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.)
For those who aren’t familiar with it, esports is becoming a big thing in the gaming world, and in sports more generally. It took off as a professional, corporate activity in Korea in the early 2000s, and recently has expanded to the U.S. (In fact, some teams playing in the U.S. are from Korea [insert bad immigrants taking our jobs joke here]). If you’r not familiar with it, this video provides a good introduction to the business:
For a long time, many companies would set up “team houses in which players both work and reside,” but as aXiomatic Gaming CEO Bruce Stein explains,
When we formed the idea of a training center, it got [the players] out of training and living in the same environment…. We felt that was a little stifling. It didn’t give them a separation between relaxation and work. And it wasn’t the ideal setup for training with the coaches and the analysts. So, we built a facility.
Given that aXiomatic Gaming’s owners include owners or partners in two basketball teams, two baseball team, and two hockey teams, it’s not a surprise that they wanted to.
The center is like any other professional sports facility: there are playing fields, a film room for reviewing games, and a kitchen and chef.
What do the players think?
“I think this facility is insane…. Six years ago I was scrimming [practicing] out of like this tiny dinky house in Diamond Bar [in Eastern Los Angeles County], the cheapest possible place you could fit five people.
The coaches like it too.
Overall it fosters a more structured and work-focused environment compared to esports houses.
“Players would just wake up at 10:28 for a 10:30 morning and just crawl out of their beds to it,” assistant coach Jun “Dodo” Kang said, speaking about how it was in the gaming house.
Coach Nu-ri “Cain” Jang said, via translation, that, “Having living and working space in the same place makes it too relaxed for the players. . . . Separating that just helps players focus on being professionals. Like, you’re waking up and actually going to work.”
Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, one of the Korean players, said the facility helps him stay more balanced.
We hear a lot about the benefits of being able to “blend” work and life, or professional and personal stuff, but there’s a big literature on the psychological and productivity benefits of work-life separation— of having really clear boundaries between work time and your work self, on one hand, and your personal life on the other.
For one thing, having time off is simply psychologically good for you. It gives you time to recover the mental and physical energy you spend at work. This is especially true for people who are in highly stressful jobs, or jobs that explode them to unpredictable, chaotic situations– ER nurses, doctors, and law enforcement are the obvious examples, but people who work in badly-managed offices can also benefit more from clear boundaries. Studies have found that people on zero-hour contracts, who can be ordered into the office on short notice, or are on call, have more trouble detaching from work, and their performance suffers over the long run. Having a physical distinction between work and home– like a training facility rather than a gamer house– goes a long way to enforcing those boundaries.
Predictable breaks and good boundaries between work and home life are good for short-term recovery, and for good long-term career development. There’s a reason people who discover what I call “deep play,” serious hobbies that are as engaging as their work, have more distinguished and longer careers than people who don’t: deep play gives them a degree of balance and control in their lives that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And people who are really ambitious, or get very involved in their work, need the benefits of breaks, and the structure of having them enforced by physical distance and time, even more than average workers. Your highest performers are also the ones most likely to burn out– and really cost your company– if you don’t get them out of the office on a regular basis.
Strong work-life boundaries also make it easier to enforce professional norms and get good performance. Like many people, I like the fact that work allows me to behave differently than I do in my private life; and that’s easier to maintain if those lives are actually separate. I know lots of employers like to talk about “bringing your best self to work,” but that assumes that your “best self” is the same whether you’re in the living room or the courtroom or operating room. One of the reason we find work and hobbies meaningful and rewarding is that those activities let us cultivate different best selves, or exercise parts of our selves in one context that we can’t in another.
The example of gamers moving to a training facility model is significant because these guys are the perfect workers of neoliberal corporate capitalism. They’re young men, unmarried, without families or even house plants. They have no lives, and it’s not clear that they really want them. They live and breathe their work. Most corporate sponsors (or employers) assume that to get the most of these people, you want to encourage those habits, and make it possible for work to overrun life.
But raw passion doesn’t make for world-class performance, and mere obsession can be beat by super-focused work. Combining great training and workplace with stronger work-life boundaries lets people work more intensively, at a higher level of performance– and that’s really what you want. You want them going home, so they can beat the guys who are sleeping under their desks.
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).
It’s not reasonable to suggest we make games in the complete absence of long work weeks. Of course there will be times when a measure of overwork takes place due to consensus or company ground rules. But what I would suggest as a guiding principle is this: First show me the discipline to adhere to a no-overwork policy, then we’ll talk about extending grace in exceptional times. It shouldn’t happen the other way around.
This line also jumped out at me:
Overworking any employee is bad enough, but the situation becomes even more evil when you start with people who have addictive personalities and then reward their worst impulses.
I was recently on a Malaysian radio show, talking about hobbies and deep play, and one of the points I made was exactly this: that lots of Nobel laureates (to take one population of high achievers in strenuous, competitive fields) have serious hobbies, in part because they know that otherwise they’d default to spending all their time in the lab, and that would be bad. They like their work, and often have a lot of control over their time and the resources to pursue whatever they want; but even they recognize that they’ll do better work if they do other things.
I seem never to have blogged this, but in the June Penn Gazette I have an article about biophysicist Britton Chance, sailing, and deep play. As I explain in the article, I met Chance when I was a graduate student and writing about a laboratory building that he helped design:
He was in his seventies, but still published dozens of papers a year, advised students, and was able to keep several conversations on completely different topics going at once. And as if that weren’t enough, he was also a world-class sailor who had won a gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
I was impressed and intimidated. I had trouble finishing my weekly reading and doing the laundry, much less excelling in two completely different fields. I didn’t have the nerve to ask how he managed to do so much, or how his lives as a scientist and sailor might have built on each other.
Years later, though, when working on my latest book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, I discovered that Chance’s dual life was far from unique. His life still seems extraordinary, but not quite as mysterious, and it offers some lessons that even a young graduate student could absorb.
June 28, 2017 / askpang / Comments Off on 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.
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.
[A smartphone is] the last thing I want to take with me into the garden. What I love most about being there is surrendering myself entirely to the tasks at hand. Clearing out overgrown beds, digging in compost for new plantings, transplanting, repotting, pruning, feeding – whatever the job, working in the garden is the best way I know to untether my brain from pretty much everything that’s going on in my world, and especially all the frantic activity of social media feeds, news updates, SMS alerts and phone calls that keep us captive once our screens are in our hands.
There’s extensive research on the psychological benefits of being in natural surroundings (summarized in Florence Williams’ new book The Nature Fix). But one of the things I observed when I was writing Rest was that for a number of my subjects, gardening wasn’t just an opportunity to spend time outdoors and get exercise (though it was both of those things); it was also a form of deep play. Continue reading
February 3, 2017 / askpang / Comments Off on “The writing stuff just has much faster reinforcement rates, and so it’s real addictive”
In REST I talk about how the most restorative forms of rest are active and skilled rather than passive or easy. This seems counterintuitive, but in fact people generally get a lot of satisfaction and psychological benefit from doing things that they can do well, and from activities that let them feel in control of their circumstances.
In many cases, these forms of active, skilled rest turn into substantial investments of time and energy. Scientists who become mountain-climbers, executives who run marathons, surgeons who become serious gardeners or weekend ranchers, all spend what look like inordinate and inefficient amounts of time engaged in “deep play,” in activities that don’t provide any return on investment. These are smart, ambitious, people who don’t have more hours in the day than the rest of us, and have a lot they want to achieve. So why spend time hanging off cliffs? Continue reading
Rest combines current neuroscience and psychology with examples from the lives of great scientists and artists to argue that rest is not a luxury, nor is it the opposite of work. “Restorative daytime naps, insight-generating long walks, vigorous exercise, and lengthy vacations aren’t unproductive interruptions; they help creative people do their work.” Continue reading
January 2, 2017 / askpang / Comments Off on “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.