Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Deep Play (page 1 of 2)

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.

“overwork is just one tool to fight deadlines, and not a solution of first resort”

I’ve been looking at companies that are fighting back against the culture of overwork (mainly in software, Web development and video games), and this morning came across this terrific piece by veteran developer Keith Fuller, “Fixing overwork isn’t easy, but it’s the best investment we can make“:

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.

Anyway, go read the whole piece.

Sailing, science, and the power of deep play

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.

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

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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.

Gardening and deep play

Journalist Deborah Bogle talks about REST, digital distraction and the appeal of gardening in Adelaide Now:

[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.
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“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?
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“This book has something to offer anyone looking for new ways to structure their daily lives”

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[bookstore, vienna, austria]

A review of REST on Shelf Awareness:

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.”
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“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?

So:

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.

“vacations meant rather a variation of mental employment than absolute rest of mind”

In Rest, I talk about several people who became noted literary figures, but had careers in other fields. JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, was a professor at Oxford; Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, was a theatre manager; James Herriott was a Yorkshire vet. For these people, I argued, writing was a kind of “deep play,” a form of active rest that was both mentally engaging and challenging, and yet also psychologically restorative and rewarding.

Another great example of a figure whose literary second life was deep play is Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. As most of us know, Dodgson was a mathematics professor at Oxford (though one biography describes his work as “rather conservative but certainly thorough and careful”), but he was most famous for Alice in Wonderland.

Not surprisingly, Dodgson was also a great fan of the theatre, as Stuart Dodgson Collingwood’s The life and letters of Lewis Carroll explains:

From early college days he never missed anything which he considered worth seeing at the London theatres. I believe he used to reproach himself unfairly, I think with spending too much time on such recreations. For a man who worked so hard and so incessantly as he did ; for a man to whom vacations meant rather a variation of mental employment than absolute rest of mind, the drama afforded just the sort of relief that was wanted. His vivid imagination, the very earnestness and intensity of his character enabled him to throw himself utterly into the spirit of what he saw upon the stage, and to forget in it all the petty worries and disappointments of life. The old adage says that a man cannot burn the candle at both ends ; like most proverbs, it is only partially true, for often the hardest worker is the man who enters with most zest into his recreations, and this was emphatically the case with Mr. Dodgson.

So one can add Dodgson to the list of people who learned how to practice deliberate rest.

As I explain in Rest, it really is that the case that “often the hardest worker is the man who enters with most zest into his recreations,” as Collingwood puts it. Or as the great neurologist Wilder Penfield put it, “The best rest for doing one thing is doing another until you fall into a sound sleep…. Real rest from the day’s job is doing something else, doing something that brings you delightful preoccupation such as come to a child in his play.”

This is a perspective on rest that has fallen out of favor, but which I think well deserves to be revived.

 

How varied activities contribute to happiness: “‘variety is the spice of life’—but not of an hour”

One of the things I noticed in REST is that the people I was writing about found way stop lead terrifically productive lives, make great discoveries, and create periods of very deep focus to get work done— but they also enjoyed afternoon walks, weekends pursuing hobbies and deep play, long vacations, and sabbaticals.

One way they fit all this in was to rigorously compartmentalize different parts of their day. For many writers, for example, the day would start early in the morning: they would hide in the studies, work really hard for several hours, and not come out until lunchtime.

Delicious Coffee

After that, it was time for a walk, and a little more work in the afternoon (often of a less rigorous sort— talking to one’s agent, answering letters, etc.), or possibly a nap.

Masters of rest

With that kind of apparently leisurely schedule, you can do pretty amazing things. But one key to it is to not mix stuff together. Don’t let yourself be distracted by minor things when you’re doing your hardest work. Don’t let errands intrude on time on walks or in the gym. Don’t try to multitask.

So I was interested to see this article asking “Does Variety Among Activities Increase Happiness?” The short answer is, when you break your time into really small pieces, it does not. Here’s the abstract:

Does variety increase happiness? Eight studies examine how the variety among the activities that fill people’s day-to-day lives affects subsequent happiness. The studies demonstrate that whether variety increases or decreases happiness depends on the perceived duration of the time within which the activities occur. For longer time periods (like a day), variety does increase happiness. However, for shorter time periods (like an hour), variety instead decreases happiness. This reversal stems from people’s sense of stimulation and productivity during that time. Whereas filling longer time periods with more varied activities makes the time feel more stimulating (which increases happiness), filling shorter time periods with more varied activities makes the time feel less productive (which decreases happiness). These effects are robust across actual and perceived variety, actual and perceived time duration, and multiple types of activities (work and leisure, self-selected and imposed, social and solo). Together the findings confirm that “variety is the spice of life”—but not of an hour.

Or as co-author Cassie Mogilner puts it in a Knowledge@Wharton interview,

The findings of our paper give us suggestions for how you [could] schedule your time. When you’re thinking over the course of the day, maybe [you could] do one type of activity in the morning [and another] type of activity in the afternoon. You’ll feel more productive. The reason variety makes you feel happier over these longer periods of time is because it keeps you engaged. It offsets that potential for boredom and burnout….

The ideal takeaway from these findings [is to determine] the optimal way to schedule our calendars — from the hour up to the day and up to the week. This has very clear implications for how we should be scheduling our time. Going back to the effect of perceived variety, if you don’t have a lot of control in your schedule, [it encourages] you to think about the variety or the similarity among your activities, [and] to pull out the optimal or ideal level of happiness.

One reason this is interesting is that we sometimes hear that multitasking is appealing because it increases your sense of engagement and productivity, the feeling that you’re getting lots done or killing your to-do list. This research suggests that that’s actually incorrect, and that the practice of breaking your time into larger chunks is smarter.

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