Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Leisure and hobbies (page 1 of 3)

How to have a more restorative vacation

Erica Alini interviewed me a couple days ago about rest and vacations, and now how an article in Gobal News about “The smartest vacation: How to get the most R and R, according to science.“

It’s a more important subject than you might think at first, because so many of us overwork and treat vacations like a Miracle Cure-All, a couple weeks when we can de-stress, relax, recover the energy we’be poured into our jobs, and generally make up for months of overextension and mistreatment.

But too often, we design vacations that don’t do us as much good as they could. We overstuff them with activities, or sneak in a little work, or do other things that degrade the restorative value of our vacations.

On a recent episode of my podcast I talked with Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist who specializes in vacations, about her research and findings. She has a number of insights about what makes vacations truly restorative, and some excellent advice about how we can better approach vacation design.

One thing she highlighted was the importance of control as something that affects whether a vacation is good or bad. If you do what you like and don’t have to face unexpected problems, you’re a lot more likely to rate vacations as good, and you’re more likely to benefit from them. This helped me explain why over the years I’ve gone from taking vacations that were really packed with activities, to vacations that feature one or two big things a day (at most), and more time for either doing “nothing at all,” or for exploring things we discover on the ground. If you have a crazy vacation schedule (kind of like your normal life!) and feel like you need to see Absolutely Everything in order for it to have been a success, two things are likely to happen. First, you’ll fail to cross everything off your list, and that will affect your level of satisfaction with your vacation. Or, you’ll push to do it all, but turn the vacation into a slog.

The most interesting thing de Bloom said was that her research has led her to take non-vacation rest more seriously. The more she gets into the science of recovery, and understands the factors that make vacations successes or failures, the more de Bloom appreciates the value of taking evenings off, of putting work away on weekends, of cultivating hobbies. Vacations are great, but maybe the biggest problem with them is that we expect too much of them.

I certainly understand the temptation to Do It All, especially if you want the kids to be exposed to new things, or you spent a lot of money to get to your destination; and if the point of the vacation is to educate your kids, or to see lots of things, then go for it.

But if the point of your vacation is to actually recover the energy you’ve drained while working, or to step back from the precipice of burnout, then you could be better off doing less.

“The potential in idleness for greater freedom seems worth the exploration”

University College Dublin philosophy professor Brian O’Connor has a nice piece in Time Magazine about “Why Doing Nothing is One of the Most Important Things You Can Do:”

From the age of Enlightenment onward, philosophers, political leaders and moral authorities of many kinds have tried to convince us that work is one of the most important opportunities for freedom. Through work, we can become a somebody, relish the esteem we gain, structure our lives and, while we are at it, contribute nobly to the common good. This is a strange brew of ideas, but one that has seeped deeper into our psyche than we may realize….

The ever-tightening connection between our work and our personal identity constricts even more. We come to believe that being idle at all is, somehow, the antithesis of freedom. But we would do well to think about idleness more, and rather differently from how we do….

The potential in idleness for greater freedom seems worth the exploration. Or at least an attempt to think about what prevents us from truly doing nothing right now.

I suspect Rest might come in for some criticism from O’Connor, in that it sees work and rest (and leisure and idleness) as partners rather than opposites, and I definitely think of them as sustaining and justifying each other.

His new book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, which just came out last week, also looks promising. So does Patricia Hampl’s new book The Art of the Wasted Day.

“Bekerja Sebentar tapi Efektif, Kunci Sukses:” REST comes to Indonesia

Perhaps my favorite new example of REST going places on its own: a long article in Indonesian about rest and its importance. (It also name-checks Cal Newport, Anders Ericsson, and a couple other folks.)

It also includes this graphic:

My kids are still high school and college age, but I suspect that seeing them go off and have their own lives feels a little like this.

Captains of industry and their hobbies

Grand Central Station

[Note: Every book project leaves material on the cutting-room floor that deserves to be published somewhere. This is a piece based on some research that didn’t make it into REST, and which I recently wrote up for LinkedIn.]

Overwork is one of the great problems of modern life. The pace of business is accelerating, companies demand longer hours, smartphones allow us to carry the office around with us 24/7, and being busy is a badge of honor. But while overwork now has the quality of a public health crisis, for professionals, entrepreneurs and executives in America it’s nothing new. In 1878, a doctor lamented in the New York Times that rest was a “forgotten art.” In the 1890s, Harvard philosopher William James lamented Americans’ love of overwork, and argued his fellow citizens would be more productive if they embraced “the gospel of relaxation.”

But one of the early twentieth century’s most consistent critics of chronic busyness and overwork was one of the most unexpected: Bertie Forbes, the pioneering business journalist and founder of Forbes magazine.

Bertie Charles Forbes was born in 1880, and spent his childhood in the Scottish Highlands. At seventeen he became a reporter in Dundee; in 1901 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War, then in 1905 moved to New York, where he became of the leading financial reporters of his day. He then started the B. C. Forbes Publishing Company; his eponymous magazine first appeared in 1917.

One of Forbes’ specialities was the biographical profile of industrialists, bankers, and inventors who oversaw the growth of its modern industrial and corporate America. In his profiles of leading businessmen (and in the early twentieth century they were pretty much all men), Forbes almost always noted the strategies his subjects discovered– often after periods of overwork and burnout– for maintaining their health, restoring their mental and physical energy, and balancing hard work with recreation. He anticipates by a century current research (summarized in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) that finds that rest doesn’t just restore mental and physical energy, but– when taken in the right ways– can stimulate innovative thinking and sustain creative lives.

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that lots of executives thought that vacations were necessary for lawyers, executives, judges, and other leaders of their professions, but that ordinary workers could just get drunk on Sunday and go back to work: as a group, the idea that mental labor required more recovery happened to dovetail nicely with the idea their own class interests. Still, if we’re willing to apply them more widely, it’s worth rereading Forbes’ lessons and applying them to our own lives.

These profiles almost always called attention to the hobbies of the era’s industrial giants. Andrew Carnegie “lived a well-diversified life in New York, with frequent trips to Europe, interspersed with journeys to the Orient and other distant places,” and “no man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than” Coleman du Pont. Teddy Roosevelt was an exemplar of the busy public figure who “boisterously… enters into recreation.” US Steel president James Farrell and mining entrepreneur August Heckscher were avid sailors. Railroad magnate James “Empire Builder” Hill was an accomplished violinist. Retail pioneer John Shedd praised golf as “one of the greatest blessings of modern times… for it has drawn men of responsible affairs away from their tasks into the open air.”

Others, Forbes reported, preferred more down-to-earth pursuits. Charles Nash would hunt and fish in the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin when he wasn’t running Nash Motors and turning around distressed companies. Tire giant Harvey Firestone spent weeks camping, albeit in the company of figures like naturalist John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Warren Harding. “Tramping and camping in the woods is the best thing I know of for developing, not only a man’s physique, but his mentality and his soul,” inventor Cyrus McCormick told Forbes.

Executives’ respect for the restorative power of rest sometimes influenced company policies. Dodge CEO Frederick Haynes declared that while he “would never think of putting up a recreation building at the plant” since “men want to get away from the plant after their day’s work, to be with their families,” his company supported worker-organized clubs and teams. George Reynolds implemented a five-day week at his Chicago bank, arguing that in modern finance, “The pace is so rapid and the pressure so great that a man cannot stand up against it… if he works more than five days a week.”

For someone who subtitled his magazine “Devoted to Doers and Doings,” this attention to recreation may seem odd. But Forbes argued that the right kind of rest, taken in the right doses, was essential for success.

According to Forbes, successful people revealed that “How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.” It was essential to recognize that “Real recreation quickens aspiration,” and helps “to increase our fitness, enhance our usefulness, spur achievement.” Too many people ”confound recreation with dissipation,” wasting their time on idle amusements and subverting their careers. Other more senior executives “are committing suicide by overwork.”

But this did not mean that recreation was the purpose of life, or that work was to be avoided. America’s industrialists had “taught effete aristocrats of Europe that industry is no disgrace, that honest work and money-making soil not the best of hands.” Indeed, the idle rich “are of all men the most miserable,” Forbes argued, for “[w]ithout toil there can be no blissful relaxation or recreation.” Hard work and healthy rest balanced and justified each other. “The person who has no work,” Forbes said, “can have no recreation, no relaxation.”

So what sorts of rest were the most restorative? Choosing a hobby, Forbes argued, couldn’t be done on a whim; “You need to settle that wisely and not by chance.” Recreation had to balance a busy life. Office workers and sedentary professionals needed sports and exercise; merchants and traders would benefit from retreats in contemplative and artistic activities; executives bearing the solitude of leadership needed the companionship of others in similar situations. Forbes was especially keen on exercise, advising readers to join a golf club or gym, or even “move into the country where you will have to walk a mile to catch the train even in the dead of winter.”

Forbes was not along among early business writers in taking rest seriously. Walter Dill Scott, who pioneered the use of psychology in advertising, advised his busy readers on the need to balance long hours with a hobby “so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind.” Winston Churchill wrote that “The cultivation of a hobby” is “of first importance to a public man.

Today, businesses and busy professionals are beginning to rediscover that, as Forbes put it, “Whether we use our leisure to re-create power or dissipate power is of decisive moment.” Efforts to improve work-life balance, encourage workers to take vacations, unplug in the evenings, get more exercise, or even take catnaps during the day all recognize that rest need not be work’s competitor, but can be its partner. Neuroscientists and psychologists are documenting the value of walks for stimulating creative insight, of time in nature for restoring emotional balance, and of a healthy social life for promoting resilience.

And as I explain in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, many highly creative, prolific, and successful people organize their days around bouts of hard work and “deliberate rest,” and choose leisure that stimulates their creativity, supports good habits, and sustains long creative lives. The careers of Nobel Prize-winners, authors, artists, and even generals show that, as Forbes wrote a century ago, success “is most often won during non business hours, the hours that are spent away from the bench or the office; the hours during which we are our own masters; the hours we are at liberty to use or misuse.”

WeWork, Lord & Taylor, and the death of leisure


Ginia Bellafante has a piece in the New York Times about the sale of Lord & Taylor to WeWork, and its cultural significance.

She she notes, there’s a sad inversion at work here.

In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter…. Today, of course, shopping is something else entirely, not a diversion but just an extension of our working or “productive” lives.

So while shopping has become less like leisure and more like work, work (or at least certain kinds of work) are trying to dress themselves up as leisure– or at least obliterate the boundaries between work and life:

“WeWork’s mission is to help people make a life, not just a living,’’ as one of its executives recently explained in a news release. The tech sensibility, which has leaked into so many other industries, imagines distinctions between work and private life as benighted. You are always working — posting to Instagram your vacation pictures in Bali, where you also happen to be sourcing materials for your new app-distributed small-furniture line — and you are always living.


With the rise of the internet, shopping came to look like work, and work, in many instances, came to look like leisure, which is why WeWork’s purchase of the Lord & Taylor building has a resonance beyond the obvious.

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.
Continue reading

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.

Americans “have lost our understanding of what leisure time should be and why it has value”

Washington Post editor Christine Emba has a good essay on our need to rethink the meaning and use of leisure. Americans “have lost our understanding of what leisure time should be and why it has value,” she argues. You can see this in our avoidance of vacations (a problem we share with Japan), our love-hate relationship with overwork, and our tendency to view “leisure” as synonymous with recreation (or even overstimulation). As Emma Seppala puts it, we “equate happiness with high intensity.”

As Emba argues,

We’ll need to regain a better understanding of leisure both to preserve society in a post-work world and to save it from an all-work one.

Of course, this is one of the things I’m trying to do in my book REST— help people look at rest differently, and understand how valuable it really can be in busy lives.

Emba continues:

So what should leisure be? In classical philosophy, leisure is is lauded as essential to a fulfilling life. Aristotle stated that “we are un-leisurely in order to have leisure” — in other words, we work to have time for other things. But those other things aren’t just “doing nothing” or even resting up for the next workday. In a philosophical context, leisure is meant to be something else entirely: time in which we can be free to do things that matter to us, activities undertaken for their own sake rather than as a means to another end.

Indeed, I would argue (and I do so in the book) that when you look beyond how people in previous eras praised leisure, and look at how they actually worked and rested, you see that some very creative and prolific people actually spent a lot of time in what we would regard in leisurely pursuits– and their work was much better as a result.

There’s a bit of a discordant note at the end, where she notes that “leisure time has been on the rise since formal national time-use surveys began in 1965.” I think economists use the word “leisure” differently than philosophers or sociologists, and so while by one measure “leisure” in the sense of hours not spent at work are on the rise, “leisure” in the sense of time that is of a high enough quality as to allow us to be more creative or self-fulfilled is, arguably, just as scarce as ever.

However, this reflects an issue that many of us have with the concept of leisure, which is a tendency to collapse these two understandings together, to assume that all “free” time is equally valuable, and that if you’re not spending it reading Seneca in Firestone Library then it’s your own damn fault for wasting your life. In reality, the way you spend your free time is strongly influenced by how you work, and the expectations you have about how you spend non-work hours. This is why, for example, shorter working hours don’t necessarily lead to better work-life balance.

Still, disentangling these different meanings of leisure, and figuring out one that works for us today, is a big challenge. As I’ve noted before, it’s one we’ve been struggling with for a very long time. Bertie Charles Forbes worried about captains of industry working themselves to death a century ago. William James likewise diagnosed Americans as suffering from a pathological love of overwork in his great “Gospel of Relaxation.” If Emba’s essay can help push a few people to think more deeply about how they can best spend their free time, and use it to become better selves, well done.

New study finds correlation between book-reading and longevity

A new study finds that people who read books live longer than those who do not. Researchers looked at “3635 people who were 50 or older,” and found that on average, “readers were found to live for almost two years longer than non-readers.”

Why is that?

In the paper, the academics write that there are two cognitive processes involved in reading books that could create a “survival advantage”. First, reading books promote the “slow, immersive process” of “deep reading”, a cognitive engagement that “occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented”.

“Cognitive engagement may explain why vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills are improved by exposure to books,” they write. Second, books “can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival”, they say.

“We had seen some mixed effects in previous literature that seemed to indicate that there may be a survival advantage to general reading; however, we were impressed with the magnitude of the difference of effect between reading books and reading newspapers/magazines,” said Bavishi.

I’m not sure I find the survival argument that convincing– we’re not talking about people living by their wits in a Game of Thrones world– but still it’s an interesting result.

Source: Book up for a longer life: readers die later, study finds | Books | The Guardian

Waiting for the Weekend – The Atlantic

[G. K.] Chesterton argued that a man compelled by lack of choice —or by social pressure —to play golf when he would rather be attending to some solitary hobby was not so different from the slave who might have several hours of leisure while his overseer slept but had to be ready to work at a moment’s notice. Neither could be said to be the master of his leisure. Both had free time but not freedom. To press this parallel further, have we become enslaved by the weekend?

At first glance it is an odd question, for surely it is our work that enslaves us, not our free time. We call people who become obsessed by their jobs workaholics, but we don’t have a word for someone who is possessed by recreation. Maybe we should. I have many acquaintances for whom weekend activities seem more important than workaday existence, and who behave as if the week were merely an irritating interference in their real, extracurricular lives.

Source: Waiting for the Weekend – The Atlantic

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