Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Time (page 1 of 3)

How much do we need to work to be happy?

One of the objections I sometimes get to the 4-day workweek runs something like this: Since we know that unemployment makes people unhappy, doesn’t this mean that reducing the length of the workweek will make people somewhat less happy?

This assumes that there’s a linear relationship between work time and well-being. If 0 hours/week creates very little well-being, and 40 hours/week creates N amount of well-being, might it be the case that 30 hours creates (3/4)N well-being?

There’s a group at Cambridge that’s been looking at exactly this question, and they have a new article asking “How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Here’s the article abstract:

Daiga Kamerāde, Senhu Wang, Brendan Burchell, Sarah Ursula Balderson, Adam Coutts, “A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Social Science & Medicine, In press, corrected proof, Available online 18 June 2019, Article 112353.

There are predictions that in future rapid technological development could result in a significant shortage of paid work. A possible option currently debated by academics, policy makers, trade unions, employers and mass media, is a shorter working week for everyone. In this context, two important research questions that have not been asked so far are: what is the minimum amount of paid employment needed to deliver some or all of the well-being and mental health benefits that employment has been shown to bring? And what is the optimum number of working hours at which the mental health of workers is at its highest? To answer these questions, this study used the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009–2018) data from individuals aged between 16 and 64. The analytical sample was 156,734 person-wave observations from 84,993 unique persons of whom 71,113 had two or more measurement times. Fixed effects regressions were applied to examine how changes in work hours were linked to changes in mental well-being within each individual over time. This study found that even a small number of working hours (between one and 8 h a week) generates significant mental health and well-being benefits for previously unemployed or economically inactive individuals. The findings suggest there is no single optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are at their highest – for most groups of workers there was little variation in wellbeing between the lowest (1–8 h) through to the highest (44–48 h) category of working hours. These findings provide important and timely empirical evidence for future of work planning, shorter working week policies and have implications for theorising the future models of organising work in society.

So it looks like there’s not a linear relationship between working hours and well-being. Rather, well-being rises quickly for the first 8 hours, then stabilizes. So just as a month-long vacation doesn’t provide much more happiness than a week-long vacation, a full week of work doesn’t provide more well-being than a day of work.

Or as the article’s conclusion puts it,

there is no optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are significantly at their highest. This study finds no evidence that the current full-time standard of working 36–40 h a week is the optimal for mental health and well-being, when job characteristics, such as hourly pay, occupational group and contract permanency are controlled… [T]he average effective dose of employment for mental health and well-being is only about the equivalent of one day per week.

Time isn’t money: “I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time”

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were interviewed by Charlie Rose (I don’t know the date it aired, sorry), and in this excerpt on YouTube, Gates talks about what he learned from Buffet about protecting his time.

“The fact that he is so careful with his time” was a revelation to the young Gates, and it taught him that “sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority” than responding to the normal demands of CEO life. “You feel like you need to go and see al these people, [but] it’s not a proxy for seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.”

“People are going to want your time,” Buffett says. “It’s the only thing you can’t buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time.”

This is a really interesting exchange in my view, because we often think of time as being like money. It’s not just that we work X hours a day, to earn a living. It’s not just that our language jumbles the two together: we say that “time is money,” and that we “spend” time.

What I mean is that we treat time as something to invest, and treat inactivity as like an underperforming asset. Our time can’t be like the money that we’ve stuffed in a mattress: it has to be out in the world, circulating, creating value, working for us. Our calendars are like hotels: the closer you get to being 100% occupied, the better off you are.

So it’s striking that Buffett doesn’t treat his own time that way. Not that he’s unfamiliar with the idea that time is money. Berkshire Hathaway owns (among other things) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, logistics companies, insurance companies (GEICO, National Indemnity), NetJets, and construction companies. Lots of these are companies where you don’t want stuff just sitting in warehouses or worksheets, idling on the runway or train yard: the more things are moving, the more money they make. You can bet that Buffett understands this.

And yet, he doesn’t treat his own time that way. At one point in the interview, he shows Charlie Rose his appointment book (and it’s a simple paper diary): many of the pages are blank. It’s not that people don’t want Buffett’s time; it’s that Buffett values his time more than they do, because he knows that time isn’t money.

Roombot and meeting scheduling

In my study of how companies shorten their workdays, one of the things I’ve consistently seen is companies shortening meetings, and doing a number of things to make meetings more effective: requiring pre-circulated agendas and goals, sharing background material beforehand, having walking or standing meetings, and making sure that conference call phones and other tech are running smoothly before the meeting is scheduled to start, so you don’t spend the first 10 minutes looking for dry-erase markers or punching in conference codes.

They also use tools to signal when meeting times are up, or when the group only has a few minutes left. The most popular tools are kitchen timers and smartphone alarms (unless your company bans devices in meetings, which is another popular thing), but a couple have taken a more high-tech approach: using Philips Hue lightbulbs and some locally-sourced code to have the room itself signal when you should start wrapping up.

I first heard about this tool at IIH Nordic, a Copenhagen-based SEO firm that moved to a 4-day week, but others use it, too. Philadelphia design firm O3 World calls their RoomBot, and explains how their system works in this video:

It’s a cool system, but the important thing is to have some kind of external tool that announces when your time is up.

Oliver Burkeman on the four-hour working day

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman talks about REST in his latest column, “Let’s hear it for the four-hour working day,” and makes a connection that I confess I hadn’t thought of:

Half a century ago, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins caused a stir by suggesting that people in hunter-gatherer societies aren’t ceaselessly struggling for survival; on the contrary, they’d built “the original affluent society”, by keeping their needs low, then meeting them. Crunching numbers from Africa and Australia, he calculated the average number of hours hunter-gatherers must work per day, to keep everyone fed. That’s right: it was “three to five hours”.

That number keeps popping up. And thanks for the great piece, Oliver!

How varied activities contribute to happiness: “‘variety is the spice of life’—but not of an hour”

One of the things I noticed in REST is that the people I was writing about found way stop lead terrifically productive lives, make great discoveries, and create periods of very deep focus to get work done— but they also enjoyed afternoon walks, weekends pursuing hobbies and deep play, long vacations, and sabbaticals.

One way they fit all this in was to rigorously compartmentalize different parts of their day. For many writers, for example, the day would start early in the morning: they would hide in the studies, work really hard for several hours, and not come out until lunchtime.

Delicious Coffee

After that, it was time for a walk, and a little more work in the afternoon (often of a less rigorous sort— talking to one’s agent, answering letters, etc.), or possibly a nap.

Masters of rest

With that kind of apparently leisurely schedule, you can do pretty amazing things. But one key to it is to not mix stuff together. Don’t let yourself be distracted by minor things when you’re doing your hardest work. Don’t let errands intrude on time on walks or in the gym. Don’t try to multitask.

So I was interested to see this article asking “Does Variety Among Activities Increase Happiness?” The short answer is, when you break your time into really small pieces, it does not. Here’s the abstract:

Does variety increase happiness? Eight studies examine how the variety among the activities that fill people’s day-to-day lives affects subsequent happiness. The studies demonstrate that whether variety increases or decreases happiness depends on the perceived duration of the time within which the activities occur. For longer time periods (like a day), variety does increase happiness. However, for shorter time periods (like an hour), variety instead decreases happiness. This reversal stems from people’s sense of stimulation and productivity during that time. Whereas filling longer time periods with more varied activities makes the time feel more stimulating (which increases happiness), filling shorter time periods with more varied activities makes the time feel less productive (which decreases happiness). These effects are robust across actual and perceived variety, actual and perceived time duration, and multiple types of activities (work and leisure, self-selected and imposed, social and solo). Together the findings confirm that “variety is the spice of life”—but not of an hour.

Or as co-author Cassie Mogilner puts it in a Knowledge@Wharton interview,

The findings of our paper give us suggestions for how you [could] schedule your time. When you’re thinking over the course of the day, maybe [you could] do one type of activity in the morning [and another] type of activity in the afternoon. You’ll feel more productive. The reason variety makes you feel happier over these longer periods of time is because it keeps you engaged. It offsets that potential for boredom and burnout….

The ideal takeaway from these findings [is to determine] the optimal way to schedule our calendars — from the hour up to the day and up to the week. This has very clear implications for how we should be scheduling our time. Going back to the effect of perceived variety, if you don’t have a lot of control in your schedule, [it encourages] you to think about the variety or the similarity among your activities, [and] to pull out the optimal or ideal level of happiness.

One reason this is interesting is that we sometimes hear that multitasking is appealing because it increases your sense of engagement and productivity, the feeling that you’re getting lots done or killing your to-do list. This research suggests that that’s actually incorrect, and that the practice of breaking your time into larger chunks is smarter.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield: “People can only think really hard for 6 to 8 hours a day”

I talk briefly about it in REST, but I’m planning a piece that’s a deep dive into thinking about working hours in the tech industry, and how some companies are moving away from the idea that insane hours are unavoidable. For example, Business Insider reports:

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield doesn’t believe in long working hours. 

It’s why one of Slack’s internal mantras is “work hard, go home.”

“The most productive employees from my experience are those who go home at 5:30PM, but are hyper-focused at work,” Butterfield said at a press gathering on Friday. “People can only think really hard for 6 to 8 hours a day.”

The article goes on to explain how Butterfield sees chatbot apps as enabling people to work faster and go home. It’s as good starting-point as any, I suppose!

“What do I want to do more of with my nonworking time?”

Good advice from Laura Vanderkam:

Instead of resolving to achieve work–life balance, it’s better to ask this question: What do I want to do more of with my nonworking time?

When I ask people this question, certain answers come up a lot. People want to exercise more. They want to read more. They want to get together with friends. They want to volunteer. This is what people are talking about when they say they want to be “balanced.” We presume that making space for these enjoyable activities requires working less, but the truth is that there are plenty of people with challenging jobs who exercise, read, and have meaningful relationships with their friends, family, and community.

Instead, making space for these things requires being better stewards of time. It means resolving to spend nonworking time on higher-value things, rather than easy things, such as turning on the TV. The best way to do that is to be a bit more strategic about the 168 hours you have each week.

Source: The One Question You Need to Ask Yourself When Looking for Better Work–Life Balance – Verily

On creative lives and the art of saying “no”

One of the striking things I noticed when writing REST was how often the people I was studying said no to things, arranged their lives to smoothy avoid distractions, and were ferociously protective of their time. As Kevin Ashton notes, they say no a lot.


When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was writing his book on creativity, he asked 275 creative people to participate in his study. “A third of them said ‘no.’ Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing.” Saul Bellow’s secretary wrote back, “Mr Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’” Peter Drucker said, “One of the secrets of productivity… is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours.”

I’m not at all surprised by this. Notable creative people are highly conscious of how they spend their time; they treat it as a precious resource; and they’re always on the lookout for things that will help them be more creative.


Routines are one way to say no. I’ve been reading the new biography of James Merrill, and am struck at how when he was young, he first tried to live the bohemian life of an artiste: as Langdon Hammer puts it,

In New York, where everyone was busy and ambitious, it was easy not to get much done. When Jimmy’s day was over at the desk, there were too / many options: the opera, the San Remo, a vernissage, book parties, and more parties, which made it hard to get to the desk the next morning.

Merrill, Hammer says, quickly realized that he needed more focus in order to write. In the summer of 1948, he and a friend rented a cottage on Georgetown Island, in Maine. There, Merrill spent the summer

testing what it was like to write without the distractions of New York. He opened his diary every day and copied yesterday’s stanzas again, growing his poems by increments, establishing the laborious process of daily revision that would be his mature writing practice.

Merrill had always shown considerable literary talent, but he didn’t really take off until he realized that he could either behave like a poet, or be a poet. As he later put it, he discovered that “the life of leisure doesn’t give us a moment’s rest.”

Scenes from PopTech
Camden, Maine

Doing creative work, people discover, requires two kinds of focus. The first is hours to focus: time set aside to work, every day. As Chuck Close puts it, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Embedded in this practice is the recognition that creative work isn’t powered by lightning bolts from the Muse; if you want to really explore your craft, you need a steadier and more reliable source of energy, and you have to give yourself time. 

The second kind of focus is more of an attitude: an embrace of a specific kind of minimalism, of a life that had fewer diversions and more space to do what really matters. When James Merrill moves from New York City to the town of Stonington, Connecticut, or Charles Darwin leaves London for Down, they’re consciously looking for spaces that will buy them more time, without keeping them close enough to their professional networks to stay engaged and productive. They’re still close enough to the centers of publishing and science to stay in touch with colleagues, agents, etc., but far enough to deter casual admirers, cranks, and the like; and even their friends have to plan their visits.

Darwin Walk

But, and this is a very big BUT, what “really matters” isn’t just endless work: they’re not turning down invitations and chairmanships and speaking gigs to spend eighteen hour days in the lab or studio. In fact, even people who spend “only” about four hours a day doing what we recognize as “work” are ferocious defenders of their time.

You might think that if the bulk of your creative work was done before lunch, you’d have lot of time for committees or get-togethers. Wrong. Really creative people are just as careful about protecting time for deliberate rest. They build long walks, afternoon naps, and exercise into their routines; indeed, those routines exist partly because without them, it would be too easy to rationalize away that rest, to say yes to that little speaking engagement or reviewing that manuscript.

Creative people put work first, but they put rest a close second. They make time for both. And one reason they make that time is they see themselves as having time, because they understand how work and rest support teach other. As I explained in an earlier post, successful scientists see hobbies as another “expression of a general aesthetic sensibility about nature,” and recognize that “time relaxing or engaging in their hobbies could be valuable” to “their scientific efficiency and thus to their careers” (to quote Robert Scott Root-Bernstein and his coauthors).

Having the time for these hobbies, or for long walks, for time for the kind of mind-wandering that builds to breakthroughs, requires structuring your life in the right way. It requires routines. It requires cultivating an attitude that accepts that in order to do important things, you have to refuse to do unimportant things, even if they’re interesting. (It may require developing a reputation for irresponsibility, so people stop asking you to do things.) Finally, it requires saying no to a lot of distractions and things that would eat up that time.

“we’re knee-deep in project management apps” but “we’re left with little headspace”

LSE professor Judy Wacjman explains why “time-saving technology has completely backfired:” First, there’s the question: is a “hyper-productive philosophy—and the digital devices it breeds—actually conducive to genuine inventiveness and imagination?” She argues that

it actually stifles innovation. When we’re knee-deep in project management apps, we’re left with little headspace to think of ways to challenge the status quo, question the assumptions that permeate our political discourse and create new possibilities for the future.

Moreover, the consequences of supposedly time-saving technologies are far from straightforward. The humble washing machine certainly reduces the drudgery and hard physical labor of laundry. But it also raises our standards of cleanliness, and thus our expectations. The result is that we now wash our clothes much more frequently than we used to.

In other words, performing a task faster does not mean we’ll do it less frequently. We may wind up doing it more.

This is a paradox lurking in the background of REST. We assume that there’s a linear relationship between our creativity and productivity, and the amount of time we spend working– in the office, consciously attending to our jobs. But in fact there isn’t: not only is there good research indicating that there are pretty hard limits to the amount of overtime you can put in before you start being counterproductive, but this attitude also means we end up short-circuiting our mind’s capacity to solve problem, develop solutions, make connections when we aren’t consciously working– when we’re strategically mind-wandering, going on walks, etc.

There is, by the way, a little cottage industry of books by trendy academics on how no one has any more time, how this represents an “acceleration of capitalism,” etc. In 2014, we had Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep with Verso, Judy Wacjman’s Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism from U. of Chicago, and Mark Taylor’s Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left with Yale. Doubtless there were others, but it’s notable little turn in the academic zeitgeist.

It’s hard work looking like you’re even busier

Marketing firm Havas has released a survey, “The Modern Nomad: Catch Me If You Can,” which looks at prosumers and their perception and management of time. A couple of the highlights:

1. The productivity paradox: Complaining about how busy we are has become a standard part of conversations in much of the world, and yet our study shows that fewer than 1 in 3 global respondents always have too much to do, and only 1 in 5 say they’re constantly rushing around. Rather than being overwhelmed, a good portion of the sample (42 percent) admitted that they sometimes pretend to be busier than they actually are—and 6 in 10 believe other people are faking their busyness too. The issue: Free time is now equated with being nonessential. Unless you’re in demand 24/7, you’re not all that important.

2. Times a-wastin’: Social media has been tied to FOMO (fear of missing out), but it also has exacerbated the sense that we’re never accomplishing enough. Nearly 6 in 10 global respondents (including two-thirds of millennials) believe their lives would be better if they were more productive. And around half are laying the blame on themselves, saying they procrastinate or simply waste too much time. It’s hard to feel you’re living a life of meaning when you’ve wasted another morning taking quizzes on BuzzFeed.

3. Can’t sit still: For quite a lot of us, the issue isn’t simply that we feel we should be doing more, but that we no longer know how to be still. Many struggle to relax fully, and around 1 in 5 admit to having trouble focusing on one thing at a time. It’s a serious issue, given that half the sample believe the fast pace of life is actually harming their health.

Amy Wang at Quartz explains:

In a survey of 10,000 adults across various generations in 28 countries, global marketing firm Havas Worldwide partnered with market research company Market Probe International to ask people how technology and connectivity have affected their lives. Perhaps the most illuminative finding: People feel compelled to lie about how busy they are.

When the survey asked to what extent respondents agreed with the statement, “I sometimes pretend to be busier than I am,” roughly half of young people (aged 18 to 34) said they overstate their own busyness to others. Older generations were also prone to exaggerating their obligations, though less so. And overall, 57% to 65% of people across multiple generations said they thought other people were pretending to be busier than they actually are.

The report’s authors suggested that our tendency to lie about how busy we are comes from our belief that being busy is equivalent to “leading a life of significance” and not wanting to be “relegated to the sidelines.” This belief, they found, was paramount in countries that applaud hectic lifestyles, such as Germany and the US, whereas countries known to value leisure above work, like Italy and Belgium, are less convinced that keeping busy is a good thing.

I’m afraid that none of it’s surprising, but all of it’s kind of depressing.

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