Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: England

“there is much to be said for Mr Pang’s conclusion that the belief in the power of the 80-hour week is piffle.”

Views from the Eye

Financial Times editor and columnist Pilita Clark has a piece that puts REST against the workaholic pose of the current government:

Brexit, one of the most important events in British postwar history, may have been placed in the hands of men and women who have gone without a summer break and worked for days on end for the best part of two months straight.

This is not brilliant. This is loopy.

There is plenty of evidence showing people who work mad hours are more prone to get ill, drink heavily and make rubbish decisions….

A lot of people think they can get by with just five or six hours of sleep a night with no serious dip in performance. Experts say they are deluded: all but a tiny portion of us need a good seven to nine hours a night.

Worst of all, more hours do not necessarily mean more productivity. A study of workers at a global consultancy firm a few years ago found their bosses could not tell the difference between those who toiled for 80 hours a week and those who simply pretended to. [Ed: This is the great study by Erin Reid.]

This is especially striking to me because Boris Johnson (whose penchant for overwork, or at for least crisis-provoking procrastination, I’ve noted here before) is a huge fan of Winston Churchill, and so must be aware that during the war Churchill worked a lot, but also was very disciplined about getting rest when he needed.

This was driven home to me when I visited the Churchill War Rooms, the underground complex from which he ran the war. Among the meeting rooms, radio rooms, etc., there’s this:

Churchill War Rooms

Churchill had a bed installed in the War Rooms, and every afternoon he took a nap. As I explain in REST, Churchill

regarded his midday naps as essential for maintaining his mental balance, renewing his energy, and reviving his spirits. He had gotten into the habit of napping during World War I, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, and even during the Blitz Churchill would retire to his private room in the War Rooms after lunch, undress, and sleep for an hour or two…. Churchill’s valet, Frank Sawyers, later recalled, “It was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.”

A couple other rooms also had small beds in them so his more senior could catch up on sleep when they needed.

Churchill War Rooms

Now, Churchill spent a lot of time in the bunker, and it was his command center through the worst of the war, when things looked very dicey for Britain and the Allies. Yet, he still made time for rest. I think it’s hard to argue that this didn’t improve his decision-making and leadership, but it also had a subtler impact, I think:

Not only did a nap help Churchill keep up his energy, his sangfroid also inspired his cabinet and officers. Napping during boring parliamentary debates was one thing. Going to sleep literally while bombs were falling signaled Churchill’s confidence in his staff and his belief that the dark days would pass.

Hitler, in contrast, was famous for his erratic sleep habits and reliance on drugs to keep himself going for long periods. If you wanted someone who illustrates how working long hours doesn’t lead to better results, you couldn’t find a better example. (Indeed, the whole Reich turns out to have been really into stimulants: they described meth as “National Socialism in pill form.”)

And it didn’t send a good message to his subordinates. There’s no better way to say “I don’t trust you to do a good job” than  overwork.

One other point: if you read the comments on the piece, they’re basically why I’ve written my next book:

This all sounds good, except if you work for a company that demands that you work 24/7, you will lose your job if you don’t deliver.  I worked for several companies, on salary, that gave you so much work to do that you had to work virtually 7 days a week to get it done….

Japanese and Koreans, who unnecessarily hang around the workplace after 5pm, need to read this.

My partner is Japanese and is angry at that part of Japanese work culture. I used to work for a large corp in Tokyo and during our busy season we’d stay until midnight. However, after 5/6 pm every day I’d notice a dramatic drop in my energy and focus.

Lots of comments point to the structural impediments that constrain people from working more effectively, and working less; and they’re absolutely right that there are hard limits to how much we can do as individuals to reduce our working hours. This is why it’s important, I think, to show how to change the structures, to look at the companies (in the UK, Asia, United States, and elsewhere) that are already moving to 4-day or 30-hour weeks, and to learn from them how to redesign work.

Also, if the FT firewall gets in your way, there’s also this reprint in Channel News Asia.

Tim Harford writes about REST

Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist, had a nice column in the Financial Times that talks about Rest:

Three reasons to take a holiday — especially a short one

I know a man who used to deal with a stressful job, working 15-18 hour days in a senior role, by slipping away to a rented house near Richmond Park in London.

There, he refused to be interrupted by messages except during office hours, spent time playing bridge well and golf badly, and he ensured that the location of the hideaway was a well-kept secret. The few colleagues who did visit were strictly banned from talking about work. Yet despite his apparently laid-back approach, this fellow got results.

To be clear, I know this person only by reputation; Dwight Eisenhower died before I was born. But this is how he responded to the burdens of being supreme allied forces commander during the second world war. He found it essential to take time off.

We would all like to feel that our work is essential and our personal contribution irreplaceable. But, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, notes, we’re unlikely to be doing quite as essential a job as Eisenhower’s. If he benefited from some down time, so might we.

So Harford tells the story better than I did. Still, it’s nice to be noticed!

“You play football to escape your problems; you run to solve them”

London Eye

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.)

Tash Walker on the Boundless podcast

The Mix

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.

The Mix, London

Recently I found an interview with Tash on the Boundless podcast. In it, she talks about The Mix’s decision to change how it works, how clients reacted, and what people do with their spare time.

It’s worth a listen. The Mix also recently published a report on its experience with four-day weeks.

Listening to “A 4-Day Week: The Time is Now!” Session at The World Transformed

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 talks about four-day weeks

More from London
The City, from the 6th floor of Shoreditch House

While I was in England, interviewing companies about how they implement and manage their four-day weeks, the UK’s Labour Party started talking about them too:

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.

“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.

The power of walks, chapter one million: Theresa May’s snap election

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!

“why so liberal and impartial a benefactor as sleep, should meet with so few historians”

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.

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.

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