Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Focus (page 2 of 2)

“Make the mistake of focusing too much on what matters most”

Y Combinator’s Sam Altman warns about the perils of “fake work” for startups that can apply to just about any serious creative endeavor.

In general, startups get distracted by fake work. Fake work is both easier and more fun than real work for many founders. Two particularly bad cases are raising money and getting personal press; we’ve seen many promising founders fall in love with one or (usually) both of these, which nearly always ends badly. But the list of fake work is long.

I tell founders to consider how directly a task relates to growing. Obviously, building and selling are the best. Things like hiring are also very high on the list—you will need to hire to sustain your growth rate at some point. Interviewing lots of lawyers has got to be near the bottom.

This resonates with me for two reasons.

First, when I’m writing a book, I have to pull myself away from all kinds of fake work. There are lots of things that feel like they’re productive, but really aren’t. The real work is work that gets you words on the page. Everything else is fake.

Cafe dog

Some kinds of fake work are easy to identify and avoid. Playing around with the footnotes or fonts obviously won’t get your more words on the page, even though it might make it look like there are more pages.

But other things are harder to classify as real work or fake work. Reading another article about this subject or that, spending just a little time exploring this avenue— this could be fake and probably is, but now and then it turns out to be really fruitful.

The challenge is to do a little of this kind of work, but not too much; and to avoid doing it when you have other, clear tasks at hand.

Altman continues:

So how can startups avoid this slump?  Work on real work.  Stay focused on building a product your users love and hitting your growth targets.  Try to have a board and peers who will make you hold yourself accountable—don’t lose the urgency that you developed during YC.  Keep sending updates on your traction to your investors and anyone else who will read them (in fact, we’re building some new software at YC to automate this for our startups in the hope that it prevent some of them from going off the rails).  Make the mistake of focusing too much on what matters most, not too little, and relentlessly protect your time from everything else.

The other reason this resonates with me is that, in my studies of people who learned to work and rest well— who learn that rest is an essential part of their creative or productive process, who make room in their busy lives for rest, and who practice it skillfully— pretty much work, rest, and maybe have one other thing they’re devoted to (often their family), and that’s it. That’s their life.

I Unplug To Write

Joe Fassler holds up Ingmar Bergmann as a great example an artist who “had extreme discipline when it came to his art and the way he ran his life around it.” For a long time his personal life was quite complicated (especially by bourgeois Swedish standards of his day), but eventually he simplified, this was a key to his amazing productivity.

For the last 25 years of his life, he was married to the same woman, and the chaos of his life had settled. He lived on a small island called Faro, north of Gotland, where he would plan his films, write the scripts, make the screenboards, and everything. He limited his activities: Besides working and thinking, he might go for a stroll. He would only drink buttered skim milk, and have one cookie in the afternoon—his ailing stomach couldn’t take more than that. In the late afternoon or evening, he would have visitors over to go and look at a movie in his cinema. And that was his routine, every day. He didn’t try to do more.

At times I think this is the real measure of whether someone will have a creative life or not: whether they look at that kind of minimalist life and think

  1. It would be a recipe for boredom.
  2. It would be a way to focus on what really matters, and to do the work they were meant to do.

Scenes from London

If they choose the first, they should give up whatever ambitions they have of doing serious creative work. This is not to say they can’t have great, happy lives. Most people are quite content to not write books or start companies, and there are lots of unhappy writers and CEOs. But it if you can honestly choose the second, then you have a shot at doing serious work.

“I love to do research, I want to do research, I have to do research, and I hate to sit down and begin to do research”

Mathematician Paul Halmos, from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society:

I love to do research, I want to do research, I have to do research, and I hate to sit down and begin to do research—I always try to put it off just as long as I can. It is important to me to have something big and external, not inside myself, that I can devote my life to. Gauss and Goya and Shakespeare and Paganini are excellent, their excellence gives me pleasure, and I admire and envy them. They were also dedicated human beings. Excellence is for the few but dedication is something everybody can have—and should have—and without it life is not worth living.

Despite my great emotional involvement in work, I just hate to start doing it; it’s a battle and a wrench every time. Isn’t there something I can (must?) do first? Shouldn’t I sharpen my pencils, perhaps? In fact I never use pencils, but pencil sharpening has / become the code phrase for anything that helps to postpone the pain of concentrated creative attention. It stands for reference searching in the library, systematizing old notes, or even preparing tomorrow’s class lecture, with the excuse that once those things are out of the way I’ll really be able to concentrate without interruption.

He also has this fascinating bit about how many hours of sustained attention he is able to maintain. It matches up pretty exactly with… almost everyone else I’ve looked at.

During my productive years I probably averaged 20 hours of concentrated mathematical thinking a week, but much more than that was extremely rare. The rare exception came, two or three times in my life, when long ladders of thought were approaching their climax. Even though I never was dean of a graduate school, I seemed to have psychic energy for only three or four hours of work, “real work”, each day; the rest of the time I wrote, taught, reviewed, conferred, refereed, lectured, edited, traveled, and generally sharpened pencils all the ways I could think of.

Halmos was also in the habit of walking a lot every day, and was “one of the discipline’s most enthusiastic and vigorous practitioners.” In his 70s he was affiliated with the math department at Santa Clara University, and according to one of his collaborators,

the way to ensure one’s getting the minimum daily dose of one hour (equals four miles) is to live two miles from the office. Paul claims (and there’s no reason for doubt) that he found the San Jose house by drawing a (Euclidian) circle of radius two miles, centered at O’Connor Hall and scouting the perimeter.

Indeed, there’s a Halmos commemorative walk in Washington DC.

“Four or five hours daily it is not much to ask”

I’m constantly amazed at how, in the past, the idea that four or five hours or really focused work was a solid day for the thinker or artist was the conventional wisdom– and how thoroughly we’ve forgotten it.

Lest one think this is the kind of advice that you’d only hear from artistic types like Oscar Wilde, or independently wealthy savants like Charles Darwin, here’s William Osler making the same argument, in A Way of Life: An Address to Yale Students, Sunday evening, April 20th, 1913 (available on the Internet Archive):

Realize that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery. Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind however dull can escape the brightness that comes from steady application…. A few hours out of the sixteen will suffice, only let them be hours of daily dedication in routine, in order and in system, and day by day you will gain in power over the mental mechanism…. Shut close in hour-tight compartments, with the mind directed intensely upon the subject in hand, you will acquire the capacity to do more and more, you will get into training; and once the mental habit is established, you are safe for life…

Four or five hours daily it is not much to ask; but one day must tell another, one week certify another, one month bear witness to another of the same story, and you will acquire a habit by which the one-talent man will earn a high interest, and by which the ten-talent man may at least save his capital.

In his case, Osler matches the idea of four solid hours with being focused and systematic with your time: the more you can control your day, the more you clear away the time necessary for really deep thinking.

 

“Well-Being Is a Skill”

University of Wisconsin professor and pioneering mindfulness researcher Richard Davidson writes in Huffington Post about why we should think of well-being as a skill we can learn and improve, rather than a state, and “shift our thinking about well-being from a static “thing” to a set of skills that can be learned and cultivated over time.” Indeed, we should think of “exercising our minds” and psychological abilities “much in the same way we exercise our bodies.”

This doesn’t mean brain training with games, but practicing things that contribute to one’s happiness: consciously doing things that sustain positive emotion, help us rebound from negative emotion, build our capacity for mindfulness, and improve our ability to care for others.

Davidson and his colleagues have just released the third World Happiness Report, which yes is a thing.

“information is not the scarce resource; what is scarce is the time for us humans to attend to it”

One of the things that plenty of CEOs in Silicon Valley pride themselves on is cutting out extraneous decisions, so they have bandwidth left to focus on the things that really matter. Who has time to match a tie and shirt? By the time to figure out which one to wear, the app economy will have been replaced by the Internet of Everything, and it doesn’t matter how good your color sense is because you’re now going to be picking rags in Bangladesh. Just wear the same turtleneck and jeans every day, and you can avoid catastrophe.

There’s a little magical thinking in this, if you take it too far, but we’re hardly the first people to simply our lives to have more time and attention for things that matter. Look at any monastery and you’ll see a way of life organized around this principle. But you can see it in serious thinkers, too. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon did it, as his daughter Katherine explained in 2004*:

He knew how he liked to spend his time. He believed that “people satisfice because they do not have the wits to maximize” and “information is not the scarce resource; what is scarce is the time for us humans to attend to it.” To maximize time for learning and teaching and talking with students, scholars, family, and friends, he needed to streamline less important activities. Once, early on, he made two decisions: what to eat for breakfast every day, and what to eat for lunch every day, thereby eliminating two daily decisions he would have had to make about something he considered trivial and uninteresting.

He practiced other kinds of minimalism, as David Klahr and Kenneth Kotovsky recount:

Herb lived a simple life. He walked to work from his home a mile from Carnegie Mellon. [J. C. Spender quipped, “His daily one-mile walk to his office, like Imannuel Kant’s, was so regular his neighbors kidded they could set their clocks by it.”— .ed] He hated air conditioning, refused to move his office into the renovated wings of our building, and for years after the dissemination of word-processors, continued to type his manuscripts on a manual typewriter. His home was warm and inviting but not in the least pretentious.

His life was a life of the mind. He inhabited his office for long hours on weekdays and weekends as well. Entering that office was an intellectual adventure. Whatever the topic was, you could be sure that you would engage a mind that was relentlessly seeking to understand some aspect of the world. It was a rare meeting that didn’t involve Herb jumping out of his seat and pulling a book off the shelf to consult about some issue that came up. Following his curiosity was what his life was about – and it led to wondrous places.

In another memorial, Katherine says that “he lived simply:”

one car, one hi-fi, no television. He owned a particular beret, one at a time, the new one purchased in the same shop each time the current one wore out. He and Dorothea lived in the same house for 46 years, never desiring to move to anything fancier. He walked a mile to work and another home each day. In a piece he wrote to himself, he mused that he was sure he held the record as the only person on earth who had ever walked 25,000 miles on Northumberland Street. I am sure he’s right.

*Source: Katherine Simon Frank, “He’s Just My Dad!” in Herbert Alexander Simon, Mie Augier, James G. March, eds., Models of a Man: Essays in Memory of Herbert A. Simon (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

Magnus Carlsen and the physical demands of chess

You might not think of chess players as athletes, as Christopher Berglund wrote in Psychology Today in 2013, while chess of course is a deeply cerebral sport, it’s also one whose top players have become serious athletes. He focuses particularly on world champion (and general media phenom) Magnus Carlsen and his routine:

Carlsen does not focus on his opening preparation as much as other top players. He plays a variety of openings—which he comes up with while running on a treadmill daily.

The link between physical activity and problem solving is something that anyone who works out regularly has experienced first hand. Being physically fit not only gives you physical stamina, it makes you more creative while giving you self-esteem and resilience to navigate life’s challenges….

Although chess is not a game that is usually associated with physical stamina, it actually requires tremendous physical endurance. Carlsen’s creative ability to build unbeatable positions combined with his stamina and endgame have drawn comparisons to the style of play used by many former world champions.

Carlsen revises his opening habitually while jogging on a treadmill which keeps him mentally sharp and physically fit. As Carlsen describes, “These long tournaments are quite tiring and long games are very tiring, especially at the end.” He recently told The Associated Press, “If you are in good shape and can keep your concentration you will be the one who will profit from your opponents’ mistakes.” Adding, “In general towards the end of the tournaments younger players have that advantage so the other players will have to try to equal that by having good fitness as well.” As we get older, it becomes more important for all of us all to stay physically fit to maintain a competitive advantage in a cut-throat world.

Recently there have been a number of studies on the cognitive benefits of exercise, that show how exercise stimulates the production of brain cells, and generally how stronger bodies make for stronger minds. Indeed, exercise is one of the things that separates great scientists from merely average ones.

Carlsen is not unusual in this: Alexander Kosteniuk runs five kilometers every morning and advised new players,

I cannot stress enough how important physical preparation is before chess tournaments. Chess competition is tough, requires many hours spent at the chess board, with maximum concentration. You need all your strength and nerves to be in top form. Nothing will prepare you better than being in best physical form.

While those of us old enough to remember the day of Cold War chess competitions might recall chain-smoking heavyset guys throwing pieces, now at least a respectable minority of serious players takes for granted that physical fitness gives you the mental toughness and simple stamina required to play world-class games.

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