Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Exercise (page 1 of 3)

“I have learned not to feel guilty whenever I close the laptop”

Stem cell researcher Dr Cristina Lo Celso talks the Academy of Medical Sciences about her work, and rest. This bit in particular jumped out at me:

I have learned not to feel guilty whenever I close the laptop to watch a movie or try some new recipes. Usually the best ideas come during or after breaks, and things that take hours to work through when I am tired will likely be solved in minutes once I am rested.

I think for lots of us, learning to not feel guilty when you stop work will have a ring of familiarity to it.

Lo Celso also has a nice bit about “learning to experiment outside the lab,” by trying new things in one’s non-work life. I’m convinced that one of the things doing sports can do for knowledge workers is give them a degree of physical courage, or ability to handle stress and discomfort, that translates into greater capacity for intellectual courage and risk-taking. (John Ratey’s Spark is great on the cognitive benefits of exercise.)

Leanne Spencer on fitness vs. weight

Great talk by author and fitness expert Leanne Spencer (she’s founder of Bodyshot Performance) about the importance of focusing on fitness rather than weight. She starts with some startling and depressing statistics: the average woman in Britain spends 17 years dieting, and that 25% of 13 year-old girls skip meals to keep from gaining weight.

But, she argues, it would be much better to concentrate and work on “what we can achieve with out bodies rather than what they look like,” to shift– both individually and as a society “from fatness to fitness.”

Recently I came to a similar conclusion. I decided that my objective in my workouts and exercise was not to try to look a certain way, but to improve my strength and flexibility– to concentrate, as Leanne puts it, “not on appearances, but on functional fitness.”

I recently recorded an interview with Leanne for her Remove the Guesswork podcast, and we talked a bit about how exercise turns out to contribute to creativity and longer creative lives. It’ll be fun to see it up.

“the best players know the importance of freshness and rest:” Ed Smith on practice and rest

Former professional cricketer Ed Smith has an essay in the New Statesman explaining how “the best players know the importance of freshness and rest.” The nice thing about the essay is that, in addition to the brief mention of my book, he traces how the ideals of the amateur and professional in sports have changed the way people view practice– and how each obscured certain important facts about both the virtue of practice, and the value of rest:

The amateur ideology was a narrative myth about accidental excellence, gifts conferred at birth that had been protected from the evils of the marketplace, washed down with false modesty for public consumption. The professional ideology denied converse truths: effective practice rests on focus not relentlessness; the best players seldom practise the most hours; freshness is as important as dedication; and rest is bound up with discipline.

I’ve liked Smith’s writing for some time, ever since I came across another New Statesman piece of his, a 2012 essay about the importance of practice, but not too much practice:

When I was a professional cricketer, before each season – just before the team got together as a group – I would block out a few consecutive days and dedicate them entirely to practising batting. My only goal was to become a better player, to develop new skills. This wasn’t the humdrum practice that happens throughout the season. This was my selfish time: it was as close as my cricket practice got to a creative exercise.

Which days ended with me batting signi­ficantly better than I started out? The best days followed the same pattern – an intense morning session, around two and a half hours long, followed by a shorter, lighter afternoon session, perhaps lasting an hour or 90 minutes. In total, then, I would do about four hours, just as Russell wanted.

Strangely, when I spent many more hours practising, spreading the work across the whole day, my game stood still or even slightly de­teriorated. Quite simply, you cannot work all day, at least not at a high level. When you are performing near your limits, you use up your psychological resources very quickly. The obvious point follows: stopping practising at the right moment is a vital form of self-discipline, every bit as important as “putting the hours in” and “giving it your all”. There is an optimal amount of work.

Smith was one of the few people I’ve read who caught the important point that Anders Ericsson makes, in his classic article about deliberate practice, that rest also matters. As he said back in 2012:

Nor should we trust the popularised social science alleging that “geniuses” evolve inevit­ably from 10,000 hours of practice. In his study of talented young musicians in Berlin, K Anders Ericsson asked what separated the outstanding soloists from those who were merely good. The difference was not – as is often misquoted – that the best players practised more. Instead, they practised intensely and then allowed themselves more time to relax and recoup.

This is essentially the same pattern that explains the 4-hour paradox that I describe in this essay (which is part of REST): that some people of tremendous accomplishment organize their whole lives to give themselves space to think and be creative, but they labor at the desk or blackboard as little as four hours a day. What they’re doing is creating time for highly focused work, which in turn creates more time for deliberate rest. Indeed, I think the very best of them are quite a bit like world-class athletes: they’re able to shrink their work day quite dramatically, and even if we can’t get ours down to four hours (any more than we can run as fast as Usain Bolt or play tennis as well as Roger Federer), we can still learn from them about how to improve our own working lives.

Outside on writers, running, and the importance of deep play


Outside Online has a new article, “Eight of Our Favorite Writers on Why They Run.” They’re not simply writers who also happen to enjoy a jog; all of them see a connection between running and writing. For example, here’s nonfiction writer Peter Hessler:

I think the mentality is somewhat similar, this sort of persistence-endurance.

I always go into a piece of writing with a plan, an idea of what I want to do, but there are things that come to me as I’m working that I didn’t expect, and I have to be loose and relaxed enough to let those things in. I notice that when I run, my mind is in that place, this sort of very free-flowing, unstructured, unfocused place. For me, it’s part of the whole mental space that’s necessary to write.

Here’s Joyce Carol Oates:

Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.

The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.

They generally don’t try to think about problems when they’re running, but do find it’s useful for jogging (as it were) new ideas or giving their subconscious space to think. As Poet Laureate emeritus Kay Ryan says, “Consciously thinking about what I’ll write is something I rarely do, although I may do some revising of poems in my head when I’m running.” Wired editor Nicholas Thompson says

I do notice that a lot of the best thinking I get done, or ideas generation, or problem solving, happens when I’m running and trying to focus on stuff outside of my head…. I think probably for most things I’ve written or edited, there’s been a key insight that came while I was running.

Running also teaches endurance. Here’s Kay Ryan again:

Both can be hard and unpleasant at times. But of the two, writing is much harder. When you go out for a run, you never fail, but you often fail when you set out to write a poem, even if you try your hardest.

This is not to say that all writers are runners, or vice versa. I for one greatly dislike running. I find it boring and uncomfortable, and far prefer a long walk or hike or bike ride, or a couple circuits with the weight machines.

At the Nike Women's Marathon

But even if you don’t run, the article is still worthwhile because it gives a sense of how for them, running is a kind of deep play, and how deep play is important for their literary lives.

I argue at length in Rest that deep play helps people be more creative, and often seems to extend their creative careers. For some people it’s running; for others, it can be sailing, or gardening, or swimming, or painting (or other things).

What all these activities have in common is that they’re a break from work that can otherwise be unhealthily consuming, but they also sustain a person’s ability to work. They provide a physical respite and mental escape, and the means to work better. And they offer similar kinds of challenges and rewards, in very different contexts.

In today’s world, we often don’t think of hobbies as being very important (side gigs and driving for Uber don’t count); but in fact, finding your own deep play is important for having a more creative life.

Time for those intervals, old folks

I try to get to the gym several days a week, and generally do a mix of weights and cardio. (I need to do more core and ab exercises, but I hate those.) Gretchen Reynolds’ New York Times piece on new research about “The Best Exercise for Aging Muscles” makes me think I should hit the stationary bike and Stairmaster more, though:

Exercise is good for people, as everyone knows. But scientists have surprisingly little understanding of its cellular impacts and how those might vary by activity and the age of the exerciser.

So researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., recently conducted an experiment on the cells of 72 healthy but sedentary men and women who were 30 or younger or older than 64. After baseline measures were established for their aerobic fitness, their blood-sugar levels and the gene activity and mitochondrial health in their muscle cells, the volunteers were randomly assigned to a particular exercise regimen.

The groups either did weight training, interval training, or a mix of cardio and weights (a control group just sat around). At the end of the study, they found that all three groups were generally fitter, but there were dramatic differences in the interval trainers:

Among the younger subjects who went through interval training, the activity levels had changed in 274 genes, compared with 170 genes for those who exercised more moderately and 74 for the weight lifters. Among the older cohort, almost 400 genes were working differently now, compared with 33 for the weight lifters and only 19 for the moderate exercisers.

Many of these affected genes, especially in the cells of the interval trainers, are believed to influence the ability of mitochondria to produce energy for muscle cells; the subjects who did the interval workouts showed increases in the number and health of their mitochondria — an impact that was particularly pronounced among the older cyclists.

Embodied cognition and Rest

Recently I talked with Dutch company Made4Motion founder Sanne Clifford about rest, how we think about busyness, and the role that physical movement plays in stimulating creativity.


The latter is a really interesting subject.

Continue reading

Deliberate rest in AskMen

I have a short piece about deliberate rest in the British magazine AskMen, in which I draw the parallel between deliberate rest in creative work, and rest and recovery days in exercise:

In recent decades, coaches and trainers have been working rest days into athletes’ workout schedules. Those aren’t just idle periods: properly scheduled rest times help athletes get stronger, sharpen their skills, and consolidate muscle memory. It turns out that rest can play a similar role in our working lives. The right kinds of rest can help us effectively recharge the mental and physical energy lost at work. Well-time periods of rest can boost our creativity. And for people working in creative fields, well-designed rest can help them be more productive, even while working fewer hours.

It echoes the point Elizabeth Millard made in her recent piece, and which I think I’ll explore in greater detail later.

“If you don’t make rest time a priority, you’re unlikely to achieve your fitness goals”

Elizabeth Millard draws a link between the role of rest in serious exercise, and in creative lives, in her new article “How To Recharge And Replenish Your Body Between Workouts.” “Mastering both rest days and recovery time should be an essential part of your fitness plan,” she explains. “Another major benefactor of rest time is your brain.”

The literature on rest and recovery in fitness is gigantic, but it’s not one I drew on in any depth in Rest, mainly because I already had my hands full, and because it would have taken me a long time to wade through all the competing claims and develop the confidence with the literature necessary to make my own argument. (I do talk about how exercise can be a form of deliberate rest, and how lots of very smart people were devoted athletes.) So it’s good to see someone else outline the case!

Physical activity after concussions: Another example of active rest?

A group of Canadian and American researchers have been examining children with concussions, and their impact that exercise has on their recovery after injury. They publish their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in an article on “Early Physical Activity and Persistent and Postconcussive Symptoms in Children and Adolescents.”

Rest has long been considered the cornerstone of concussion management, and pediatric guidelines universally recommend an initial period of cognitive and physical rest following a concussion. Cognitive rest recommendations include modification of school attendance and mental activities. Physical rest recommendations advocate avoidance of physical activity until postconcussive symptoms have resolved, endorsing gradual resumption of activities only if symptoms are not exacerbated…. [But] recent literature suggests that protracted rest may hamper concussion recovery, leading to secondary symptoms of fatigue, depression, anxiety, and physiological deconditioning. Increasing evidence suggests the introduction of controlled, light aerobic physical activity following pediatric concussion may be safe while promoting recovery by enhancing physical, psychological, and academic outcomes….

The objective of this study was to examine the association between participation in physical activity within 7 days postinjury and the occurrence of persistent postconcussive symptoms (PPCS) following concussion in children and adolescents. It was hypothesized that early participation in physical activity would be associated with lower PPCS rates compared with no physical activity.

The study found 3063 participants between 5 and 18 who had concussions, followed their recovery as their either rested, did “light aerobic exercise (eg, walking, swimming, or stationary cycling), sport-specific exercise (eg, running drills in soccer or skating drills in ice hockey), noncontact training drills (eg, complex passing drills), full-contact practice (eg, normal training activities), and return to competition (eg, normal game play).” About 70% of the participants engaged in “light aerobic exercise” within a week of their concussions.

The researchers found that

resumption of physical activity within 7 days postconcussion was associated with a lower risk of PPCS as compared with no physical activity. This finding was consistent across analytic approaches and intensity of exercise….

Available evidence suggests that gradual resumption of physical activity should begin as soon as tolerated following an acute concussion, with the exception of activities likely to increase the risk of re-injury. Rest exceeding 3 days postinjury was similarly or less effective than treatment regimens allowing for earlier participation in physical activity following a concussion; if prolonged, rest may predispose to secondary symptoms of fatigue, reactive depression, physiological deconditioning, and delayed recovery. Also in symptomatic adolescents, pilot evidence suggests that gradual resumption of aerobic physical activities results in superior symptom recovery from concussion compared with complete rest.

What accounts for these results? Why is exercising (at least aerobic, non-contact exercise) better for recovery than doing nothing at all?

A proposed mechanism by which exercise may improve recovery is through the promotion of neuroplasticity mechanisms and from possible effects on cardioregulatory mechanisms, possibly leading to improved cerebral blood flow. This is of particular importance in pediatric concussion, since autoregulatory dysfunction and abnormal cerebral blood flow regulation have been associated with PPCS in school-aged children. Controlled aerobic exercise may improve recovery by restoring normal cerebral blood flow regulation with the rate of symptom improvement relating directly to the exercise intensity achieved. Conversely, physical inactivity may predispose patients to PPCS through an activity restriction cascade model; it has been theorized that the psychological consequences of removal from life-validating activities, combined with physical deconditioning, may contribute to the development of PPCS after mild traumatic brain injury in youth.

In Rest, I talk about how active rest offers better, more complete recovery from work than passive forms. The Canadian concussion study offers another example, in a rather different context, of the superiority of active over passive rest.

Martin Lindstrom: “I’ve literally written all my books while swimming”

Thrive Global, Ariana Huffington’s new enterprise, has an interview with Martin Lindstrom (whose biography describes him as a “Change Agent. Brand Futurist. Bestselling Author.”) that touches on exercise, boredom, and their role in creativity.

This discussion of Lindstrom’s morning routine particularly jumped out at me, as I just published an ebook about my own morning routine:

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Martin Lindstrom: Jump into the pool and swim for one hour. I call this my “water moment,” and I’ve literally written all my books while swimming. One notepad in each end — and a lot of dripping wet papers as a result — packed with ideas. I’ve come to realize that we all need “water moments” in our lives: in the shower, while driving, running, or, like me, swimming. It is a 100% uninterrupted time — allowing me to think, reflect, and create free-flying ideas. It is my creative zone and a time I simply cannot live without.

I’ve written before about swimming and creativity, but I haven’t come across someone who keeps a notepad at the end of the pool.

However, Lindstrom isn’t the only one who’s come up with a novel solution to writing down ideas under unusual circumstances. My favorite example is the great German mathematician David Hilbert, who used to do some of his best thinking while working in his garden. But rather than writing down ideas in a notebook, he installed a covered blackboard where he and his assistants could make notes as he walked or worked in the flower beds!

The more serious point is that keeping these kinds of notes is really common. It’s easy to assume you’ll remember a good idea, but you’d be surprised at how fragile they are, and who quickly an active mind wants to dispense with one good idea and move on to the next one. So having a way to record them on the fly is an essential feature of the creative practices and working lives of many creative people, and one that you really should do it yourself– whether it’s on water-soaked papers, in Evernote, in little notebooks, or a blackboard in your garden.

Older posts

© 2019 Deliberate Rest

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑