Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Writing (page 1 of 8)

A quick update, and more news soon

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I realize I’ve posted very little in the last few weeks (though I’ve posted lots of labrador pictures), because I’ve been doing a lot on the next book. I’ll have some good news about the project that I can share before too long; in the meantime, I can say that the writing continues, and indeed I’ve discovered a whole crop of companies in Japan and Korea that are practicing 4-day or 4.5-day weeks, which nicely expands my project without making it totally unmanageable. (I’ll be off to Japan, and I hope Korea, in the new year to study these companies a little more closely.)

The more I get into it, the clearer it become sot me that this really is a global movement that just needs to be made aware of itself to really catch fire. We talk about the 4-day week as some kind of great aspirational goal, or as some semi-utopian thing, when in fact companies all over the world are doing it right now, and indeed making shorter hours a cornerstone of their cultures and success.

Using science in history: the case of spontaneous thinking

Within the discipline of history, the effort to use theories from the human and natural sciences– e.g., psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and other fields– to explain historical change is one that’s yielded, at best, mixed results. “Psychohistory” has come and gone; ecological history has fared somewhat better; and efforts to find a biological explanations for the Salem witch trials or other examples of mass hysteria have been met with pretty healthy skepticism.

At the same time, I think it’s worth thinking through how we can at least use insights from other disciplines, perhaps not as overarching theories for explaining how history moves forward, but more like probes or sensors that help us be more attentive to phenomena that we might otherwise overlook. Of course, Rest is one long argument for paying attention to something we usually ignore in explaining why some people are more creative than others. I have an article in the Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Daydreaming on “Spontaneous Thinking in Creative Lives: Building Connections Between Science and History” that explores how else we could use the neuroscience of mind-wandering and creativity to deepen the history of ideas and science.

Here’s the abstract:

Scientists have only recently begun to explore spontaneous thinking. It might appear that as elusive a phenomenon as it is in the laboratory, it would be impossible to detect in the historical record. This essay argues that it is possible to make space for accounts of spontaneous thinking in historical accounts of creativity and discovery. It argues that historians can use scientific work on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and other forms of spontaneous thought to illuminate the history of ideas. It explains how historical research informed by science could generate new insights in the history of writing and thinking, the history of attitudes towards reason and inspiration, the daily practices of creative thinkers, and even elusive phenomena like sensory perception and sleep. With diligence and imagination, it will be possible to reconstruct the place of spontaneous thinking in the history of ideas.

“I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery:” Antonia Fraser on writing

Antonia Fraser writes in the The Guardian about her writing routine:

I work with… total calm from about 9.30 until lunchtime. Ideally I then go out to a local Italian restaurant, preferably with someone who talks brilliantly about themselves, not totally impossible to achieve in London W11. I can then covertly mull over the morning’s work. I never work in the afternoon, preferring to go swimming in a local health club, for more mulling as I slowly and happily traverse the pool for 20 minutes. Swimming is the best sport I know for reflecting seriously on history. In the early evening I go back upstairs, but it will be for reading over the day’s pages, and correcting them, rather than something more creative….

The reason that this pattern of work-in-the-morning-only is something so deeply ingrained in me, is that I began trying to write history seriously when I had six children born in 10 years. I have actually written all my life, but history was It. So I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery, the moment I could cram the children into cradles, kindergartens, schools … with the wild hope they would stay there. (There are wicked stories of notices on my door saying “Only come in if you have broken something”, which I utterly deny.) Under the circumstances, I never ever suffered from writer’s block.

Today the discipline remains. I still feel odd if I don’t work in the morning, and if I am not alone in the eyrie.

This theme of strict routine as a way of making the most of time that otherwise would be soaked up by kids and chores is one you see with other women writers, like Shirley Jackson. I suppose you could also see it as a way of exerting a measure of control over one’s life and attention– a kid of authorial version of the strategy Janice Radway describes romance readers practicing in Reading the Romance.

Fraser also talks about having “a special computer for work, so that while I’m upstairs I do not receive those delightful distracting emails for which my baser self is secretly longing,” and being  “forced to learn typing on Saturdays at my convent school as a punishment for being uppish,” something that my mother was also forced to learn– though in her case it was so she would have a useful skill and could become a secretary, since that was what high schools girls in the 1950s could look forward to if they weren’t nurses or teachers.

Kazuo Ishiguro on “crash” and writing The Remains of the Day

One of the most popular parts of REST is the chapter on four-hour days, and how lots of writers, artists and others crafted their schedules around those few key hours. (It was excerpted in Nautilus.)

Regent Street at night

However, there are creative people whose day jobs, kids, etc. don’t allow for that kind of rigorous daily practice; and there are times when it feels like a super-concentrated burst of work is what you need to get a project going. The four-hour day is an ideal, and I think even if we can’t adopt it we can learn from it about how to do better work.

Today I ran across a tweet by Dublin-based author Sinéad Gleeson linking to a 2014 Kazuo Ishiguro piece about writing The Remains of the Day. He didn’t write it in four-hour days; in fact, he explicitly rejected that method, in favor of an immersive four-week period that he and his wife called “Crash:”

Many people have to work long hours. When it comes to the writing of novels, however, the consensus seems to be that after four hours or so of continuous writing, diminishing returns set in. I’d always more or less gone along with this view, but as the summer of 1987 approached I became convinced a drastic approach was needed. Lorna, my wife, agreed.

Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward.

So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one….

I kept it up for the four weeks, and at the end of it I had more or less the entire novel down: though of course a lot more time would be required to write it all up properly, the vital imaginative breakthroughs had all come during the Crash.

It would be interesting to note whether Ishiguro still goes into Crash to write books, or whether that was a one-time thing. (It sounds like it hasn’t been a consistent feature of his working life, but I’m not sure.) I still look back on writing my dissertation as one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, in part because I was simultaneously doing a ton of research, learning how to write something that large, and going through all the work of self-fashioning an academic identity*. In contrast, in some ways writing Distraction Addiction and Rest was a lot easier, because even through I was learning to write in a new way, the fundamental mechanics of writing had long become a sort of muscle memory, and I felt like I had a better handle on what I was doing, and I knew I could learn how to write for this new audience.

Best. Bookstore. In England.

Ishiguro also talks about how a Tom Waite song inspired him to change the end of the story, and to introduce a twist that I find so brilliant and devastating (it remains my favorite of Ishiguro’s books).

The rest of the thread is also worth reading through– lots of other authors replying to talk about their experience.

*Which as a faculty brat was probably a lot easier for me than for other people. My attitude to a secure place in the academic firmament was rather like the one Lady Mary expresses in an episode of Downton Abbey when her fiancé asks, “Where does your class of people get your furniture?” She replies, “I suppose we inherit it.”

“make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer”

Scottish author James Kelman tells the Guardian how he got his start, and how he writes:

I’m at the desk most mornings between 5.30 and 7. Every day is the same. I developed the practice under pressure of external commitments and obligations. I began writing while a young fellow in London in the mid to late 1960s, working at any job I could find. Most began at 8 am, and went on for ever. By the time I came home I was too tired for anything. I discovered a first principle of art: a weary mind in a weary body. So I did my own work first – my writing – which meant rising two hours before leaving the house.

In 1969 I met Marie and we married the same year. I continued writing and working after the same fashion. In my mid 20s I was driving buses. We had two kids by then. If a shift began at 5 am I would have managed an hour on a story before taking the first bus out of the garage. It was a wrench leaving the story but better that than trying to write in the aftermath of a 12-hour shift.

I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer. It worked. During the formative years I discovered another first principle: “writer’s block” is an economic luxury. It was inconceivable that I could steal time to write and be unable to write.

This is a geat example of how writers discover early morning routines: as often as not, they’re forced it in by circumstance and schedules, and only after doing it for a while do they discover that there are creative benefits to early hours.

The idea that you should “make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer” is also an important one. I’ve always loved John Le Carré’s description of being careful to give his country second best when he was writing novels on the train to and from work. This isn’t license to do a bad job on the job, but it is a reminder that you should be honest about what’s your most important work, and let your expenditure of time and energy– and especially those hours during which you can do your best work– reflect those priorities.

My new ebook: Rest in the World: My Morning Routine

I have a new ebook out: Rest in the World: My Morning Routine.

Rest in the World: My Morning Routine

When you write a book, there are stories that you can’t fit into the book, but which deserve to be told at length, or pieces of writing that get left behind, but which deserve to be published somewhere. One of the things I’ve been doing is finding a home for some of those pieces, often in magazines (my recent piece on Britton Chance and sailing is a good example).

I’ve also wanted to experiment more with ebooks. I confess that when I have the option I prefer to read physical books, mainly because I’m a very physical reader, as the picture below illustrates.

Reading is a martial art, 1

However, I can see the value of ebooks for shorter pieces, or things that aren’t meant to be read quite so aggressively as the above.

So I’m experimenting with publishing a couple things on Kindle. The first,  Rest in the World: My Morning Routine, is now out, and it talks about how I write; what scientists have discovered about the virtues of doing creative work in the morning; and how developing my own routine changed the way I think about creativity, and helped me develop a more sustainable way of working.* I actually have a chapter in Rest about morning routines, but there’s always more to say about the subject.

Like lots of people, I’m not actually a morning person; during college and grad school, if I was up at 6 a.m., it was because I’d been up all night, not because I’d just gotten up. I saw plenty of sunrises after starting writing a paper at 11 the night before. This is the kind of thing you do when you’re young and have more energy than sense; but it also reflects an assumption that creativity happens best under pressure (like the pressure of deadlines), and that productivity happens  after you’re inspired. Basically, the model looks like this:

Deadlines —> Pressure —> Creative Breakthrough! —> Frantic Work

Of course, there were plenty of nights when it was more like

Deadlines —> Pressure —> OMG OMG I Got Nothing —> Throw Something Together

…but still it worked well enough most of the time.

As I got older, though, I realized that this model was not sustainable; and I also started to suspect that it wasn’t necessary. The idea that creative work has to require self-sacrifice and self-destruction is one of the most enduring myths of our culture, but as I explain in the new ebook, it’s actually incorrect. In fact, it’s backwards.

So my aim in Rest in the World: My Morning Routine is to talk in detail about how I do my work, and the science and logic behind my choices, as a way of helping readers think about their own practices, and start to experiment with their own routines. I have very specific things I’m trying to do in the early morning, and particular reasons for each of my choices; and so while no reader will want to just adopt what I do, I hope seeing how I construct my routine will help them think more clearly about how to construct theirs.

Finally, a word about Rest in the World. These days I’m working on a couple projects that explore how companies and other organizations are figuring out how to design work days and working practices that respect circadian rhythms, that don’t burn out workers quickly, and that challenge our assumptions that today’s global 24/7 economies require nonstop sacrifice and constant overwork. Rest in the World is meant to be a series, and the next piece will be out before too long.

*(I did have a much bigger version of it up for a little bit, but this is a much lighter, more device-friendly version– and interestingly, as a result it’s a lot cheaper.)

A note on morning routines

In REST I had a chapter about why people are more creative in the morning, and here I’ve continued writing about morning routines and their importance in creative lives. Thanks to the BBC Capital Twitter feed, I saw that BBC author Renuka Rayasam poses the question, “Can a morning routine make you better at your job?

Many busy, successful people are early risers who wake at dawn to get things done without distractions…. [E]xperts agree that the period between when people wake up and when they get to the office is ideal for accomplishing activities that are personally meaningful or require discipline, but are not necessarily related to their jobs.  For some that’s exercise and for others it’s spending time with family or working on a novel. But, how do you create an early-bird habit?

Psychologist Martin Hagger, who is himself an early riser, argues for the importance of routines in making a morning work. “With a routine, even an evening person can get into the habit of waking up early and doing difficult things in the morning,” he tells the BBC.

That’s certainly my experience. For me, the key to waking up early is setting up the coffee, laying out my work, etc. the night before, so I can glide as easily through the morning as possible– and just as important, I don’t have any excuse to stay in bed (“ugh, the coffee’s not made, and it’s cold and I don’t want to root around for a sweater”). The more I can do the night before, the more I can make getting up and going automatic, and the more energy I have for doing real work.

Or as the article puts it,

Running on autopilot in the mornings allows people to preserve willpower for more complicated work tasks. Not having to decide between doughnuts and oatmeal for breakfast or to spend energy figuring out whether and how to exercise, saves up willpower for bigger decisions during the day, he [psychology professor Roy Baumeister] said.

“The efficient thing to do is to have your morning be well organised.”

John Cleese, Graham Wallas, and preparation for insight

Monty Python’s John Cleese has given a number of talks over the years about creativity. Today runner and academic Peter Francis tweeted out a link to a talk Cleese gave that nicely echoes what I talk about in REST:

In the video, Cleese talks about discovering the power of the subconscious to help you solve problems– if you do the work first.

I’ve transcribed the critical section, which starts at 1:39:

If I was working on a sketch in the evening, and I got stuck. I would think about it a bit. And then if I went to bed, woke up the next morning and made a cup of coffee, and then I’d go over and sit down and look at it again, 9 times out of 10 I would have the solution.

And I found this absolutely extraordinary: that overnight while I was asleep, the answer just popped up, and when I sat down in the morning after a moment or two of looking at this problem that had completely stumped me the previous night, I saw how to do it.

And what is more, I began to realize that in the morning I didn’t even quite see what the problem had been the previous night.

So this business of sleeping on it, this overnight incubation that went on in my unconscious was an extraordinary phenomenon.

But it did depend on putting the work in the previous evening. You see what I mean: i couldn’t just go out to dinner and go to bed and wake up with an idea. I had to do the thinking. But if I primed the pump, then the ideas came.

So that was an extraordinary discovery.

Then the second: I wrote a script with Graham Chapman, and then, to my great embarrassment, I mislaid it. I was very embarrassed, and I didn’t want to go to graham and say I’ve lost it, it was stupid of me to have lost it.

So I sat down, and I put in a blank sheet, and I recalled it from memory, and I wrote it out. Then, a few hours later, of course, I found the original. I thought, “Oh I must compare the two and see, did I remember the best bits?”

What I discovered was that the version that I remembered was better. The phrasing of certain jokes was better. The construction was slightly better. It was just a bit less verbose, a little bit clearer and more precise. It was better.

I thought, that must mean that between writing the first script and writing the second one, my mind had gone on working on the problems, and actually improving them.

So again I had a perfect example of how one’s subconscious, if you prime the pump properly, will go on giving you answers, as a reward— not as a gift, you have to work for it.

Fascinating.

Fascinating indeed. The first example is part of a bigger phenomenon that I’ve talked about before (Linus Pauling described it, for example). The second mirrors experiments that show that the subconscious continues working on problems even after we’ve turned out attention elsewhere– something I talk about in the book. It’s also a story that Cleese has told elsewhere: here’s an account of it in Fast Company from late 2014. And both illustrate Graham Wallas’s argument that creative insight usually follows intensive focus on a problem, followed by a period of incubation.

New article on the history of spontaneous thought

Later this year Oxford University Press is publishing The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought, edited by Kieran Fox and Kalina Christoff. I have a chapter on the history of spontaneous thought– or really, an argument about the possibility of writing the history of something that seems completely ephemeral and unrecoverable, and a description of some works that could help guide such a history.

I’ve put the near-final draft up as a PDF on Google Drive.

“a routine was essential for the prose writing”

Poet Jacob Polley in The Guardian about his routine and the differences between writing prose and poetry:
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