Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Creativity (page 1 of 7)

“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!

Using science in history: the case of spontaneous thinking

Within the discipline of history, the effort to use theories from the human and natural sciences– e.g., psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and other fields– to explain historical change is one that’s yielded, at best, mixed results. “Psychohistory” has come and gone; ecological history has fared somewhat better; and efforts to find a biological explanations for the Salem witch trials or other examples of mass hysteria have been met with pretty healthy skepticism.

At the same time, I think it’s worth thinking through how we can at least use insights from other disciplines, perhaps not as overarching theories for explaining how history moves forward, but more like probes or sensors that help us be more attentive to phenomena that we might otherwise overlook. Of course, Rest is one long argument for paying attention to something we usually ignore in explaining why some people are more creative than others. I have an article in the Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Daydreaming on “Spontaneous Thinking in Creative Lives: Building Connections Between Science and History” that explores how else we could use the neuroscience of mind-wandering and creativity to deepen the history of ideas and science.

Here’s the abstract:

Scientists have only recently begun to explore spontaneous thinking. It might appear that as elusive a phenomenon as it is in the laboratory, it would be impossible to detect in the historical record. This essay argues that it is possible to make space for accounts of spontaneous thinking in historical accounts of creativity and discovery. It argues that historians can use scientific work on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and other forms of spontaneous thought to illuminate the history of ideas. It explains how historical research informed by science could generate new insights in the history of writing and thinking, the history of attitudes towards reason and inspiration, the daily practices of creative thinkers, and even elusive phenomena like sensory perception and sleep. With diligence and imagination, it will be possible to reconstruct the place of spontaneous thinking in the history of ideas.

“Bekerja Sebentar tapi Efektif, Kunci Sukses:” REST comes to Indonesia

Perhaps my favorite new example of REST going places on its own: a long article in Indonesian about rest and its importance. (It also name-checks Cal Newport, Anders Ericsson, and a couple other folks.)

It also includes this graphic:

My kids are still high school and college age, but I suspect that seeing them go off and have their own lives feels a little like this.

Music to work to

I listen to music almost constantly through the day, and when I was working on REST I did some reading about music and the brain, and the different kinds of music people work to. It helped me make some sense of the music I listen to through the day, and why certain kinds work and others don’t.

At the most general level, creative people listen to music to drown out other auditory distractions; or to improve their mood, focus, or some other emotion. (If you’re in a boring job, you might listen to music to pass the time, which is a different kind of situation.) The research says that for most people,

  • Instrumental music is less distracting than vocal music, because we have a hard time not paying attention to voices and lyrics (especially problematic if you’re writing).
  • Simpler music is good for when you mainly need to focus and aren’t trying to generate a sense of urgency, or feel upbeat.
  • After that, things get more complicated and idiosyncratic. We all have different musical histories; different kinds of music that we find energizing versus distracting; and different needs through the day.

For example, let me share what I listen to, illustrated by Spotify playlists. I often get up to write between 5 and 5:30, and the purpose of music in the morning is to help me stay in a calm, walking-up-but-not-quite-there state. For that, something like the Yundi Chopin nocturnes is just the thing.

I also like Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations (or the Calefax Reed Quintet’s arrangement of the variations), or the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I also like the Budapest String Quartet’s late 1930s recordings of the Beethoven String Quartets: I find the old, slightly shaky sound to be very romantic in a black-and-white, Europe-before-the-storm kind of way.

During the day, I usually want something that has more spark to it. When I was writing REST, I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks. Here are two:


The thing I find great about movie music is that the good stuff is great, but it’s almost always the case that composers have written music that’s meant to stir and energize, but not distract, viewers: the music is meant to underline and accentuate a scene, not call attention to itself. When I’m writing, this is perfect: I want the emotional charge, and just enough of my attention diverted so my creative mind has more freedom to operate.

Then there are times when I need more of an energy boost. For that, I have another playlist that’s highly idiosyncratic.

What this highlights is that while there are some general rules about what makes for good music to focus to, your own musical history and the associations you have with particular songs also matter. “Regiment,” the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration, is from an album I discovered in college; I’v loved Pat Metheny’s work since high school; Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” are from the Matrix soundtrack; Moby’s “Extreme Ways” is used at the end of the Jason Bourne movies, which I love.

I might also listen to Led Zeppelin, again because it’s music that I know really well, and because generally Robert Plant is incomprehensible so the words aren’t so hard to tune out.

So don’t assume that there’s a perfect playlist that works for you, or music that will be guaranteed to put you in a super-productive frame of mind (requiring employees to dance to Pharrell William’s “Happy” will NOT make them more productive). Rather, you should think about what you want to get out of the music (focus, more energy, or whatever); think about what you like; and then experiment. Don’t copy my choices, or anyone else’s. Make your own.

Making to-do lists before bed can help you fall asleep (and solve problems)

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest reports on a new study that finds that making lists before bed can “help you fall asleep more quickly.”

Before they tried to sleep, half of the participants spent five minutes “writing about everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days”. The others spent the same time writing about any activities they’d completed that day and over the previous few days.

The key finding is that the participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep more quickly. They took about 15 minutes to fall asleep, on average, compared with 25 minutes for those in the “jobs already done” condition. Moreover, among those in the to-do list group, the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep, which would seem to support a kind of off-loading explanation. Another interpretation is that busier people, who had more to write about, tended to fall asleep more quickly. But this is undermined by the fact that among the jobs-done group, those who wrote in more detail tended to take longer to fall asleep.

I write in REST about the creative benefits of stopping work in mid-sentence. It makes it easier to resume work the next day, and it gives your creative subconscious a chance to work on problems while your conscious self does other things. (John Cleese talks about discovering this when he was first writing comedy; Linus Pauling developed a whole method for solving problems around intentionally thinking about problems before bed.)

And when I’m deep in writing, I will spend a couple minutes before bed making a list of the things to write about the next morning. I’ve never tried to figure out if there’s a correlation between list-making and how well I sleep, but when I’m writing I rarely have trouble falling asleep. So maybe that’s an unintended benefit.

Anyway, while this is an early study, it suggests yet another reason to make brief lists before bed: not only will to help you solve problems faster (and even make progress while you sleep), it’ll help you sleep better.
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Muhlenhaupt + Company reimagines REST

Design by “Naz” Luzzi Castro

One of the best things about REST is that it’s attracted some great, engaged readers. Some of them really like the book; a few are quite critical, but in a thoughtful way; and many find ways to build on the ideas, and put them to work in their own lives.

Today I saw a fabulous example of readers reinterpreting the book: designers at the creative agency Muhlenhaupt + Company produced three new designs of the cover of REST. I’ve always been very happy with Nicole Caputo’s cover design, but these are marvelous.

Design by Veronica Llamas

I had no idea that this Designing the “Rest” Book Covers project was going on; I found out about it through Twitter.

Design by Bill Heemer

Here’s what they say about the project:

Designing a book jacket presented Muhlenhaupt and Company’s creative team with a different set of obstacles but not unlike many the team has confronted with similar projects before ultimately delivering outstanding results.

The “Rest” book cover project allowed the designers to showcase their creativity and their interpretation on what “Rest” – the book and the concept – means to them.

The Web site provides some more information about each design, and how the designers thought about the challenge.

They’re each great designs, and even though they’re quite different each one works. I also like how each designer zeroed in on a different aspect of the book’s argument, and made it the centerpiece of their design. I often say that people see different things in the book; this makes that really visible.

So thanks, Muhlenhaupt + Company, and especially “Naz” Luzzi Castro, Veronica Llamas, and Bill Heemer. This is the best Christmas ever!

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “I should take more vacations”

the room where it happens!

It’s always worth repeating: Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea for Hamilton while taking his first vacation since In the Heights. Now that Hamilton is opening in London, it’s worth revising the story.

As I explained in Rest,

Lin-Manuel Miranda had the idea for Hamilton when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton during a vacation to Mexico. He had been working for seven years on his play In the Heights, and as he later put it, “the moment my brain got a moment’s rest, Hamilton walked into it.”

Miranda is one of many people who had great ideas on vacation: Princeton physicist Lyman Spitzer came up with the design for a fusion reactor while skiing in Aspen; the agile software development manifesto was written at a ski lodge in Utah; and 20% of startup founders say they got the idea for their companies while on vacation.

Fortunately, while he’s been busy taking advantage of the crazy variety of offers that the success of Hamilton has brought him, the Guardian notes that Miranda recognizes that rest is important, too:

These are manic, sometimes confounding times for Miranda. Hamilton took the best part of six years to write but now life seems to be happening in fast-forward…. He would also like to start work on a new musical, but he probably just needs to lie in a pool to figure out what the subject is.

“You’re right,” he exclaims, “I should take more vacations, thank you! Yeah, that is the hardest lesson to take hold of: the good idea comes when you are walking your dog or in the shower or resting. And waking up from sleep. I don’t believe it’s an accident that on my first vacation from In the Heights, the best idea of my life shows up. So I have a couple of ideas, but I’m waiting to see which one grabs hold and doesn’t let go.”

So Lin-Manuel fans, don’t worry too much; the odds are good that at some point he’ll slow down, go on vacation, and figure out the next musical.

Jabra video on deliberate rest

In September when I was in Europe, I gave a talk at Jabra corporate headquarters, just outside Copenhagen (where I had some excellent food, and saw some cool cats). We shot some video of me talking about deliberate rest, and Jabra has now created a short video from it. (Sorry about the auto-play.)

As a place that makes some outstanding headsets for office use, Jabra is really interested in issues of focus and concentration in business environments, so it turned out to be a great place to talk about deliberate rest and my earlier work on contemplative computing. (I’ll confess I have no fewer than four pair of Jabra headphones– two sets that I’ve used for everyday listening, a pair of their Bluetooth earbuds, and a set of noise-canceling office headphones. They’re all awesome.) And of course they did a great job with the video!

A few months ago I was doing an Al Jazeera show, and during the sound check beforehand one of the other guests described me as “the silver gent.” I suppose I see what he meant. Mentally I don’t feel like i’ve aged in the last twenty years (I feel like fundamentally the same person I was when I was a postdoc, or first married), but I have gotten more silver.

And anyone who meets me on the road is likely to see me wearing some variation of those clothes– the black shirt and black cashmere jacket, and jeans. What can I say; one of my professors extolled the virtues of wearing black on the road, and I still dress that way out of respect for her.

Stephon Alexander, physics, jazz, and inspiration

In his recent book The Jazz of Physics, Brown University theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander talks about the connections he sees between playing jazz and doing physics. Of course, there’s a long tradition of physicists being musicians: many are classical musicians, but a fair number play rock, blues or jazz. (There are also noted professional musicians who start out as scientists. Queen guitarist Brian May was an astrophysics Ph.D. at Imperial College in London, while American blues guitarist Elvin Bishop studied physics at the University of Chicago.)

For many, this is an example of deep play, an activity that is a diversion from their work, but also provides some of the same satisfactions as work. (This combination is essential for driven people who are obsessed by their work: it allows them to channel some of that obsession into another activity that gives them a break, and it raises the odds that this diversion will be something that they do regularly, rather than get bored with and give up.) In Alexander’s case, playing also provides a space for coming up with new ideas, as an NPR Code Switch piece relates. While on a postdoc

in Paris, Alexander was stuck on a problem concerning the early universe.

“So I shipped myself to the jazz clubs. You have to create a solo on the spot while conforming to some kind of structure. Well, physics is like that, too,” Alexander says. “In between sets, I would play around with my calculations or just think very freely.”

Sure enough, one night, he watched the audience applauding, which made him think about tiny charged particles slamming into one another – and the solution came to him.

This is a classic Graham Wallas moment, by the way: a bout of hard work that ends by hitting a cognitive wall, setting the problem aside to do something else, giving the subconscious time to let the idea percolate, and finally having a moment of inspiration (and then more months of working out the details).

This excerpt about hanging out with Brian Eno and thinking about vibration in music and physics is also great.

“make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer”

Scottish author James Kelman tells the Guardian how he got his start, and how he writes:

I’m at the desk most mornings between 5.30 and 7. Every day is the same. I developed the practice under pressure of external commitments and obligations. I began writing while a young fellow in London in the mid to late 1960s, working at any job I could find. Most began at 8 am, and went on for ever. By the time I came home I was too tired for anything. I discovered a first principle of art: a weary mind in a weary body. So I did my own work first – my writing – which meant rising two hours before leaving the house.

In 1969 I met Marie and we married the same year. I continued writing and working after the same fashion. In my mid 20s I was driving buses. We had two kids by then. If a shift began at 5 am I would have managed an hour on a story before taking the first bus out of the garage. It was a wrench leaving the story but better that than trying to write in the aftermath of a 12-hour shift.

I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer. It worked. During the formative years I discovered another first principle: “writer’s block” is an economic luxury. It was inconceivable that I could steal time to write and be unable to write.

This is a geat example of how writers discover early morning routines: as often as not, they’re forced it in by circumstance and schedules, and only after doing it for a while do they discover that there are creative benefits to early hours.

The idea that you should “make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer” is also an important one. I’ve always loved John Le Carré’s description of being careful to give his country second best when he was writing novels on the train to and from work. This isn’t license to do a bad job on the job, but it is a reminder that you should be honest about what’s your most important work, and let your expenditure of time and energy– and especially those hours during which you can do your best work– reflect those priorities.

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