is an argument for ignoring your children while on vacation:

Since my kids were old enough to pack their own suitcases, I’ve had one ironclad rule for family vacations: “I’m not responsible for your feeling entertained.”

What this means is, you’re old enough to be bored if you want, or not bored. You can choose to engage, or not. You’re in charge of your feelings.

I also talk about the science of vacations with University of Groningen postdoctoral fellow Jessica de Bloom on my podcast. De Bloom is a psychologist who’s looked at a number of important issues– when our happiness peaks on vacation, how long the benefits of vacations last, and what factors go into making our time on vacation seem good or bad.

Kauai

I think her work is very interesting, partly because some of her findings are kind of counterintuitive, but it’s also worth using it (and all scientific research on human subjects) with a grain of salt. For example, when you measure the amount of happiness that being on vacation generates and how long those benefits last, her work indicates that shorter, more frequent vacations are better for us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on long trips: for example, you can get immersed in a culture, or forge deep friendships, or have other experiences that more than make up for the extra weeks.

My new Red Oxx bag

Travel and vacations can be complicated things, and  rewarding for all kinds of reasons; and I think what’s good about this work is how it helps us think more clearly about how we balance different demands and possibilities. The science doesn’t provide fixed recommendations; it clarifies options.

Anyway, I’m off to England shortly, to put some of those ideas into practice….

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 4: Jessica de Bloom and the Science of Vacations

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-wn9tz-952bd4

Since we’re in the middle of summer break, I thought it would be fitting to take a break from the shorter hours interviews, and talk about something that’s on everyone’s mind: vacations.

Many of us have a conflicted relationships with vacations. We expect a lot from them, we spend a lot on them, but we don’t always get everything we want from them. When we go somewhere new, our default mode is to pack the days full of activities (this is doubly true if you have children), then we come home feeling like we need a vacation to recover from our vacation.

If we want vacations that are restorative, that recharge us and restore our energy, is there a better way?

In this episode I talk with Jessica de Bloom about the science of vacations. De Bloom is one of a number of academics who have been studying the psychology of restorative activities. I originally discovered her work when I was writing Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, and so it was a pleasure to talk to her in person about her work.

De Bloom’s work has some counterintuitive conclusions about vacations and breaks, and if you like getting away but feel like you’re not getting what you need out of your time away, this episode is for you.

Mentioned in this episode:

Rest, medical education, and Clifford Geertz’s lawn

The Center for Medical Simulation at Harvard discusses Rest in the latest episode of their podcast. It’s a great conversation: in addition to providing a good overview of the book, they talk about deep play, the challenges of making time for rest when you’re a doctor, and other practical things.

Listening to it, I was struck by how much of a role social norms play in making rest more or less available to busy people, by defining whether it’s okay to rest during the day, or rest when other people are still working (which these days means all the time). Robert Simon, the Center’s senior director for educational leadership and international programs (and hence no slacker) says,

I have really tried not to get into my email on the weekends. What I experienced was, “Oh, that’s good” from my colleagues— and then a sense of disappointment from time to time that I hadn’t read something that was important to them… the social pressure that comes from, “You’re resting? Really? You’re not measuring up to my expectations.” I would say something similar about going to take a nap during the day: “I’m working and you’re just sleeping?”

So I think it has to do with some kind of social contract that plays into that….

I try to work at home one day a week. Invariably, I rest for half an hour. Every time, I do that, and I feel so much better for it. That’s so easily accomplished at home, and not when I’m in the office.

I think that we can’t underestimate the value of synchronizing rest time in the workplace, whether it’s by having regular rituals, or shortening the workday. It eliminates the social stigma attached to rest, but also eliminates a lot of the pressure that flexible schedules place on individuals.

Host Jenny Rudolph also shares this great anecdote about Clifford Geertz:

For many years… [Geertz] rented the house next to us in Vermont every summer. And [by the end of his visit] the grass down by the lake right in front of his house… was completely worn down because hw walked back and forth, back and forth, for several hours every day, thinking about his books.

This is not a story I’ve ever run across, and doubt I ever would, so thanks, Jenny!

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 3: Spencer Kimball and Free Fridays at Cockroach Labs

In this episode I talk to Spencer Kimball, cofounder of Cockroach Labs , a startup that’s reinventing how databases work. It’s kind of technical, but fortunately Spencer does a great job of explaining what they’re doing. He also does an excellent job of explaining Cockroach Labs’ “Free Fridays,” and how they’ve designed their work week to give everyone one day a week to work on their own projects, even as they build a product designed to compete against products made by giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Oracle.

I also talk to Clive Thompson about why 20% time is a significant perk for software developers, and more gnerally, the place that free time plays in the professional and intellectual lives of programmers.

Mentioned in this episode:

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