Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Contemplative computing (page 1 of 65)

Hello from Bentonville Arkansas, most interesting place in the world (I’m not kidding)

This year I’ve given talks in Tokyo, Osaka, Baku, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, London, Montreal, Palm Springs, and other places.

But I think the coolest place I’ve been to all year is Bentonville, Arkansas.

Yes, Bentonville, Arkansas.

A couple months ago I was invited to be part of a speaker series at a new place called BlakeSt. It’s not a country club: there’s no golf course, though there is an ozone pool (better for you than chlorine) and other athletic facilities, and a truly beautiful building. (Part of it is the home of Betty Blake, who went on to marry Will Rogers. The expansion is completely seamless, the beautifully executed.) It’s a bit more like a London club, but with more programming, and more of an emphasis on wellness and creativity, not drinking so much your valet has to pour you into the carriage.

Alas it’s true

One of the striking things about the place is that while the exterior just looks like a really nice, big house— and in this respect it fits right into the area and really respects its location— the interior is a riot of really, really good art. The staircase leading up to the second floor has a bunch of photographic portraits, including one of the only photographs of Abraham Lincoln, and an amazing picture of Biggie Smalls.

Me and Biggie

Of course, the Walton family is known for its art collecting: the Crystal Bridges Museum is the most prominent example, but there are tons of Walton-sponsored art projects and collections.

It also has a truly spectacular music room, which an incredible JBL Paragon D44000 speaker from the 1960s, photographs of rock icons, and a pretty good collection of vinyl records and a fabulous turntable. (Van Halen really sounds amazing through the system.)

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

Needless to say, when I was prepping for my talk, I took over the music room, selected a bunch of records (Ziggy Stardust, Van Halen 1, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” a couple others), and got down to work.

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

And because of the curious demographics of Bentonville (about which more below), the crowd was really smart and engaged— they came for active rest, really got into the activities, and asked great and thoughtful questions after the talk.

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

So a marvelously-curated venue, an interesting crowd— it all made for a cool event.

Bentonville though, is really fascinating. It’s the home of Walmart— the first Walton’s store has been turned into a museum— and BlakeSt is a project started by one member of the Walton clan. I spent part of my childhood in a small town in Virginia, and I keep thinking that Bentonville is a great example of what a small Southern town can become with good-old fashioned grit, determination, American optimism, and tens of billions of dollars.

Neon and night in Bentonville

In most places, new money just steamrolls the past. Think of most Chinese cities, where historic buildings just get crushed by new money. In Bentonville, in contrast, the money hasn’t destroyed the past; what it’s done is something more like fermentation— a transformation that creates something new in which the original is still visible, but also transformed and preserved.

For example, Bentonville has some also some terrific mural work. But you really have to wait until dark to appreciate the most interesting art installations: the awesome neon art all over downtown.

Neon and night in Bentonville

You’d expect to see neon in a small town; but only a few of them are commercial signs. Many of them are art works by Roadhouse Relics founder Todd Sanders, one of the leading neon Pop artists working today. The shift from business to high art, and art works that reference America’s commercial past— a perfect target for Walmart wealth.

Neon and night in Bentonville

The town is also super-clean, there are nice little parks and playgrounds everywhere, and the Bentonville fire station seems to double as a vintage fire engine museum. So unlike lots of wealth, it’s gone back into public infrastructure, not just private collections.

Neon and night in Bentonville

But it isn’t just the Walton family alone that has created this unique environment. Walmart’s global headquarters are still in Bentonville, and so the town has a lot of executives from companies that are major Walmart suppliers or vendors. As a result, people who formerly lived in New York or LA or Seattle, or come from Europe or Asia, now find themselves in Bentonville. And what’s followed this global expat population? A ton of cool restaurants, coffee places, boutiques— the sort of thing they’re used to— as well as BlakeSt, which aims to be a kind of social hub.

Getting to work at @onyxcoffeelab. Talking tonight about DISTRACTION ADDICTION, REST and SHORTER at @blakest_ar, and taking the crowd through exercises illustrating how they can put the concepts of contemplative computing, deliberate rest, and the 4-day w

As a result, you get these crazy juxtapositions. One morning I had an espresso at Onyx Coffee Lab. Onyx is the only place I’ve ever seen in the US that uses a Budapest-style coffee service (the most civilized in the world, as far as I’m concerned). So that was kinda weird.

But Onyx is across the street from the Flying Fish, a diner-style place serving fried catfish and crawdads. It looks like it’s been there since 1950.

And the weird thing? Neither one feels out of place.

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

I can’t decide if the result is more like Disneyland’s Main Street USA, or the Truman Show, or the Southern Reach in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation— the juxtaposition of real small-town Americana, world-class modern art, and global elite culture is kind of mind-bending. But given my own experience— growing up in the South, living in Silicon Valley, working all over the world— I really love it.

Of course, the old Waltons store stands across the street from the town square where there’s a Confederate statue, and Bentonville itself is on the Trial of Tears, so the history isn’t all Steamboat Willie and patriotic newsreels. And you could make the case that beautiful modern-yet-traditional Bentonville is polished with the rags of all those small town businesses that Wal Mart has eviscerated over the last several decades— that the lovely town is a monument to an enormous transfer of wealth driven by a rapacious business model and ruthless corporation.

But at the same time, there’s something else about the atmosphere, something that I love to see when I go to the Netherlands or Denmark. The amount of well-designed public space and public art, the wealth without ostentation, the power that doesn’t express itself by living outside the rules— it’s all exceptionally orderly and civic in a way we don’t see quite as clearly as we should every day in America. Very unexpectedly, Bentonville has the feel of a social democracy.


Of course, it’s still Arkansas

No one is really innocent (writes the man who got his start in life with a college scholarship from a tobacco company). The question is what people who are lucky enough to have (or to have inherited) wealth and power do with it.

Neon and night in Bentonville

Anyway, going to Baku was awesome, and I’ll never forget it. Likewise, Tokyo and Seoul are always fascinating. But I look forward to seeing what happens next in Bentonville, and where it goes.

My talk at Google

Recently I was at Google, at the invitation of the Asian Googlers Network, to talk about Rest, my new work on the 4-day week, and even a bit about contemplative computing. The video of the talk is now up on YouTube:

It was a terrific crowd, and I just hope I did the subject justice!

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.

Why deliberate rest is important for learning and professional development

Yesterday I wrote about William Heneage Ogilvie’s essay “In Praise of Idleness,” in which he makes the case for the importance of “idleness” in the lives of doctors and surgeons:

Most of us have passed through… spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods….

For many of us the war [ed: both World War I and World War II, in Ogilvie’s case] has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”

Today I saw that Jocelyn Glei wrote about the relative benefits of practice versus reflection in learning and the development of skills. She draws on an article about the role of reflection in individual learning:

In this paper, we build on research on the microfoundations of strategy and learning processes to study the individual underpinnings of organizational learning. We argue that once an individual has accumulated a certain amount of experience with a task, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is inferior to the benefit of deliberately articulating and codifying the experience accumulated in the past. We explain the superior performance outcomes associated with such deliberate learning efforts using both a cognitive (improved task understanding) and an emotional (increased self-efficacy) mechanism. We study the proposed framework by means of a mixed-method experimental design that combines the reach and relevance of a field experiment with the precision of two laboratory experiments. Our results support the proposed theoretical framework and bear important implications from both a theoretical and practical viewpoint.

Yet few workplaces are good at supporting this, and as Glei notes, “taking time to reflect is not intuitive.” The article makes the same point:

Our empirical evidence shows that when given a chance to choose between accumulating additional experience with a task versus articulating and codifying the experience they have already accumulated, individuals largely prefer doing to thinking. The results of this study however also suggest that this is a sub-optimal strategy: participants who chose to reflect outperformed those who chose additional experience.

Nonetheless, the benefit of doing so are pretty clear.

This article shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone living in a post-Donald Schön reflective practitioner universe, though the original article’s mix of laboratory tests and fieldwork is pretty elegant, and I quite like how they take on the question of whether people intuit the importance of reflection versus action.

I see a very similar pattern in the discovery of deliberate rest by my subjects in REST: many are hard-charging, ambitious people who only discover the value of deliberately slowing down and taking rest seriously after almost burning out. When you’re chasing a Nobel prize or facing a deadline, it’s not self-evident that you should schedule time for deliberate rest: it looks like a sub-optimal strategy.

Unfortunately, many people who overwork and burn out assume that the key to success is just working harder, not learning how to use rest more strategically. It’s a bit like being a long-term value investor, rather than a day-trader: you have to be willing to accept some ups and downs, some short-term losses and less spectacular returns, on the belief that in the long run you’ll do better. And, one might add, in the belief that you’ll have a long run.

As Glei puts it,

In order to stop doing busywork and start doing our best work, we have to make a point of scheduling in regular time for reflection. We have to celebrate, appreciate, and analyze our past performances, so that we can synthesize what we’ve learned and apply that knowledge to take it up a notch next time.

“What people are angry about… is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives”

In my book The Distraction Addiction I talked about how humans have evolved to have incredibly powerful relationships with technologies, starting with hand axes a million years ago, and continuing down to the present; how our relationships with technologies are among the most powerful we have; and that the challenge with today’s technologies was not to learn to live without them, but to learn to use them better. This meant recognizing the power of those relationships; thinking more deeply about them; and re-learning how to use them well, rather than being used by them.

Arianna Huffington has a piece about “The Anger at the Heart of the Facebook Hearings” that echoes this:

What people are angry about, and what’s truly fueling this moment, is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives. That feeling of losing control has been building steadily for the last several years, as our lives have become both more dominated by technology and more dependent on technology. It’s the feeling that the pace of our lives, and the next thing on our to-do list, is no longer up to us. It comes via the endless screens and algorithms we’re immersed in. And we know that the feeling of autonomy is one of the single most important factors in our happiness. But we’re feeling less and less autonomous.

I think this has a lot truth to it, though there is real ill-feeling toward companies, not just technologies and our relationships with them. Control is one of the things we instinctively use to measure the trustworthiness of a technology; it’s also something we need in order to use them well.

So it make sense that the sense that a company is designing its product to elude our control should inspire suspicion and hostility. We’ve coevolved with technologies, and expect to be able to use them to extend our cognitive and physical abilities; and when that relationship is broken, it’s a big problem for us.

The “Think Differently About Kids” letter

Baby and iPhone

JANA Partners and Calstrs have published a pretty amazing open letter calling for Apple to rethink its design of its products, with the aim of making them less addictive to kids.

I suspect it’s published elsewhere, but the original is at Think Differently About Kids, and is the first manifesto I’ve ever seen that requires you acknowledge a disclaimer first.

There are a couple interesting thing here. The first is the argument they make that helping people be more mindful in their technology use, and developing more subtle and useful tools for helping parents control their kids’ device use, would establish Apple as market leader– or rather confirm it as the leader it already is:

we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.  By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.  As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.

Later, they argue that Apple should get on this because the zeitgeist is shifting:

It is true that Apple’s customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high, which is no surprise given the quality of its products. However, there is also a growing societal unease about whether at least some people are getting too much of a good thing when it comes to technology, which at some point is likely to impact even Apple given the issues described above. In fact, even the original designers of the iPhone user interface and Apple’s current chief design officer have publicly worried about the iPhone’s potential for overuse, and there is no good reason why you should not address this issue proactively.

As a parent of two quite technology-happy kids, it often struck me how few good tools exist for helping parents help kids learn to use digital devices and social media well.

My nephew at the Apple Store, Soho

At the same time, I think this is one of those things that’s really hard to implement: it’s easy to talk about wanting kids to use technology better or be less attached to it, for example, but hard to design for that. Further, lots of the problems we worry about with “technology” are really social problems, or human ones. And I think that technology companies are just as addicted to persuasive design as their users: it feels like too easy a toolkit to use, and there are too many examples of companies that.

Still, after years of talking about technology, addiction, and distraction, it’s good to see this getting some traction.

“you don’t need to choose between your smartphone and self-care,”

Minnesota-based author Elizbaeth Millard talks about my books The Distraction Addiction and Rest in a new article piece about self-care in The Growler, an online magazine about the craft beer and food scene in Minneapolis.

Oxford Retreat
It’s a beer in Oxford, but you get the idea

It’s cool to see one’s work picked up in these places: it suggests a portability and utility of one’s ideas that’s kind of validating.

“One day without notifications changes behaviour for two years”

Several years ago, Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica ran something called the Do Not Disturb Challenge.

It’s one of a number of such events that have been sponsored by schools, civic organizations, and groups interested in helping people regain control over our devices.

At the time, it looked like it was kind of a failure. Even after they scaled it back from a week to 24 hours (“[W]e couldn’t recruit anybody to take part,” one of the researchers told New Scientist. “We just got empty, horrified stares. And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours.”) Even after that, only about 30 people signed up. (The researchers explained their preliminary findings in a 2015 article.)

However, New Scientist notes, “two-thirds of the participants said they would change how they managed their notifications.” The researchers have gone back to the participants and talked to them about their smartphone use and attitudes towards notifications, and found something really interesting, as they report in a new article (with the somewhat discouraging title “Productive, Anxious, Lonely: 24 Hours Without Push Notifications“).

The New Scientist reports that “half had actually stuck with this goal two years on, suggesting that even a short, enforced holiday is a powerful intervention.” But as they put it in the article,

The evidence indicates that notifications have locked us in a dilemma: without notifications, participants felt less distracted and more productive. But, they also felt no longer able to be as responsive as expected, which made some participants anxious. And, they felt less connected with one’s social group.

It’s really interesting that digital sabbaths can have a long-term effect on behavior.

The other thing I would note is that it’s possible to customize notifications so that you’re still accessible to the people who really matter, but aren’t disturbed by messages about how the online retailer you visited 6 months ago is having 20% off everything. I talk in this article about how to reset your notifications so your phone does what it’s supposed to– keep you accessible to people who count– and not what app makers and retailers want. It’ll help your phone pass what I call the “zombie apocalypse test,” keeping your connected to the people you’d call during the zombie apocalypse, and no one else.

Martin Pielot and Luz Rello, “Productive, Anxious, Lonely – 24 Hours Without Push Notifications,” in Proceedings of MobileHCI ’17 (Vienna, Austria, September 04-07, 2017).

Honolulu fights ‘smartphone zombies’

More of Kauai
Just enjoy the sunset!

The city of Honolulu has passed a law that “targets ‘smartphone zombies’,” people crossing the street while using their smartphones and not looking where they’re going:

“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” [Honolulu mayor Kirk] Caldwell said.

The ban will go into effect in late October and will run from $15 to $99, depending on the severity of the offense.

I was recently in Hawaii, though on a different island, and was struck by how reflexive checking phones in restaurants, taking selfies, etc. has become. Even in an island paradise, many of us feel the need to keep our phones out and active all the time.

Imported contemplative computing posts

Outside Clowns of Cambridge
Clowns of Cambridge, where I first started thinking about rest while working on contemplative computing

I spent a little time this morning and imported posts from my contemplative computing blog. I’ve been moving things from Typepad to WordPress over the last few months, and realized that it actually made sense to move those posts here.

For one thing, whenever I talk about deliberate rest I end up also talking about issues that are the subject of my earlier book, The Distraction Addiction: you can’t really talk about mind-wandering without distinguishing it from distraction, or explaining how together mind-wandering and focus help you do things that neither can alone.

Dessert and writing at Clowns

Also, people often are interested in hearing about how deliberate rest and focused work (or deliberate work?) interact. It’s good to have time for both, but it’s clear from my study of creative lives that when they perform a pad a deux, or are thoughtfully woven together, they’re far more powerful and expressive than if they’re treated as separate.

The weaving room

Finally, midway through REST I realized that I was actually writing a kind of sequel to The Distraction Addiction. I started thinking about rest and creativity when I was at Cambridge working on contemplative computing, so chronologically the two books are more like twins than prequel and sequel.

Anyway, I’ll have to clean up broken links and so on, but that’ll be for later.

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