Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Talks (page 1 of 6)

My DLD17 session with Arianna Huffington is now online

My session on Rest (or as it was called in the program, REST!!!) at DLD17 is now up online. Arianna Huffington and I talk about deliberate rest, multitasking, and more.

Or, to put it another way, Arianna is onstage, and I happen to be there too. Still hard for me to process.

The audio doesn’t sync up perfectly (at least in the 15 times I’ve watched and reloaded it!), but otherwise, hey. It’s cool.

Not to sound too much like a fanboy, but it was fabulous to spend time with her. She’s really nice in person, and was as generous with her time at the conference as she was in her New York Times review and Lifehacker shout-out. I met a lot of people who I wouldn’t have otherwise, which is always a good moment at a conference.

And DLD is an extraordinary event. It’s one of the few conferences I’ve been to where I can genuinely say everyone was interesting, and I never felt like I had to disentangle myself from a conversation that felt like it was going nowhere with someone I didn’t want to be around. For someone who has to make a conscious effort at small talk, this is a huge thing, and something I really appreciated about the conference.

Not to mention the fact that Munich is wonderful, and the venue was awesome (despite being a confusing Inception-style combination of three different buildings joined together by a series of catwalks and open spaces designed by M. C. Escher).

Speaking at American Library Association, January 21

The American Library Association’s midwinter conference is going to be in Atlanta from January 20-24. Naturally ALA attracts lots of book publishers (as well as makers of shelves, desks, and everything else you can imagine going into a library), and one of the things they’ll sometimes do is bring authors to talk about their latest books.

Some other Basic Books author must have had a conflict, because I’m going to be speaking at the conference on Sunday the 22nd:

ALA conference poster

You can click on the image to see the full-sized version and read the details. I’ll be speaking at the PopTop from 12:00 to 12:50.

See you there!

Talk at the Westerkerk

On Wednesday I gave my talk at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, sponsored by the School of Life Amsterdam.


I expected that the Westerkerk would be a cool venue, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a giant church, made more impressive by the fact that it dates from the seventeenth century, and is just beautifully proportioned, constructed and maintained. And it turned out to be the perfect place to talk about the place of rest in busy lives: its congregation was Protestant merchants who grew wealthy off trade, but they saw fit to place in the middle of their busy city a monument to prayer and contemplation and rest.


Continue reading

Off to Europe next week

My new Red Oxx bag

I’m spending this weekend with family and dogs, and starting to get things together for my first REST-related trip abroad. I’m going to be in London to promote the Penguin Life edition of Rest, then will go to Amsterdam for the release of the Dutch edition of Rest and a talk sponsored by The School of Life.

I’ll be blogging the details of the trip on my personal blog, and if time allows may also post some to Twitter and Flickr; though I prefer to save up my experiences until the end of the day and write about them, rather than try to document them in real time.

Speaking at the Westerkerk: Come for the rest, stay for the magnificent 17th century architecture!

I’m going to be going to Amsterdam in November to promote the Dutch edition of my new book REST, and one of the events I’ll do is a talk organized by the School of Life on November 23.

I was looking at the logistical details, and it turns out that the evening will be held at the Westerkerk, a 17th-century Protestant church that’s one of the largest in the Netherlands and looks absolutely spectacular (and has a great view of the city).

When I was younger I did a lot of choral singing at churches, so I’m more familiar performing in this kind of environment than your average non-religious person. Indeed, I find myself writing about subjects that aren’t precisely religious in nature, but do overlap with religious issues, or are explored by theologians and ministers.

And one of my favorite contemplative computing talks took place at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York.

Talking about contemplative computing

Nothing like an audience of thousands of divinities to call out your A game!

So perhaps speaking the Westerkerk will offer a chance to reflect a bit on the religious or spiritual dimensions of rest (what a rich topic!), and at least note the degree to which rest has been seen not just as a respite or idleness, but as an opportunity for restoration and common with the divine– turning it from the absence of work into a time with its own purpose, a purpose that we often forget in our more secular world.

Too often we see rest as either disposable (which it’s not), or just as a negative space defined by the absence of work– which it shouldn’t be. Thinking of it this way impoverishes rest, and reduces our appreciation of its potential and value to us. Arguably, observance of the Sabbath provided a framework for experiencing rest as valuable, and the retreat of religious observance has left us in need of a new foundation for making sense of rest in our lives.

“Work less, sleep better” at the School of Life, Amsterdam

So this is what I’m doing on November 23: appearing at The School of Life in Amsterdam, in an event titled “Work less – Sleep better.”

The Dutch translation of REST will be out that week, so I’ll be in the Netherlands to support the book.

I’m one of two speakers; the other will be Ysbrand van der Werf, a neuroscientist at the Spinoza Institute who has a new book coming out on sleep.

I’ve never been to Amsterdam, except to change planes at Schipol Airport, so this will be fun!

My CSCW ’16 talk on focus, mind-wandering, and connectivity

[This is a transcript, slightly cleaned up, of a talk I gave earlier today at CSCW 2016. I was asked by Gloria Mark to join a panel on constant connectivity after she read The Distraction Addiction; but rather than give a talk that summarized my earlier book, I decided to use the talk as an opportunity to draw out the connections between that project and my new book, Rest.]

When we were talking about the panel, Gloria asked us each to share a picture that illustrates our thinking about technology. I chose this one:

Acheulean hand axe and iPhone

We all know what the device on the right is; the one on the left is a million year-old hand axe. I put these together to make the point that while we sometimes think that technologies have an alienating or dehumanizing affect on us, the opposite is actually the case. Humans have coevolved with our technologies. We and our ancestors have never lived in a world without technologies, and we wouldn’t be able to exist without them. Not only that, over the years we’ve become really good at using them to extend our physical abilities, augment our cognitive abilities, enrich our extended minds (as Andy Clark puts it)—and to enjoy doing so.

One reason today’s technologies can be so good at capturing attention, and why the stakes in being constantly connected turn out to be high, is that they’re tapping into a profound human ability, and a profoundly humanizing one: this talent for using technologies so well they feel like they’re extensions of us is one of the defining traits of our species. Some of them are designed to perform like weapons of mass distraction, and our tools for capturing and processing attention are getting better all the time; others, like email, are addicting mainly for social and organizational reasons.

My brain on texting

So far, critics like Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle have mainly been focused on how device and connectivity are cleverly designed to distract us, and more generally erode our ability to focus. That can mean being more prone to distraction when trying to complete a specific task, like having cat videos distracting you from an article you need to read for work.

At another level, it can mean eroding your capacity for focus, which like willpower can be depleted, and get in the way of your ability to finish a big task, like a dissertation.

Buddha in the Japanese Tea Garden

It’s easy to think that this is a new problem, and that the world used to be a less distracting place. But that would be incorrect. The history of developing tools and practices and spaces to promote our ability to control our mental states—to concentrate on a problem, to clear our minds, even relax our conscious attention—goes back to ancient times. The fact that some of the most popular tools for learning to become aware of the state of our minds, and to move from one state to another, are very old—which tells us that problems with distraction are, too.

Now, we usually talk about mindfulness and meditation, not control of mental states. Indeed, I wrote a book about how technologies can distract us, and how we can learn to use them to be more focused and mindful. But in the course of writing my new book, Rest, I realized that there was another side to our engagement with devices. They don’t just distract us, or affect our focus. They can also do a good job eroding our capacity for another, less well-appreciated mental state: mind-wandering.


This is not as well-known as focus (and it’s absolutely not the same as distraction), and in our lives we generally don’t feel it’s something worth defending as urgently. But psychologists are finding that mind-wandering isn’t just a kind of energy-saving mode for the brain: during mind-wandering we play our future scenarios, ruminate over past events, and run through possible solutions to problems that we’ve been working on—all without conscious effort, or our being aware that we’re doing it.

Focus and mind-wandering

There even seems to be a connection between focus and mind-wandering: the more time we spend doing things that allow our minds to relax and unfocus, the deeper our capacity for intense concentration.

Shifting between these two states also helps us to be more creative. We’ve all had the experience of working hard on a problem, then having the answer appear when we’re in line at the store or out on a walk.

In my new book, I argue that creative people design their schedules and habits to support both periods of intense focus, and mind-wandering.

Being aware of our mental states, learning to control them, and understanding our own minds and work well enough to know which state we need to be in, is a great challenge. Most creative figures struggle for years to figure it out.

So how does this relate to technology and connectivity?

Life's better when we're connected

Learning to use tools so well that they become extensions of our minds is important for awakening this sense that we can control “the contents of our consciousness,” as William James put it. It’s why children who have time to play seem to have better focus in class. It’s why a surprising number of world-class scientists, engineers, and writers are also rock-climbers, sailors, serious musicians, or artists. It’s why in Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow (if you don’t know it, read these posts) many activities in which people find that optimal state involve using technologies intimately.

So can we design to better support learning how to control our mental states, to drop into intense concentration or mind-wandering? I’m optimistic that we can.

There’s a long history of humans being confronted with new forms of distraction, then developing new techniques to deal with them. In debates about the long-term effect of digital technologies on our minds, attention spans, or sociability, people sometimes point out that Plato complained about writing competing with speech and eroding memory, and that people worried about the impact of the printing press, the telegraph, and newspaper; and the implication is that these complaints fade over time, and people simply adjust. That’s not accurate. People develop techniques to deal with new distractions. We don’t just adapt. We deliberately craft new practices.


Discovering the pleasures of focus, the virtues of solitude, the value of mind-wandering is something most very creative people do as adults, and I think our devices are in a sort of adolescence: we love the easy socialbility, and almost are ready to discover the value of being connected to our work, to engaging problems, and to our minds as well. Designing to support these forms of connection, while recognizing that the process of learning how to use and direct our own mental states is a lifelong challenge, is difficult, but possible (“ease of use” doesn’t mean “an easy life”); and learning to do it will let us help people be not just better connected but better humans as well.

“the more you get up in front of people, the better you are at it”

Laura Vanderkam has a nice piece about learning to speak in public despite being an introvert. As she explains in the New York Times,

You’d think that book writing would be a solitary endeavor, a perfect career for an introvert like me. But, as it turns out, a big part of book writing is speaking. Blogging isn’t good enough. To sell books, you have to talk to people about your ideas.

So what has she learned? Continue reading

Speaking Notes 4: Your Space

When you’re giving a talk, your space should be your friend. Remember Frances Yates’ Art of Memory, and her discussion of the Roman orator’s memory palace? (Of course you do.) Your lectern, and the space in your immediate vicinity, should serve as a kind of memory palace, as well as a place that provides you with the cues and feedback necessary to do a great job.

We often pay very little attention to the space immediately around speakers, or the space around us when we’re giving talks. But people who do lots of talks organize their space as meticulously as they organize their desks. I first saw this in action when I was at IFTF and working with a futurist named Bob Johansen. Even before a conference call, Bob would arrange his notepad and pencil, drink, agenda, and other things so he could refer to them quickly and they’d be within easy reach.

At work

(More generally, one of the things I’ve learned from professional facilitators and conference organizers is that there is no detail too small to consider. These are people who think about the number of minutes it takes for the caterers to refresh the coffee, how an agenda should unfold over the course of a day, how much energy people will have in the afternoon, etc., etc. ad infinitum. It pays off.)

At work

I’d never thought of a call as something that demanded that level of physical preparation, but given how much time we spend on the phone (or on Skype) with clients, it makes perfect sense.

At work

When I started doing radio interviews, the value of setting up your space that way– of treating it as an extension of your self– became super clear. Here’s a picture of my space during a satellite radio tour:

I’ve got the book right in front of me, and the coffee cup over on the left. I also have the PDF of the book on my iPad, which I can use to search quickly for a particular term or line from the book. On the stands, and on the board behind the iPad, are cards on which I’ve printed out answers to questions I would get regularly, or turns of phrase that I want have at my fingertips.

It may sound like cheating, but a good interview isn’t totally spontaneous; you don’t just throw off awesome turns of phrase, or little memorable anecdotes that listeners will remember. At least I don’t. In the moment, under the pressure of having to fill six minutes of Atlanta drive-time radio with an interesting conversation, I’m not going to trust to my memory the exact results of a survey done a year ago, or to use the phrase “weapons of mass distraction,” or that I could pivot from a question of the “technology, is it good or is it wack” variety to an answer about how we have choices about how we use technology; I’m going to have all that right in front of me.

And so it is with my talks: I find I do a better job if I take care to get onstage beforehand, look over the space, and arrange my stuff so everything is in a familiar, easy-to-reach place.

Here’s a picture of my lectern, from a talk I recently gave in Edmonton, Canada.

Obviously, it’s got my talk (which I print out, because paper never loses electricity, is light, and easy to annotate). But on the right you can see that I also have a small package of tissues and a few cough drops, because after 45 minutes your throat will start to dry out. Above my talk I place a post-it reminding me what time I should wrap up.

In the lectern below, you can also see the always-important water, easy to hand.

I also always try to have a screen on which I can see my slides, and the time.

Having that screen is very valuable, because it means you don’t have to keep looking behind you to make sure that the audience can see the correct slide.

And knowing what time it is, and how much time you have left, is crucial. As we all know, some academic speakers have a… casual attitude to time, and assume that the world can wait for them if they go half an hour overtime.

But in professional speaking going long is bad manners, and causes trouble to your hosts, especially if there are events (or classes) after you. You don’t want to put people in the position of playing catch-up because you went long– not if you want to be invited back, anyway.

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Speaking notes 3: Travel

Travel for professional speaking is different than for academic talks. For one thing, I’ve almost never been invited to give an academic talk by someone who wasn’t a friend. This means that academic talks often have a friendly, personal dimension to them (though if the wrong people show up for your talk, they can also have an ugly personal dimension as well).

Professional speaking, however, is far more mercantile. It’s not an economic exchange layered atop an intellectual kinship network. Your talk is a commodity; it’s purchased like a DVD or a long book, with a certain amount of attention to content and audience, but with the expectation on the buyer’s part that they know what they’re getting.

That means you’re something of a commodity too. This doesn’t mean you can’t become friendly with the people who invited you; in my case, I’m lucky to have had some really terrific people invite me to speak at their conferences or on their campuses. But it’s a professional relationship first and foremost. It’s a lot more like your relationship with your dentist than your college classmate.

What this means is that you’re “delivering” a talk in two senses. Obviously you’re getting up in front of a couple hundred (or a couple thousand) people and speaking.

But you’re also delivering yourself to the venue. And you should pay some attention to that.

While the arrangements are often physically quite nice– I’ve stayed in some excellent hotel rooms since signing with Lavin– it’s not personal. You do a lot travelling alone, eating alone, working in your room alone. This isn’t bad; but it’s just worth knowing.

While at first I found it a bit disorienting, I now appreciate this singular or solitary mode. Not having the distractions of being a tourist or having to catch up with people, or worse yet, being caught in one of those situations where your host’s sense of social obligation requires them to escort you around to museums or other places neither one of you really wants to see, lets me focus on the talk.

And after all, the talk is why you’re there.

The most important thing you can do to ease your travel is this:

Don’t have anything you need to do while you’re travelling.

First and foremost, this means, don’t write your talk on the plane.

I used to be one of those people who’d completely rewrite his talk the night before.

Working on tomorrow's talk

I did some of my best thinking on planes, and I’d show up at the venue with my talk on a jump drive, and a talk that looked like it had been run over by a truck full of Post-Its.

But after I started working with Lavin, I realized that this wasn’t really productive. Sure, I might come up with some cool turn of phrase ten minutes before showtime, but it meant I was giving talks that were less polished, and often had some sections that were overprepared, and others (especially the conclusion) that were just sketched out.

Now, I’m giving versions of the same couple talks, which means I need to change them very little, and there’s very little incentive to try to come up with something completely new. Remember your audience wants to hear the version of your hit song that they heard on the radio, not your new acoustic swing-time interpretation.

Working on my talk

Plus, as my slides have become denser– that twenty seconds per slide rule, or whatever it is, is crap– I can’t afford to just wing it. A small number of people are able to do a good job speaking spontaneously, or working with notes that serve as a scaffold, but I want to make sure I hit my marks exactly.

So now, I freeze my slides several days before a talk, and while I go over my talk and make small edits while I’m on the road, I absolutely don’t make big changes the day before. At that point, and especially once your talk is loaded onto the presentation machine, you’re in Tim Gunn mode: you make it work.

(And don’t trust in your own ability to improvise. To paraphrase Chopin in the movie Impromptu, a talk should seem spontaneous; no one must know the desperate calculation that goes into it.)

Having your slides and talk all worked out well in advance makes an immense difference in the quality of your trip, and the quality of the talk.

For me, one unexpected benefit is that it means I’m much more relaxed, and rest better, when I’m on the road. I have plenty of work to do, but I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll finish the talk in time, and I don’t have to worry about getting enough sleep.

This may sound trivial, but to quote the line in the movies, you have One Job– ONE JOB– during this trip. You don’t want to blow it by getting too little sleep the night before.

So simplifying everything so you can deliver yourself to the venue, rested and ready, is essential. It also means attending to the logistics of the trip well before hand. For example, a few days before, make sure you know where the hotel is, where you’re speaking, and how to get from one to the other. Once you’re on the ground you want to be able to execute a plan, not struggle to figure out what to do. This will also help you travel light: the fewer pounds you’re carrying the better.

Since I spend a fair amount of time in the hotel, I now carry a change of clothes specifically to wear in the hotel: a pair of sweatpants, or flannel pajama pants, and a hoodie. Changing into these helps underline that I’m In For the Evening– no temptation to wander down to the bar– and it’s just more comfortable.

I’ve also gotten into the habit the night before of ironing my clothes, laying them out, putting business cards in my pocket, packing my bag for the talk and my suitcase for the trip. I don’t want to have to do anything the morning of my talk except review the talk. My goal is to be able to oversleep terribly, wake up 5 minutes before I need to leave the hotel, and still walk on stage looking sharp.

Reducing the number of decisions you have to make, and the number of little things you have to do the Day Of, also leaves your mind freer to focus on the talk itself. But as should now be clear, everything you do before you leave and while you’re on the road should be in the service of the talk, and doing a good job.

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