Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Quotes (page 1 of 11)

“the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach”

From the opening page of Rosamund E. M. Harding’s The Anatomy of Inspiration:

We venture to suggest, therefore, that the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach…. Such historical research should be regarded as scientific and of psychological value and not merely read to pass amusingly an idle half-hour.

I’m definitely going to enjoy this!

Words every author should memorize

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own)

“I resolved never to read a mathematical book for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, without a break”

Last night I was out with some friends at a birthday celebration at our local pub, and– as often happens among people of a certain age– the conversation turned to back problems. I confessed that one of the great epiphanies of my life was the discovery that, after many hours of sitting (usually in terribly un-ergonomic positions) the way to deal with a sore back was to exercise, not to be sedentary. The lesson that exercise can be a cure for physical ailments became to basis of a more general assumption that we’re usually better off when we choose activity over inactivity– an idea that runs around in the subtext of REST.

These kinds of small but significant moments of enlightenment are often lost to history, in part because they sound mundane and slightly embarrassing: you’re supposed to have epiphanies on the road to Damascus, not in the gym. But this morning I found another example in John Maynard Keynes’ obituary of his Cambridge mentor, economist Alfred Marshall. (This is not as weird as it sounds: it’s a famously well-done piece of work. As the Wikipedia biography of Keynes notes, “Joseph Schumpeter called [it] ‘the most brilliant life of a man of science I have ever read.’ Marshall’s widow was ‘entranced’ by the memorial, while Lytton Strachey rated it as one of Keynes’s ‘best works’.”)

In the obituary, Keynes quotes Marshall’s account of an epiphany he had about the nature of work and rest:

An epoch in my life occurred when I was, I think, about seventeen years old. I was in Regent Street, and saw a workman standing idle before a shop-window: but his face indicated alert energy, so I stood still and watched. He was preparing to sketch on the window of a shop guiding lines for a short statement of the business concerned, which was to be shown by white letters fixed to the glass. Each stroke of arm and hand needed to be made with a single free sweep, so as to give a graceful result; it occupied perhaps two seconds of keen excitement. He stayed still for a few minutes after each stroke, so that his pulse might grow quiet. If he had saved the ten minutes thus lost, his employers would have been injured by more than the value of his wages for a whole day. That set up a train of thought which led me to the resolve never to use my mind when it was not fresh; and to regard the intervals between successive strains as sacred to absolute repose. When I went to Cambridge and became full master of myself, I resolved never to read a mathematical book for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, without a break.

I had some light literature always by my side, and in the breaks I read through more than once nearly the whole of Shakespeare, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (the only Greek play which I could read without effort), a great part of Lucretius and so on. Of course I often got excited by my mathematics, and read for half an hour or more without stopping: but that meant that my mind was intense, and no harm was done.

You never know when inspiration will strike– or perhaps, you never know what apparently ordinary event can lead to some life-changing discovery.

“A complete relaxation of the body often gives freedom to the intellect”

Around World War I, there were several business writers who advised readers about how to balance work and rest– particularly mental rest– in the modern office. Bertie Charles Forbes is one I’ve discussed before; here’s Walter Dill Scott from his 1914 book Increasing Human Efficiency in Business (available on the Internet Archive), on the tension between busyness and worry on one hand, and productivity on the other:

When accomplishing intellectual work of any sort, it is found that worry exhausts more than labor.

Anxiety as to the results is detrimental to efficiency. The intellectual worker should periodically make it a point to sit in his chair with the muscles of his legs relaxed, to breathe deeply, and to assume an attitude of composure. Such an attitude must not, of course, detract from attention to the work at hand, but should rather increase it. Upon leaving his office, the brain worker should cultivate the habit of forgetting all about his business, except in so far as he believes that some particular point needs special attention out of office hours. The habit of brooding over business is detrimental to efficiency and is also suicidal to the individual. It is, of course, apparent to all that relaxation may mean permanent indifference, and such a condition is infinitely worse than too great a tension. An employer who is never keyed up to his work, and an employee who goes about his work in an indifferent manner, are not regarded in the present discussion.

A complete relaxation of the body often gives freedom to the intellect. The inventor is often able, when lying in bed, to devise his apparatus with a perfection impossible when he attempts to study it out in the shop. The forgotten name will not come till we cease straining for it. Very many of the world’s famous poems have been conceived while the poet was lying in an easy and relaxed condition. This fact is so well recognized by some authors that they voluntarily go to bed in the daytime and get perfectly relaxed in order that their minds may do the most perfect work. Much constructive thinking is done in the quiet of the sanctuary, when the monotony of the liturgy or the voice of the speaker has soothed the quiet nerves, and secured a composed condition of mind. The preacher would be surprised if he knew how many costumes had been planned, how many business ventures had been outlined, all because of the soothing influence of his words.

“Busy men find life very short:” Seneca on busyness, leisure and time

Yesterday I read Seneca’s essay “On The Shortness of Life.” I read his Letters from a Stoic when I was on sabbatical in Cambridge, and recently saw a reference to this essay that made me curious to read it. Besides, it seemed like a good way to start the New Year.

Seneca is interested in the question of why we lament the shortness of life, and he argues that our lives are short because we misuse our time:

Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal….

You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!…

The condition of all who are engrossed is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labour at engrossments that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another, who are under orders in case of the freest things in the world—loving and hating. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.

Busyness, in other words, is not the key to a fulfilling and rich life, but rather an impediment to it. Nor, Seneca, makes clear, is idleness:

Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness….

Would you say that these are at leisure who are occupied with the comb and the mirror? And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

In contrast, he present a vision of rest as active:

And so, my dearest Paulinus [who was at the time a high official in Rome], tear yourself away from the crowd, and, too much storm-tossed for the time you have lived, at length withdraw into a peaceful harbour. Think of how many waves you have encountered, how many storms, on the one hand, you have sustained in private life, how many, on the other, you have brought upon yourself in public life; long enough has your virtue been displayed in laborious and unceasing proofs—try how it will behave in leisure. The greater part of your life, certainly the better part of it, has been given to the state; take now some part of your time for yourself as well. I do not summon you to slothful or idle inaction, or to drown all your native energy in slumbers and the pleasures that are dear to the crowd. That is not to rest; you will find far greater works than all those you have hitherto performed so energetically, to occupy you in the midst of your release and retirement.

But it’s also a vision that is philosophical:

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life.

This sounds a little contradictory, but as Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark argue, for Seneca “the contemplative life itself, he insists, is a life of “action.” For, in truth, Seneca believes that there is an admixture of otium and negotium in all intellectual enterprise, and he clearly feels that one’s life should, at the least, incorporate healthy portions of each.” (Or as Seneca puts it in On Leisure, “Nature intended me to do both – to be active and to have leisure for contemplation. And really I do both, since even the contemplative life is not devoid of action.”)

But it wasn’t just about reading philosophy, as he explains in On Leisure:

And with what thought does the wise man retire into leisure? In the knowledge that there also he will be doing something that will benefit posterity. Our school at any rate is ready to say that both Zeno and Chrysippus accomplished greater things than if they had led armies, held public office, and framed laws. The laws they framed were not for one state only, but for the whole human race. Why, therefore, should such leisure as this not be fitting for the good man, who by means of it may govern the ages to come, and speak, not to the ears of the few, but to the ears of all men of all nations, both those who now are and those who shall be?


Now while the blood is hot, we must enter with brisk step upon the better course. In this kind of life there awaits much that is good to know—the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of living and dying, and a life of deep repose.

Not a bad set of ideas to keep in mind as we start the new year.

“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.

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

“To create, we need both technique and the freedom from technique”

One of the great Silicon Valley tropes is that inexperience is a positive. The extreme expression of it– I’m simplifying here, but not that much– is that young people who aren’t already experts in a field don’t have the bad habits and assumptions that insiders have about what can’t be done, what’s impossible, or how things are supposed to work (or simply are), and therefore are able to be totally innovative.

This is, to put it mildly, an idea that deserves to be examined more fully. It’s like assuming that because I don’t speak Arabic, or know anything about poetry, that I’ll have better insights about interpreting 9th-century Arabic poetry than someone who’s spent a lifetime studying the subject, and can, you know, actually read Arabic. Or that a person who knows nothing about quantum mechanics can have a brilliant insight into quantum mechanics, precisely because they’re ignorant of it.

This is the kind of magical thinking that brought us Theranos.

Presumably there’s a sweet spot between innocence and expertise, where outsiders know just enough to be able to see that a field or industry is ripe for disruption. But there’s much better evidence that the disruptions we should take seriously come from people who are incredibly knowledgeable, and have actually done the work of mastering a field.

For one thing, in most fields you have to learn a lot in order to declare yourself an expert. Everybody knows that health care is screwed up and that the tax code should be reduced to a postcard-sized set of rules– unless you’re a doctor or tax accountant, in which case you understand just how complex these systems are.

Further, in most fields you have to know an awful lot in order to understand what even counts as an interesting problem, where the gaps in a field’s knowledge are, or what things really are efficiencies.

Finally, creativity rests on a foundation of endless, sometimes boring, preparation. As mathematician Stephen J. Merrill puts it in his article “To Again Feel the Creative Voice,” (International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 5:1 (March 2007), 145–164):

The creative voice speaks to those who have prepared themselves. The tools to implement any insight received are those experiences, techniques, and abilities developed up to that time, and, developed to an extent that they are automatic Y not needing conscious intervention. This means that there are no shortcuts to being creative. One must practice the musical scales, draw the urns, and complete the mathematical exercises…. To have a creative event, one must have both the inspiration and the ability and experience to execute it. Developing technique as an artist, writer, or scientist is necessary.

Merrill the quotes musician Stephen Nachmanovitch:

To create, we need both technique and the freedom from technique. To this end we practice until our skills become unconscious. If you had to think consciously about the steps involved in riding a bicycle, you’d fall off at once. Part of the alchemy engendered by practice is a kind of cross-trading between conscious and unconscious. Technical how-to information of deliberate and rational kind drops through long repetition from consciousness so that we can “do it in our sleep.”… When the skill hides itself in the unconscious, it reveals the unconscious. Technique is the vehicle for surfacing normally unconscious material from the dream world and the myth world to where they become visible, nameable, singable.

“it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later:” John Littlewood on morning work

Clare College

The great English mathematician John Littlewood wrote an essay called “The mathematician’s art of work,” published in The Mathematical Intelligencer in 1978. (Here’s a link, though it’s behind a firewall.) It’s full of great advice, but on this Sunday morning when I’m up early to try to finish a piece that’s been on my desk for months, this bit jumps out at me:

Before World War I it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later. Time goes rapidly-one has a whiskey and soda at 11:30 and another later- and work seems to go well and easily. By comparison the morning seems bleak and work a greater effort. I am sure all this is one of the many powerful illusions about creative work. When put out of action by a severe concussion in 1918, I consulted Henry Head, an eminent psychologist, and known for wise hunches as a doctor. The traditional prescription was complete rest, but he told me to work as soon as I felt like it (I had leave of absence) and as much as I felt up to, but- only in the morning. After a month or two I discovered, that, for me at least, morning work was far the better. I now never work after 6:30 p.m.

Lots of very creative people start their lives as night owls, only discover that the early morning is a great time to work (especially after a good night’s sleep). They find that the mind is at its most creative, you can be your most productive in early undisturbed hours, and that getting work out of the way leaves more time for leisure.

Going home

Littlewood was a terrifically productive mathematician, but he was also– as he explains in the article– very strict about taking time off every week, and going on long vacations (three weeks, no more, no less). Getting up early was one way to make sure that he had time for that rest.

The paragraph also illustrates something else that happens to lots of the people I write about in REST: they come to aware of “the many powerful illusions about creative work” that keep us from finding new and better ways of working, and get in the way of doing our best work.

Arlington VA

There are LOTS of stories we’re told about how we need to work– how many hours we have to put in, how we need to approach our work, how much time we have, how we should present ourselves to our colleagues and bosses— and many of them are so pervasive and well-entrenched that we never think to question them; or they’re never formally articulated, which makes it especially hard to recognize their effect on us. But people who manage to craft lives that are satisfying,  and that support really great work, learn not to take for granted that the world has figured out the best way to work.

This looks interesting: The Soul at Work

Capital has managed to overcome the dualism of body and soul by establishing a workforce in which everything we mean by the Soul—language, creativity, affects—is mobilized for its own benefit. Industrial production put to work bodies, muscles, and arms. Now, in the sphere of digital technology and cyberculture, exploitation involves the mind, language, and emotions in order to generate value—while our bodies disappear in front of our computer screens….

[T]oday a new condition of alienation has taken root in which workers commonly and voluntarily work overtime, the population is tethered to cell phones and Blackberries, debt has become a postmodern form of slavery, and antidepressants are commonly used to meet the unending pressure of production. As a result, the conditions for community have run aground and new philosophical categories are needed. The Soul at Work is a clarion call for a new collective effort to reclaim happiness.

Source: The Soul at Work | The MIT Press

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