The Rest Project

Why we get more done when we work less

Fortunately Basic Books’ marketing is light-years better than this

I don’t know if this is real or not (I assume not), but this exchange is utterly hilarious.

Radio day

Rest officially came out on Tuesday, and in the last several days I’ve been doing lots of press interviews and a few radio spots. Today I’ve got two radio interviews, both at Stanford’s video facility.

Radio interview

The first was with the Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio, and in a couple hours I go back for another interview with THINK, a midday program on KERA in Dallas, Texas.

Radio interviews are interesting craft, and I’m definitely still learning how to do them– but I do feel like I’m getting better. Radio is a medium that doesn’t reward speaking quickly, or giving long, discursive answers to questions; to the contrary, you need to be super-quick, brief, and to the point, without dumbing down your ideas or misrepresenting yourself and your work.

Radio and REST

For me, the biggest challenge is being brief, just answering the questions that’s right in front of me, and not jumping immediately to the scientific evidence or historical examples. I love that stuff, and I really enjoys sharing it; but I have to reign it in when I’m on the radio.

Doing a good interview also requires a strong dose of empathetic imagination. You’re sitting in a room that’s windowless, soundproof, and your only companion is a microphone a few inches away from your face. But answering a question well requires imagining the interviewer, and imagining the caller. It’s certainly possible to think of them as just disembodied voices, but I think your answers (my answers) are better if I think of myself as in a conversation, and recognize that I’m actually talking to people.

But like I said, a lot of good performance is craft. Be bright and upbeat. Speak clearly: all those “umms” and “you knows” and “sort ofs” that we naturally use in everyday conversation, and which we easily filter out of conversation with people across the table, are really noticeable on the air.

Keep your answers short. Let the host decide what direction the interview should go: you may have things you want to make sure you say, but they know their audience, and it’s best to follow their cue.

Use turns of phrase or keywords that are memorable and direct people to the book. (I’m going to tell hosts not to try to pronounce my full name, but instead use the short version, and pronounce it in a way that makes it easier to Google; I’ve looked at search terms people use to find my blog after interviews, and I had no idea there were so many ways to spell (or hear) Alex Soojung-Kim Pang!) Having turns of phrase that you can pull out and use is great for keeping a conversation going, and planting and idea in a listener’s mind.

Remember that even though you’ve talked about this a thousand times (and may have thought about it for thousands of days), your audience is hearing it for the first time, so you should speak to people who haven’t heard about the book or you or the argument.

And keep your answers short. Did I already mention that?

“You waste years by not being able to waste hours”

In Rest, I talk briefly about Amos Tversky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s time at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences as an example of a super-productive sabbatical. Tversky and Kahneman had a decades-long collaboration that had a tremendous impact on economics and psychology, and Michael Lewis’ new book The Undoing Project is about that collaboration, its ups and downs, and the great work that came out of it.

One of my favorite lines from the book (first pointed out by economist Richard Thaler, whose book Misbehaving is a great intellectual memoir) is this piece of advice from Tversky:

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.

Since Tversky was a genius, I don’t feel bad that he was able to say in two sentences what I needed a whole book to say.

“you may be in for a few surprising insights from a man who has… thoroughly researched the topic”

December 7 2016 cover of The Almanac

My local paper, The Almanac, has a nice article about Rest.

What comes to mind when you think about rest? Reclining on the sofa with episodes of your favorite TV series queued up, courtesy of Netflix? Visiting your Facebook page, or gossiping with colleagues during a break away from your desk?

Ask Menlo Park author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang how he thinks about rest and you may be in for a few surprising insights from a man who has over the last few years thoroughly researched the topic, discovering how great achievers in the arts, sciences and politics have benefited from knowing the value of rest.

It even got the cover of the newspaper (though to be totally honest, most of this weeks’ issue is real estate ads, articles about pop-up stores, and notes about the police blotter).

You can also read it on Issuu, or download the PDF. (The Almanac ran a nice article about my last book too.)

“Science demands a lot of its disciples, so scientists should take control, not be controlled”

This piece about scientists’ working hours was written from last year, but it recently came to my attention after Jennifer Polk tweeted it out. (Of course I’m not shy about writing about something from 1876, so 2015 is not a problem!) Bryan Gaensler, Director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, argues that “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science:”

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have risen to senior academic positions have the privilege and responsibility of serving as mentors and role models to our junior colleagues. As young scientists learn the skills and approaches needed to become the science leaders of the future, they are deeply influenced by the advice of their lab heads and department chairs. So when someone asks me how many hours they should be working, I refuse to give them a number. Instead I tell them that they need to make sure they eat, sleep and relax, and that they should make time for their friends and families. Within those constraints, they need to figure out their optimal working hours for themselves.

Science demands a lot of its disciples, so scientists should take control, not be controlled. Young researchers should determine how, where and when they work best, should set themselves rules, and then should try to stick to them. Ever since my time as a postdoc at MIT, I aim to walk out the door by 5 or 6 every night, I try not to answer emails on weekends and I take my allotted vacation time. Just as heads and directors are expected to be exemplars in our research, we must lead by example in work–life balance.

He noticed that when he was a postdoc at MIT and tried to compete with people by working crazy hours, it hurt his productivity. “The additional hours were not translating into extra progress, but rather only into extra exhaustion,” he writes. “So I went back to working eight-hour days, before moving on a few years later to a faculty position at Harvard.” But, he continues, there are all kinds of evidence-based reasons that chronic overwork is bad for you, and for your career.

MIT's Stata Center

Of course it’s easy to assume these days that the correct answer to “how many hours should I work” is more, especially in super-competitive fields like academic science, where the standards are high yet fuzzy (is your slightly lower science citation score in a more prestigious sub-specialty plus strong recommendation letters better than the other finalists’ much higher citation index in a bigger field? you’ll only find out when one of you is hired!), and you live with the lurking sense that everyone else understands what’s going on and you’re the only fraud. (Plus the possibility that there are 14 grad students at Tsinghua living on instant noodles and benzedrine who are going to duplicate and surpass your work in about 20 minutes.)

MIT's Stata Center

Lots of really accomplished scientists advocated shorter, more intensive working hours, and saw the right kinds of rest as essential to doing good work. Darwin of course is my go-to example, but there’s also the example of his next-door neighbor, banker, and amateur naturalist John Lubbock,  tons of other Victorian examples, the mathematician John Littlewood, and others whose days consisted of four or five serious hours a day of hard concentration, with many other hours of apparently leisurely but actually very creative time. More recently, McDonnell Foundation president Susan Fitzpatrick made the case for unstructured time in a scientists’ life, and the ways that trying to take on too much can be counterproductive:

Paradoxically, doing more can lead to fewer impactful results—smaller questions, smaller insights, and smaller advances in knowledge. It is unfortunate that just about every professional reward and incentive in academic science requires that more and more be piled onto ever-crowded plates.

This actually echoes something that Santiago Ramón y Cajal said more than century ago: that

the observer can no longer afford to concentrate for extended periods of time on one subject, and must work even harder. Gone are the wonderful days of yore when those curious about nature were able to remain withdrawn in the silence of the study, confident that rivals would not disrupt their tranquil meditations. Research is now frantic. When a new technique is outlined, many scholars immediately take advantage of it and apply it almost simultaneously to the same problems—diminishing the glory of the originator, who probably lacks the facilities and time necessary to gather all the fruits of his labors, and of his lucky star.

So it’s good to see someone who treats sane working hours not as some kind of occupational mutation, but as a sign that they’re in charge of their own careers and lives. Too often we treat busyness as a sign of commitment, when in reality it can signal some pretty bad things: that we’re in over our heads, that our bosses aren’t very good at setting priorities and managing time, or that we’re just really bad at estimating how long it will take of us to do our jobs.

Martin Lindstrom: “I’ve literally written all my books while swimming”

Thrive Global, Ariana Huffington’s new enterprise, has an interview with Martin Lindstrom (whose biography describes him as a “Change Agent. Brand Futurist. Bestselling Author.”) that touches on exercise, boredom, and their role in creativity.

This discussion of Lindstrom’s morning routine particularly jumped out at me, as I just published an ebook about my own morning routine:

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Martin Lindstrom: Jump into the pool and swim for one hour. I call this my “water moment,” and I’ve literally written all my books while swimming. One notepad in each end — and a lot of dripping wet papers as a result — packed with ideas. I’ve come to realize that we all need “water moments” in our lives: in the shower, while driving, running, or, like me, swimming. It is a 100% uninterrupted time — allowing me to think, reflect, and create free-flying ideas. It is my creative zone and a time I simply cannot live without.

I’ve written before about swimming and creativity, but I haven’t come across someone who keeps a notepad at the end of the pool.

However, Lindstrom isn’t the only one who’s come up with a novel solution to writing down ideas under unusual circumstances. My favorite example is the great German mathematician David Hilbert, who used to do some of his best thinking while working in his garden. But rather than writing down ideas in a notebook, he installed a covered blackboard where he and his assistants could make notes as he walked or worked in the flower beds!

The more serious point is that keeping these kinds of notes is really common. It’s easy to assume you’ll remember a good idea, but you’d be surprised at how fragile they are, and who quickly an active mind wants to dispense with one good idea and move on to the next one. So having a way to record them on the fly is an essential feature of the creative practices and working lives of many creative people, and one that you really should do it yourself– whether it’s on water-soaked papers, in Evernote, in little notebooks, or a blackboard in your garden.

Appearing on KERA’s “Think” this Thursday

This Thursday, December 8, I’m going to be on KERA radio, on their morning show Think. I’ll be on the first hour, starting at 10 a.m. Pacific Time. I’ll sound very clear, as I’ll be in the Stanford studio, connected to the program via a nice high-quality ISDN line.


While KERA is the NPR station in the Dallas area, radio is one of those things that’s gone global thanks to the Internet. So if you want, you can listen to the station’s live stream here.

Business Insider on “How rest makes you more creative and productive”

When I was in Amsterdam, one of the magazines I talked to was the Dutch version of Business Insider. Now, the English version has published a translation of the article, which will teach you have to “use a strategy practiced by everyone from Darwin to Google to be more productive without becoming a workaholic.”


Truly, the world is flat!

If you want, you can also read it in the original.

The culture of overwork is not a new problem: American writers were describing rest as a “Forgotten Art” in 1876

Every now and then I come across some old essay that’s worth preserving and sharing. Recently I came across this 1876 piece by a Scottish-born American physician, Alexander J. C. Skene, called  “Rest: The Forgotten Art of Repose.” It appeared in the New York Times, and I’ve copied out some of the more interesting passages below.

For me, the essay is interesting as a data-point illustrating that the problem of overwork is hardly new: Skene is warning bout its dangers almost 150 years ago. It also illustrates that the idea that the best rest is active rather than passive also has a long history, even if it’s never been terribly popular or the conventional wisdom. And finally, it’s a well-written piece. Enjoy!

Continue reading

Parenthood and the need for recovery: we need time away from even our most meaningful work

Slate has a piece by Elissa Strauss explaining “Why retreats for moms are a terrible idea.” I’ll admit that I’d never heard of retreats for moms, other than the kind that are self-organized and often involve booze, but apparently they’re A Thing.

The light snark of the title aside, the article actually makes a good point:

We live in an age in which motherhood has morphed from a biological fact to an all-consuming lifestyle which demands that women be all in, all the time. If moms need to decompress—and they probably do considering American parents are some of the unhappiest in the world—then it would behoove them do so in an environment in which they could leave their mom selves behind. Instead of talking to other moms about motherhood, they’d be better off trying to forget their kids existed for a short time. Ideally, this would involve hanging out with human beings who are not moms, or other mothers who are equally committed to taking a respite from thinking about their kids. Some temporary exposure to everything that exists outside the realm of motherhood will be more restorative than any lecture or journaling session at an organized retreat.

Indeed, we have a century of research by engineers, psychologists, social scientists, and most recently neuroscientists that measure the negative costs of overwork and burnout, and the positive benefits of time off on our happiness and productivity.

For one thing, chronic overwork is counterproductive. Short bursts of overwork may be sustainable, but long periods of overwork lead to higher rates of mistakes that erase productivity gains, fatigued workers, and even an increased likelihood of cheating. Long-term studies over ten or twenty years show that people who don’t take vacations have increased risk of poor heath, depression, heart attacks, and higher mortality rates. So in the short run and the long run, overwork is unhealthy and actually counter-productive.

Another set of studies have measured the benefits of downtime, of vacations and time off. Scientists have found that activities that provide the most recovery are active and engaging, offer opportunities for exercising control and mastery, and provide psychological detachment from work. For example, many scientists are avid musicians or chess players, and they find those activities restorative because they are mentally absorbing and challenging. Active breaks are especially important for hard-working and ambitious people, because they’re the most likely to burn out. The more you love your job, the more you need to take a break from it.

Long-term studies measuring people’s health, mental states, and careers over decades reveal that people who exercise have healthier brains, better brain structure, and are less affected by age-related cognitive decline than people who do not.

Parenthood is a perfect example of an all-consuming job that can be super-rewarding, but which you really should take a break from. Having an identity that isn’t tied to your kids can make you be a better, more resilient parent. For your kids’ sake, and for your own, having a life outside the school and playdates and singing circle, that that doesn’t involve other parents or comparisons of schools or summer plans, is a really good thing.

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