Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Routines (page 1 of 4)

The daily lives of creative people, and the role rest plays in them

“I resolved never to read a mathematical book for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, without a break”

Last night I was out with some friends at a birthday celebration at our local pub, and– as often happens among people of a certain age– the conversation turned to back problems. I confessed that one of the great epiphanies of my life was the discovery that, after many hours of sitting (usually in terribly un-ergonomic positions) the way to deal with a sore back was to exercise, not to be sedentary. The lesson that exercise can be a cure for physical ailments became to basis of a more general assumption that we’re usually better off when we choose activity over inactivity– an idea that runs around in the subtext of REST.

These kinds of small but significant moments of enlightenment are often lost to history, in part because they sound mundane and slightly embarrassing: you’re supposed to have epiphanies on the road to Damascus, not in the gym. But this morning I found another example in John Maynard Keynes’ obituary of his Cambridge mentor, economist Alfred Marshall. (This is not as weird as it sounds: it’s a famously well-done piece of work. As the Wikipedia biography of Keynes notes, “Joseph Schumpeter called [it] ‘the most brilliant life of a man of science I have ever read.’ Marshall’s widow was ‘entranced’ by the memorial, while Lytton Strachey rated it as one of Keynes’s ‘best works’.”)

In the obituary, Keynes quotes Marshall’s account of an epiphany he had about the nature of work and rest:

An epoch in my life occurred when I was, I think, about seventeen years old. I was in Regent Street, and saw a workman standing idle before a shop-window: but his face indicated alert energy, so I stood still and watched. He was preparing to sketch on the window of a shop guiding lines for a short statement of the business concerned, which was to be shown by white letters fixed to the glass. Each stroke of arm and hand needed to be made with a single free sweep, so as to give a graceful result; it occupied perhaps two seconds of keen excitement. He stayed still for a few minutes after each stroke, so that his pulse might grow quiet. If he had saved the ten minutes thus lost, his employers would have been injured by more than the value of his wages for a whole day. That set up a train of thought which led me to the resolve never to use my mind when it was not fresh; and to regard the intervals between successive strains as sacred to absolute repose. When I went to Cambridge and became full master of myself, I resolved never to read a mathematical book for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, without a break.

I had some light literature always by my side, and in the breaks I read through more than once nearly the whole of Shakespeare, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (the only Greek play which I could read without effort), a great part of Lucretius and so on. Of course I often got excited by my mathematics, and read for half an hour or more without stopping: but that meant that my mind was intense, and no harm was done.

You never know when inspiration will strike– or perhaps, you never know what apparently ordinary event can lead to some life-changing discovery.

“make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer”

Scottish author James Kelman tells the Guardian how he got his start, and how he writes:

I’m at the desk most mornings between 5.30 and 7. Every day is the same. I developed the practice under pressure of external commitments and obligations. I began writing while a young fellow in London in the mid to late 1960s, working at any job I could find. Most began at 8 am, and went on for ever. By the time I came home I was too tired for anything. I discovered a first principle of art: a weary mind in a weary body. So I did my own work first – my writing – which meant rising two hours before leaving the house.

In 1969 I met Marie and we married the same year. I continued writing and working after the same fashion. In my mid 20s I was driving buses. We had two kids by then. If a shift began at 5 am I would have managed an hour on a story before taking the first bus out of the garage. It was a wrench leaving the story but better that than trying to write in the aftermath of a 12-hour shift.

I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer. It worked. During the formative years I discovered another first principle: “writer’s block” is an economic luxury. It was inconceivable that I could steal time to write and be unable to write.

This is a geat example of how writers discover early morning routines: as often as not, they’re forced it in by circumstance and schedules, and only after doing it for a while do they discover that there are creative benefits to early hours.

The idea that you should “make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer” is also an important one. I’ve always loved John Le Carré’s description of being careful to give his country second best when he was writing novels on the train to and from work. This isn’t license to do a bad job on the job, but it is a reminder that you should be honest about what’s your most important work, and let your expenditure of time and energy– and especially those hours during which you can do your best work– reflect those priorities.

My new ebook: Rest in the World: My Morning Routine

I have a new ebook out: Rest in the World: My Morning Routine.

Rest in the World: My Morning Routine

When you write a book, there are stories that you can’t fit into the book, but which deserve to be told at length, or pieces of writing that get left behind, but which deserve to be published somewhere. One of the things I’ve been doing is finding a home for some of those pieces, often in magazines (my recent piece on Britton Chance and sailing is a good example).

I’ve also wanted to experiment more with ebooks. I confess that when I have the option I prefer to read physical books, mainly because I’m a very physical reader, as the picture below illustrates.

Reading is a martial art, 1

However, I can see the value of ebooks for shorter pieces, or things that aren’t meant to be read quite so aggressively as the above.

So I’m experimenting with publishing a couple things on Kindle. The first,  Rest in the World: My Morning Routine, is now out, and it talks about how I write; what scientists have discovered about the virtues of doing creative work in the morning; and how developing my own routine changed the way I think about creativity, and helped me develop a more sustainable way of working.* I actually have a chapter in Rest about morning routines, but there’s always more to say about the subject.

Like lots of people, I’m not actually a morning person; during college and grad school, if I was up at 6 a.m., it was because I’d been up all night, not because I’d just gotten up. I saw plenty of sunrises after starting writing a paper at 11 the night before. This is the kind of thing you do when you’re young and have more energy than sense; but it also reflects an assumption that creativity happens best under pressure (like the pressure of deadlines), and that productivity happens  after you’re inspired. Basically, the model looks like this:

Deadlines —> Pressure —> Creative Breakthrough! —> Frantic Work

Of course, there were plenty of nights when it was more like

Deadlines —> Pressure —> OMG OMG I Got Nothing —> Throw Something Together

…but still it worked well enough most of the time.

As I got older, though, I realized that this model was not sustainable; and I also started to suspect that it wasn’t necessary. The idea that creative work has to require self-sacrifice and self-destruction is one of the most enduring myths of our culture, but as I explain in the new ebook, it’s actually incorrect. In fact, it’s backwards.

So my aim in Rest in the World: My Morning Routine is to talk in detail about how I do my work, and the science and logic behind my choices, as a way of helping readers think about their own practices, and start to experiment with their own routines. I have very specific things I’m trying to do in the early morning, and particular reasons for each of my choices; and so while no reader will want to just adopt what I do, I hope seeing how I construct my routine will help them think more clearly about how to construct theirs.

Finally, a word about Rest in the World. These days I’m working on a couple projects that explore how companies and other organizations are figuring out how to design work days and working practices that respect circadian rhythms, that don’t burn out workers quickly, and that challenge our assumptions that today’s global 24/7 economies require nonstop sacrifice and constant overwork. Rest in the World is meant to be a series, and the next piece will be out before too long.

*(I did have a much bigger version of it up for a little bit, but this is a much lighter, more device-friendly version– and interestingly, as a result it’s a lot cheaper.)

A note on morning routines

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

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

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

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

Or as the article puts it,

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

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

Deliberate rest and daily schedules

Writer and artist Carey Dunne has a piece in Quartz that talks about deliberate rest and daily schedules, and argues for shorter, more focused working days:

An underlying assumption driving today’s pervasive cult of productivity is that the more hours you work, the more you get done. This seems like a logical enough formula, but it is also leading to an epidemic of job-induced stress and burnout. Regardless, being perpetually “busy” has become a 21st-century status symbol; the option to work fewer than the average American’s 34.4 hours a week (or a whopping 47 for full-time workers) is usually a privilege reserved for the leisure class.

But according to a growing anti-workaholism movement, the counterintuitive key to greater productivity could be working fewer hours. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work LessSilicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang makes the case for a four-hour workday. “Decades of research demonstrate that the correlation between the number of hours worked and productivity is very weak,” says Pang, a Stanford University visiting scholar and founder of the Restful Company.

Always nice to see a writer get the space she needs to dive deeply into a subject, especially when your work is the subject. Read the whole thing.

Leisure activities and mental health: The case of unemployment

While I was writing REST, one of the things I realized about practices like daily walks and deep play is that, in addition to the direct benefits they provide in the way of restoration and creative stimulus, they’re also valuable to people because they give structure to their lives.

For them, a daily routine isn’t an impediment to creativity. Routine provides a scaffolding that makes them more productive, and setting aside time for deliberate rest helps increase the odds* that they’ll be more creative. A routine also makes it easier to say no to less-important tasks. It also provides a greater sense of control over your life. When Nelson Mandela was in prison, he still maintained his boxer’s workout routine, even though he was doing manual labor. This wasn’t because he needed to be extra buff to break rocks. It was a way of asserting his own control over his life.

Now, a new study looks at the role leisure can play in helping provide structure in the lives of the unemployed.
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“a routine was essential for the prose writing”

Poet Jacob Polley in The Guardian about his routine and the differences between writing prose and poetry:
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Former Navy SEAL commanders on waking up early

One of the things that surprised me when I was researching REST was how many really creative people got up early in the morning, and did their most important work first.

So I was amused by this video of ex-Navy SEAL commanders on the virtues of waking up early.

Some of the emphasis is a little different than, say, Picasso’s, but the basic idea is the same.

The most important creative collaboration of your life is with your own Muse

Henri Poincaré was one of the most astute observers of the relationship between the conscious and subsconcious mind in creative work, and he developed a pretty high degree of respect for his subconscious mind’s ability to solve problems. As he writes in  The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Science and Method

The unconscious, or, as we say, the subliminal self plays an important rôle in mathematical creation; this follows from what we have said. But usually the subliminal self is considered as purely automatic. Now we have seen that mathematical work is not simply mechanical, that it could not be done by a machine, however perfect. It is not merely a question of applying rules, of making the most combinations possible according to certain fixed laws…. the subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since it succeeds where that has failed. In a word, is not the subliminal self superior to the conscious self?

There certainly are times when I feel like my creative mind is an entirely separate entity from me, and I’m little more than its transcriptionist. My subconscious, or unconscious, or whatever you want to call it– I still prefer the old-fashioned term muse— comes up with some of my best ideas, greatest turns of phrase, and most lyrical lines, and I’ve learned that I”m an idiot if I don’t listen to it. Like Scott Adams, I design my morning routine around my unconscious mind’s need for quiet and undisturbed time; I listen closely to what it has to say; I keep a notebook handy so I can write down the turns of phrase or ideas that pop into my head while I’m doing other things.

Of course, my muse isn’t separate from me, and one of the important things I’ve learned while researching and writing REST is that while we can’t teach our muse, it does learn; we can’t direct it, but can nudge it; we can’t dictate to it, but we can listen to it. Learning to do so– learning the preferences of our own muse well enough to be able to support it and listen to it– is something that lots of creative people seem to do.

This is why I believe that the most important creative collaboration of your life is with your own muse. If you can learn how to feed and sustain and draw on that hard-to-control, challenging-to-access, yet incredibly creative part of your mind, you’ll do much better work than if you don’t.

John Littlewood’s advice to mathematicians: 4-hour days, acquire the art of “thinking vaguely,” and “work all out or rest completely”

Views of Cambridge from Great St. Mary's
Cambridge from the bell tower at St Mary’s Church

I’ve quoted from this before, but I love John Littlewood’s essay “The mathematician’s art of work,” In this extract, the Cambridge offers “some practical advice about research and the strategy it calls for.”

In the first place research work is of a different order from the “learning” process of pre-research education (essential as that is). The latter can easily be rote-memory, with little associative power: on the other hand, after a month’s immersion in research the mind knows its problem much as one’s tongue knows the inside of one’s mouth. You must also acquire the art of “thinking vaguely,” an elusive idea I can’t elaborate in short form. After what I have said earlier, it is inevitable that I should stress the importance of giving the subconscious every chance. There should be relaxed periods during the working day, profitably, I say, spent in walking.

HOURS A DAY AND DAYS A WEEK On days free from research, and apart from regular holidays, I recommend four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps). If you don’t have breaks you unconsciously acquire the habit of slowing down. Preparation of lectures counts more or less as research work for this purpose. On days with teaching duties, I can only say, be careful not to overdo the research. The strain of lecturing, by the way, can be lightened if you apply the golfing maxim: “don’t press.” It is, of course, hard not to. Don’t spend tired periods on proof correction, or work that needs alertness; you make several shots at an emendation that you would do in one when fresh. Even in making a fair copy one is on the qui vive for possible changes.

Either work all out or rest completely. It is too easy, when rather tired, to fritter a whole day away with the intention of working but never getting / [116-117] properly down to it. This is pure waste, nothing is done, and you have had no rest or relaxation. I said “work all out”: speed of associative thought is, I believe, important in creative work; another elusive idea, with which my psychological doctor agrees.

For a week without teaching duties- and here I think I am preaching to the converted – I believe in one afternoon and the following day off. The day off need not necessarily be Sunday, but that has a restful atmosphere of general relaxation, church bells in the distance, other people going to church, and so on. The day, however, should stay the same one of the week; this establishes a rhythm, and you begin relaxing at lunch time the day before.

At one time I used to work 7 days a week (apart, of course, from 3-week chunks of holidays). I experimented during a Long Vacation with a Sunday off, and presently began to notice that ideas had a way of coming on Mondays. I also planned to celebrate the arrival of a decent idea by taking the rest of that day off. And then ideas began coming also on Tuesday.

In these paragraphs, Littlewood beautifully and informally summarizes some of the key practices of deliberate rest: the conscious use of rest to nurture and sustain subconscious creative thinking, the mixing of focused and unfocused periods, the advocacy of exercise, and the practice of keeping an eye out for insights after breaks. It’s all in here, which is why I’m so enthusiastic about it.

Source: John Littlewood, “The mathematician’s art of work,The Mathematical Intelligencer 1:2 (June 1978), 112-119.

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