Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Advice (page 1 of 7)

How to rest

“10 Ways That Working Less Will Make You More Productive”

Singapore Women’s Weekly has a slide show of 10 Ways That Working Less Will Make You More Productive:

It’s hard to say no, especially when there’s work piling up to the walls at the office, but author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues in her book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less that this attitude is downright damaging.

I know. Just roll with it. So long as people read the book!

Things to do the night before your vacation starts

A good complement to my recent discussion of vacations: this piece on Business Insider on things to do “before you jet off to some sunny shore:”

you need set your affairs in order at work.

The night before your vacation is a crucial time to prepare.

Effective planning will give you peace of mind while you’re catching some rays, and it will prevent problems from cropping up when you drag your sunburnt self back into the office in a few days.

Talking about restful vacations on CBC Ontario Today

Scenes from Kauai

I was on CBC Radio’s call-in show “Ontario Today” earlier today, talking about “The key to a restful vacation.” You can listen here:

It was a fun time for me at least, partly because it involved more interaction with an audience than many radio interviews, and because I actually went into it with a certain amount of apprehension. To be honest, in Rest I have about six pages about vacations, so I was concerned that I’d have enough to say!

Fortunately, guest host Amanda Pfeffer was outstanding, and did a terrific job of guiding the conversation back to the book. I also do a fair amount of prep before these interviews, and now have a decent system for working through my notes and thinking about my responses, as you can see.


The Stanford Video folks (who are outstanding– they’re all the kinds of low-key professionals you want to work with during stressful situations, or just during moments when you need to be totally focused and on) keep a sheet music stand in the studio, and I make good use of it.

Beforehand, I’ll take some time to write out some notes, the key ideas I want to repeat or return to, and reminders to keep my answers short, stay on point, and let the host guide things. It’s usually the same set of notes, the same points, and same reminders every time (I am talking about the same book, after all); but it helps to write them out every time, to keep them fresh in my mind.

I also carry a copy of the book into the studio, though frankly I don’t refer to it during a live show– there’s not time to page through it.

You’ll notice a couple post-its, which have the host’s name– you never want to get that wrong– and the schedule for breaks.

I also keep my small notebook handy (in my lap), and write down the names of callers and the main points I want to make in response to their stories or questions. The virtue of this is that if I have only one or two points to make, I’ll make them more quickly if I can write them down and refer to them, and I’m less likely to strike off on some digression. I’m also more likely to get people’s names right if I write them down and can refer to them. Finally, if I can connect points that two callers 40 minutes apart make, I look like A Freaking Genius.

Today’s setup is not unusual for me. I’ve learned that interviews go better if I have some aide-memoire to jog my memory, or anchor the conversation. This was the desk when I was interviewed by Bob Edwards about The Distraction Addiction:

Bob Edwards interview


I’m very big on note-taking as a tool for thinking more clearly, as the book below illustrates, so realizing that doing it for interviews would help was a significant thing.

Reading is a martial art, 1

I think I’m getting better at interviews, though it’s like being a musician or teacher: it’s one of those pieces of craft that you can refine and improve for a lifetime. But at least I recognize that it’s a craft, and I’m learning how to build a structure that helps me do well and improve. (So I hope.)

A note on morning routines

In REST I had a chapter about why people are more creative in the morning, and here I’ve continued writing about morning routines and their importance in creative lives. Thanks to the BBC Capital Twitter feed, I saw that BBC author Renuka Rayasam poses the question, “Can a morning routine make you better at your job?

Many busy, successful people are early risers who wake at dawn to get things done without distractions…. [E]xperts agree that the period between when people wake up and when they get to the office is ideal for accomplishing activities that are personally meaningful or require discipline, but are not necessarily related to their jobs.  For some that’s exercise and for others it’s spending time with family or working on a novel. But, how do you create an early-bird habit?

Psychologist Martin Hagger, who is himself an early riser, argues for the importance of routines in making a morning work. “With a routine, even an evening person can get into the habit of waking up early and doing difficult things in the morning,” he tells the BBC.

That’s certainly my experience. For me, the key to waking up early is setting up the coffee, laying out my work, etc. the night before, so I can glide as easily through the morning as possible– and just as important, I don’t have any excuse to stay in bed (“ugh, the coffee’s not made, and it’s cold and I don’t want to root around for a sweater”). The more I can do the night before, the more I can make getting up and going automatic, and the more energy I have for doing real work.

Or as the article puts it,

Running on autopilot in the mornings allows people to preserve willpower for more complicated work tasks. Not having to decide between doughnuts and oatmeal for breakfast or to spend energy figuring out whether and how to exercise, saves up willpower for bigger decisions during the day, he [psychology professor Roy Baumeister] said.

“The efficient thing to do is to have your morning be well organised.”

Writing about talking: An old set of posts about the craft of speaking


Sometimes you write something and  forget about it for years, only to rediscover it and think, Hey, this isn’t bad. (More common is rediscovering something and think, Boy, this is terrible. What was I thinking?) In the course of chasing down some broken links, I came across a series of posts about the business of speaking: about making the transition from academic to business speaking, working with an agent, building talks, and the logistics of travel and delivery.

Speaking at The Hopkins School

The pieces were written in 2014, before my most recent round of interviews, podcasts, radio appearances, and conference talks about REST. However, I think the basic advice is still pretty sound. The posts in this series include:

“This interest should be so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind”

Walter Dill Scott, in his 1914 book Increasing Human Efficiency in Business (available on the Internet Archive), advises workers on the need for hobbies:

Upon entering business every young man should select some form of endeavor or activity apart from business to which he shall devote a part of his attention. This interest should be so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind. This interest may be a home and a family ; it may be some form of athletics ; it may be club life ; it may be art, literature, philanthropy, or religion. It must be something which appeals to the individual and is adapted to his capabilities. Some men find it advisable to have more than a single interest for the hours of recreation. Some form of athletics or of agriculture is often combined with an interest in art, literature, religion, or other intellectual form of recreation. Thus Gladstone is depicted as a woodchopper and as an author of Greek works. Carnegie is described as an enthusiast in golf and in philanthropy. Rockefeller is believed to be interested in golf and philanthropy, but his philanthropy takes the form of education through endowed schools. Carnegie’s philanthropy is in building libraries.

If the lives of the great business men are studied it will be found that there is a great diversity in the type of recreation chosen; but philanthropy, religion, and athletics are very prominent — perhaps the most popular of the outside interests. These interests cannot be suddenly acquired. Many a man who has reached the years of maturity has found to his sorrow that he is without interests in the world except his specialty or business. With each succeeding year he finds new interests more difficult to acquire. Hence young men should in their youth choose wisely some interests to which they may devote themselves with perfect abandon at more or less regular intervals throughout life.

The more noble and the more worthy the interest, the better will be the results when considered from any point of view. Indeed, the interests which we call the highest are properly so designated, because in the history of mankind they have proved themselves to be the most beneficial to all.

It would be interesting to know if Scott himself practiced what he preached. He had quite an interesting life: he was part of the generation of young American scientists who in the late 1800s absorbed the latest research techniques from Germany (he was a student of William Wundt at Leipzig), brought psychology to advertising and human resources (he helped create the performance evaluation!), and in 1920 became president of Northwestern University. (Perhaps when I’m next in Chicago I’ll check out his personal papers, and see what I can learn about him.)

“A complete relaxation of the body often gives freedom to the intellect”

Around World War I, there were several business writers who advised readers about how to balance work and rest– particularly mental rest– in the modern office. Bertie Charles Forbes is one I’ve discussed before; here’s Walter Dill Scott from his 1914 book Increasing Human Efficiency in Business (available on the Internet Archive), on the tension between busyness and worry on one hand, and productivity on the other:

When accomplishing intellectual work of any sort, it is found that worry exhausts more than labor.

Anxiety as to the results is detrimental to efficiency. The intellectual worker should periodically make it a point to sit in his chair with the muscles of his legs relaxed, to breathe deeply, and to assume an attitude of composure. Such an attitude must not, of course, detract from attention to the work at hand, but should rather increase it. Upon leaving his office, the brain worker should cultivate the habit of forgetting all about his business, except in so far as he believes that some particular point needs special attention out of office hours. The habit of brooding over business is detrimental to efficiency and is also suicidal to the individual. It is, of course, apparent to all that relaxation may mean permanent indifference, and such a condition is infinitely worse than too great a tension. An employer who is never keyed up to his work, and an employee who goes about his work in an indifferent manner, are not regarded in the present discussion.

A complete relaxation of the body often gives freedom to the intellect. The inventor is often able, when lying in bed, to devise his apparatus with a perfection impossible when he attempts to study it out in the shop. The forgotten name will not come till we cease straining for it. Very many of the world’s famous poems have been conceived while the poet was lying in an easy and relaxed condition. This fact is so well recognized by some authors that they voluntarily go to bed in the daytime and get perfectly relaxed in order that their minds may do the most perfect work. Much constructive thinking is done in the quiet of the sanctuary, when the monotony of the liturgy or the voice of the speaker has soothed the quiet nerves, and secured a composed condition of mind. The preacher would be surprised if he knew how many costumes had been planned, how many business ventures had been outlined, all because of the soothing influence of his words.

Seneca on busyness as idleness

If you ask people how they’re doing, you’ll often get some variation of “I’m so busy!”

I Am Very Busy

Many people make the mistake of confusing busyness with productivity; in fact, they’re not at all the same thing, and it’s important that we recognize the difference.

Busyness is essentially an emotion, an attitude, a face we put on for the world. It’s how we experience time, how we think about the things we have to do. And it’s easy to treat the feeling of rushing about, of always having no time, as a signal that we’re getting stuff done. But for a very long time, really smart people have been warning us that this is not the case. Indeed, it’s backwards.

For example, William James wrote more than a century ago (my emphasis):

We say that so many of our fellow-countrymen collapse, and have to be sent abroad to rest their nerves, because they work so hard. I suspect that this is an immense mistake. I suspect that neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns, but that their cause lies rather in those absurd feelings of hurry and having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results, that lack of inner harmony and ease, in short, by which with us the work is so apt to be accompanied, and from which a European who should do the same work would nine times out of ten be free. These perfectly wanton and unnecessary tricks of inner attitude and outer mariner in us, caught from the social atmosphere, kept up by tradition, and idealized by many as the admirable way of life, are the last straws that break the American camel’s back, the final overflowers of our measure of wear and tear and fatigue.

The voice, for example, in a surprisingly large number of us has a tired and plaintive sound. Some of us are really tired (for I do not mean absolutely to deny that our climate has a tiring quality); but far more of us are not tired at all, or would not be tired at all unless we had got into a wretched trick of feeling tired, by following the prevalent habits of vocalization and expression. And if talking high and tired, and living excitedly and hurriedly, would only enable us to do more by the way, even while breaking us down in the end, it would be different. There would be some compensation, some excuse, for going on so. But the exact reverse is the case. It is your relaxed and easy worker, who is in no hurry, and quite thoughtless most of the while of consequences, who is your efficient worker; and tension and anxiety, and present and future, all mixed up together in our mind at once, are the surest drags upon steady progress and hindrances to our success.

In his great book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper noted that medieval thinkers regarded overwork as a kind of idleness, as it took time and attention away from spiritual matters and contemplation.

Today, in an essay on his writings about idleness (Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark, “‘Hic Situs Est’: Seneca on the Deadliness of Idleness,” The Classical World 72:4 (December 1978), 207-215), I read this about Seneca’s attitude toward busyness:

In his philosophic writings Seneca seeks to distinguish sharply between otium (leisure) and ignavia (idleness or sloth). He vividly contrasts the life of leisure (vita otiosa) with the idle life (occupatio desidiosa), stressing the immense difference between the two. The vita ignava is detestable; it causes man to hate his life; it is a deadly punishment. The Philosopher urges his fellow-men to avoid indolent or idle inaction that is comparable to a living death.

Moreover, he likewise emphasizes the futility and absurdity of a life devoted to busy idleness. Those who are “out of breath for no purpose, always busy about nothing” do not have leisure but idle occupation– “Non habent isti otium, sed iners negotium.” Their way of life may be compared to the aimless meanderings of ants. They crawl about frantically with no fixed goal, consuming their time in meaningless diversions which weary them to no purpose. Seneca picturesquely portrays these human beings breathlessly absorbed in the manifold activities they happen to stumble upon. [210, my emphasis]

Seneca has always urged his readers not to descend into a life that is deadly, one that is moribund. With vehement zeal, the Philosopher claims that man can, either in his early years or late in life, revivify himself, study the art of living (i.e., philosophy), and practice it in the world of leisure.58 However, such withdrawal will never be wasted in fruitless vacuity and morbid idleness, but consecrated to a lively, contemplative leisure. Assuredly, the vita contemplativa is by no means devoid of action, for it continuously entails a strenuous, quickened commitment to studies, to meditation, and to thought. Through such leisure, man can benefit his fellow-men-more than in any other way. [214]

So the idea that busyness isn’t really productive, but is a form of distraction, turns out to be really old.

“Busy men find life very short:” Seneca on busyness, leisure and time

Yesterday I read Seneca’s essay “On The Shortness of Life.” I read his Letters from a Stoic when I was on sabbatical in Cambridge, and recently saw a reference to this essay that made me curious to read it. Besides, it seemed like a good way to start the New Year.

Seneca is interested in the question of why we lament the shortness of life, and he argues that our lives are short because we misuse our time:

Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal….

You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!…

The condition of all who are engrossed is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labour at engrossments that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another, who are under orders in case of the freest things in the world—loving and hating. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.

Busyness, in other words, is not the key to a fulfilling and rich life, but rather an impediment to it. Nor, Seneca, makes clear, is idleness:

Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness….

Would you say that these are at leisure who are occupied with the comb and the mirror? And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

In contrast, he present a vision of rest as active:

And so, my dearest Paulinus [who was at the time a high official in Rome], tear yourself away from the crowd, and, too much storm-tossed for the time you have lived, at length withdraw into a peaceful harbour. Think of how many waves you have encountered, how many storms, on the one hand, you have sustained in private life, how many, on the other, you have brought upon yourself in public life; long enough has your virtue been displayed in laborious and unceasing proofs—try how it will behave in leisure. The greater part of your life, certainly the better part of it, has been given to the state; take now some part of your time for yourself as well. I do not summon you to slothful or idle inaction, or to drown all your native energy in slumbers and the pleasures that are dear to the crowd. That is not to rest; you will find far greater works than all those you have hitherto performed so energetically, to occupy you in the midst of your release and retirement.

But it’s also a vision that is philosophical:

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life.

This sounds a little contradictory, but as Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark argue, for Seneca “the contemplative life itself, he insists, is a life of “action.” For, in truth, Seneca believes that there is an admixture of otium and negotium in all intellectual enterprise, and he clearly feels that one’s life should, at the least, incorporate healthy portions of each.” (Or as Seneca puts it in On Leisure, “Nature intended me to do both – to be active and to have leisure for contemplation. And really I do both, since even the contemplative life is not devoid of action.”)

But it wasn’t just about reading philosophy, as he explains in On Leisure:

And with what thought does the wise man retire into leisure? In the knowledge that there also he will be doing something that will benefit posterity. Our school at any rate is ready to say that both Zeno and Chrysippus accomplished greater things than if they had led armies, held public office, and framed laws. The laws they framed were not for one state only, but for the whole human race. Why, therefore, should such leisure as this not be fitting for the good man, who by means of it may govern the ages to come, and speak, not to the ears of the few, but to the ears of all men of all nations, both those who now are and those who shall be?


Now while the blood is hot, we must enter with brisk step upon the better course. In this kind of life there awaits much that is good to know—the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of living and dying, and a life of deep repose.

Not a bad set of ideas to keep in mind as we start the new year.

TED on restorative vacations

The TED Ideas blog has an excerpt from Rest about restorative vacations. Just in time for the Christmas holiday season!

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