Jeremy Hunt went running with Matt Chorley on the Red Box Politics Podcast, and talked about running and problem-solving. (And, in the interests of balance, here’s an episode featuring an interview with Boris Johnson.)
Last fall I spent some time at The Mix, a London research agency, and interviewed several people about the four-day week. The Mix moved to a four-day week a little more than a year ago, and founder Tash Walker does a great job of explaining how to make a four-day week work, and how it can benefit founders like her, employees, companies, and clients.
It’s worth a listen. The Mix also recently published a report on its experience with four-day weeks.
In September, there was an interesting session on the four-day week at The World Transformed, an event in Liverpool that sounds like a fringe festival paralleling the UK Labour Party annual conference. It’s now up on Sound Cloud, and is worth a listen. (The embed below should start right at the beginning of the session; if not, run up to 4:35.)
It’s very much a policy discussion, which makes sense given the context, so some of the concerns— how the four-day week could be legislated, the virtues of it versus universal basic income, etc.— are ones that I’m not focusing on. But the speakers are quite good!
However, I do think that there’s a risk with these policy discussions of the four-day week being cast as something that the state does to businesses, or merely a concession that’s wrung out of capital by politicians aligned with labor, rather than something that businesses do for themselves, for quite compelling and practical reasons. This does turn the four-day week from something that
You could argue that this drains the potential radicalism from the four-day week, that talking about it as a way of boosting retention, or standing out in the market, or building a more sustainable business, turns it into a managerial technique for propping up the current system, rather than a tool to be used to build something new. But I would argue two things.
First, there’s a lot of value in recognizing that this shouldn’t be an abstract argument about whether we could move to a four-day week, but rather an argument about why the companies that are already doing it are succeeding, and how their lessons can be generalized.
Second, revolutionary changes in business, science and the arts often start out very modestly. As Isaac Asimov put it, the most exciting phrase in science is not “Eureka,” but “That’s funny.” What he meant is that revolutions usually start off as explorations of anomalies, and only over time do they turn into something bigger. Likewise, modern architecture didn’t emerge full-fledged from the minds of Gropius and Corbusier as an assault on academic historical design: it evolved gradually, driven mainly by the needs of factories and railroads and inexpensive yet sanitary urban housing. I see something similar with the four-day week: the people who trial it don’t see themselves as challenging the fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism and the 21st-century culture of work, but that’s where they end up.
The Labour Party says it will look at the option of introducing a four-day working week if it gets into government.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the party would consider reducing the working week.
Speaking on BBC One’s Sunday Politics, he said: “We work the longest hours in Europe yet we’re less productive.
“The Germans and French produce in four days what we produce in five and yet we work the longest hours.
“We’ll look at the working week because I think people are working too long.”
The fact that this is starting to attract attention among serious political figures is, I think, a very hopeful development.
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.
According to The Guardian’s article, “Theresa May calls for UK general election on 8 June:”
The prime minister later repeated her suggestion that she was taking the decision reluctantly, arguing that she had decided to go for the election last week. “Before Easter I spent a few days walking in Wales with my husband, I thought about this long and hard and came to the decision that to provide for that stability and certainty, this was the way to do it,” she told ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston.
Of course this reminds me of Maurice Wilkins’ decision to star working on DNA, which he describes in his book Maurice Wilkins: The Third Man of the Double Helix:
Before returning to the lab after Christmas 1950 I had taken Edel [his wife] on a short holiday in the Welsh mountains. The mild winter sun shone clearly on the peaks covered with snow. We had fine talks, and in the evenings we read Jane Austen together. The beautiful atmosphere seemed to clarify my thoughts, and I remember very well how, one morning after breakfast, I stood looking at the mountains in the distance and thoughts of research drifted into my mind. I suddenly came to see that my interest in following with microscopes the movements of DNA in cells was based on vague ideas. What were we really aiming at? I could see no way in which my fascination with microscopes and living cells could lead to a meaningful program of research….
[I]t came to me clear and strong, and my mind was made up. I must give up completely the microscope work and concentrate full time on X-ray structure analysis of DNA.
Clearly there’s something about walking in Wales. I hope to try it myself some time!
I’m working on a short ebook on my early morning practice and how it illustrates the way I combine work and rest, and (via Roger Ekirch’s classic work on biphasic sleep in early modern England) came across Samuel Johnson’s 1732 “Adventurer Essay No. 39, “On Sleep.” Johnson wonders “why so liberal and impartial a benefactor as sleep, should meet with so few historians or panegyrists:”
Writers are so totally absorbed by the business of the day, as never to turn their attention to that power, whose officious hand so seasonably suspends the burden of life; and without whose interposition man would not be able to endure the fatigue of labour, however rewarded, or the struggle with opposition, however successful.
I hear you, Johnson. I hear you!
After discussing the role of sleep in the lives of peasants, princes, and poets, he then connects restorative sleep to virtue and hard work:
Sleep, therefore, as the chief of all earthly blessings, is justly appropriated to industry and temperance; the refreshing rest, and the peaceful night, are the portion only of him who lies down weary with honest labour, and free from the fumes of indigested luxury; it is the just doom of laziness and gluttony, to be inactive without ease, and drowsy without tranquillity.
Once again, we see a connection between depth of work and value of rest: just as I argue in my book, Johnson is arguing that we should see the quality of rest and work as connected, each reinforcing and supporting the other.
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.