Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Deep Play

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”

[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?


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.

On rap, aerials, and the value of “creative side gigs”

Another Fast Company link, to an article explaining “Why These Two Working Moms Won’t Compromise On Pursuing Their Creative Side Gigs.” It focuses on Lindsay White, founder of children’s clothier Lot 801 and a musician, and Rebekah Bastian, a VP at Zillow and aerial performer.

White says,

“If I need to come up with something new, I’ll go down to the studio for an hour and get inspired,” White explains. This then helps her come get into her office and design in an hour what would have taken four hours if she didn’t take time to listen to music, she says….

“I’ve noticed the collections I’ve created while not practicing my hobby didn’t sell as well as the ones when I was practicing,” she says. “Sales are usually around 21% higher with collections I created while recording music and interaction with my customers on social media is usually around 14% above average during those times.”

Bastian, meanwhile,

often gets ideas for aerial routines while in meetings, and the physical exertion of her workouts helps her focus in the office. “Especially on the days when I train before work, I come into the office with a clearer head and more energy,” she says.

While she can’t claim to directly link her career success to hanging upside down, Bastian has seen dramatic improvements since she started the hobby. For example, she’s been promoted multiple times from individual contributor to vice president who now leads a team of 50 employees….

All business leaders should have a hobby they are passionate about, says Bastian, largely because it can be easy to lose oneself in the daily toils of a job. “If you have an identity outside of work, you are more likely to keep a healthy perspective during the ups and downs,” she says.

Both stories mirror ones I tell in REST. Bastian’s description of exercise as providing clarity and focus is very common. (Contrary to the stereotype of the dumb jock, lots of very smart people are serious athletes.) Further, lots of really ambitious, creative people have serious secondary hobbies– what sociologist Robert Stebbins called “serious leisure,” and what I call in the book “deep play”– that take up a lot of time, but which, far from competing with or distracting from their work, make them more productive. As  Wilder Penfield, one of the 20th century’s most accomplished neurosurgeons, explains in his essay (written and delivered around 1961 or so, hence the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun) “The Uses of Idleness:

The best rest for doing one thing is doing another until you fall into a sound sleep. It is the vigorous use of idle time that will broaden your education, make you a more efficient specialist, a happier man, a more useful citizen. It will help you to understand the rest of the world and make you more resourceful….

I have known a few men that I would call truly great. They were all men who had vivid interests in idle time, interests that enriched the mind and made them more resourceful in their specialties. The man of narrow training and narrow outlook may work longer hours and yet fail to see what such men saw.

Winston Churchill argued in Painting as a Pastime, for busy people

the need of an alternative outlook, of a change of atmosphere, of a diversion of effort, is essential. Indeed, it may well be that those whose work is their pleasure are those who most need the means of banishing it at intervals from their minds.

Consequently, “The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance.” If you want to be productive, and especially if you find what you do absorbing, it’s important to have something else in your life too.

Swimming, flow, and problem-solving

Swimming is cool!

Doctor and New York Times contributor Richard Friedman writes in today’s Sunday Times about swimming, flow, and problem-solving:

There is no drug — recreational or prescription — capable of inducing the tranquil euphoria brought on by swimming. I do all my best thinking in the pool, whether I’m trying to figure out how to treat a patient’s complicated ailment or write a paper. Why that is is mysterious, but I have a theory.

Assuming you have some basic stroke proficiency, your attention is freed from the outside world. You just have to dimly sense the approaching wall before you flip turn and go on your way. Cut off from sound, you are mostly aware of your breathing. You have to traverse boredom before you can get to a state of mental flow. Now your mind is free to revel in nonlinear, associative thought. Nothing has to make sense. You suddenly become aware that time has passed. You are not sure what elapsed in that strange discontinuity, but the solution to a problem that escaped you on land is perfectly obvious emerging from the water — a rapturous experience.

In REST, I don’t have many people who were regular swimmers: Le Corbusier swam almost daily, and there were a bunch who were swimmers in college. Lord Kelvin, for example–

usually began his morning [at Cambridge] by a rapid walk or run, before breakfast, around the College Grove. Every day, almost without intermission, summer and winter, he used to take a dip in the waters of the Cam, sometimes making his way to Byron’s Pool for a plunge.

—but I have a huge number who were athletes, or who would spend several hours a day walking in the hills or carting books or doing other physical activity. In fact, I was impressed that their idea of “rest” was often more vigorous than our idea of “exercise.”

Friedman goes on to talk about a family connection in swimming:

My love of swimming is as emotional as it is intellectual. My father, who was a great swimmer, taught me to swim when I was very young. We swam together in every conceivable body of water for years, so swimming is inextricably bound to my relationship with my father, who was an engineer and a deeply curious person.

Though we never discussed it, I suspect that he, too, swam not just for health, but to think. He would return from a long swim and disappear into his office, emerging hours later excited about an insight into a new technology or instrument.

This is consistent with something else I see: often, super-creative and -productive people have hobbies that or choose sports that have a family connection, or which hearken back to their past. For example, a number of my figures (including several Nobel laureates) were gardeners; and almost all of them grew up on farms or villages, and often were the children of farmers or avid gardeners.

For some reason, the piece reminds me of the ritual I had in college of reading pieces of the Sunday Times with my fellow dorm-mates. There was a very informal brunch (dining service was closed on weekends), with bagels and coffee and juice, and we’d hang out and read the paper.

Scenes from Penn
Ben’s probably not reading the Sunday Times, but still…

Reading the Sunday Times felt like an eminently civilized, and somewhat adult, thing, one of the few East Coast rituals I actually embraced and enjoyed (I loved Penn, but I was always conscious there of being a Southerner— or perhaps I was diligent in maintaining a little sense of being an outsider).

Nelson Mandela on exercise on Robben Island

When he was in prison on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela spent long periods engaged in hard manual labor— breaking rocks into gravel, and working in a quarry. You would think that this would be enough exercise for a day, but during these years Mandela also maintained a strict workout regimen inspired by his youth as a boxer. Why in the world would someone who’s breaking rocks do this? The answer reveals something about the nature of deliberate rest.

As he later recalled in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom:

I attempted to follow my old boxing routine of doing roadwork and muscle-building from Monday through Thursday and then resting for the next three days. On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends, and various other calisthenics.

The state wanted to use manual labor to break its prisoners, and— as with all prisons— dictate the terms of prisoners’ existence. For Mandela, continuing his old routine was a way of resisting this, and declaring that he would continue to be in command of his self. Further,

I have always believed exercise is a key not only to physical health but to peace of mind. Many times in the old days I unleashed my anger and frustration on a punchbag rather than taking it out on a comrade or even a policeman. Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity. I found that I worked better and thought more clearly when I was in good physical condition, and so training became one of the inflexible disciplines of my life. In prison, having an outlet for my frustrations was absolutely essential.

So staying in shape was also a way of staying mentally sharp— which in turn was another poke at his captors.

Why is Mandela’s routine an example of deliberate rest? It’s something that he does in order to maintain his mental agility and intelligence: it’s exercise intended to have cognitive payoffs. It’s also an example of (to borrow a phrase from Clifford Geertz, among others) deep play: it’s an activity that has significant symbolic meaning for Mandela, that connects him to his previous life before prison, and constitutes a show of resistance against his prison wardens and the state. And it’s an activity that connects to his broader life: it provides him the peace of mind and clear thinking he needed to survive prison life, and to emerge as a leader despite the harsh conditions of Robben Island.

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