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

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.

“it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later:” John Littlewood on morning work

Clare College

The great English mathematician John Littlewood wrote an essay called “The mathematician’s art of work,” published in The Mathematical Intelligencer in 1978. (Here’s a link, though it’s behind a firewall.) It’s full of great advice, but on this Sunday morning when I’m up early to try to finish a piece that’s been on my desk for months, this bit jumps out at me:

Before World War I it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later. Time goes rapidly-one has a whiskey and soda at 11:30 and another later- and work seems to go well and easily. By comparison the morning seems bleak and work a greater effort. I am sure all this is one of the many powerful illusions about creative work. When put out of action by a severe concussion in 1918, I consulted Henry Head, an eminent psychologist, and known for wise hunches as a doctor. The traditional prescription was complete rest, but he told me to work as soon as I felt like it (I had leave of absence) and as much as I felt up to, but- only in the morning. After a month or two I discovered, that, for me at least, morning work was far the better. I now never work after 6:30 p.m.

Lots of very creative people start their lives as night owls, only discover that the early morning is a great time to work (especially after a good night’s sleep). They find that the mind is at its most creative, you can be your most productive in early undisturbed hours, and that getting work out of the way leaves more time for leisure.

Going home

Littlewood was a terrifically productive mathematician, but he was also– as he explains in the article– very strict about taking time off every week, and going on long vacations (three weeks, no more, no less). Getting up early was one way to make sure that he had time for that rest.

The paragraph also illustrates something else that happens to lots of the people I write about in REST: they come to aware of “the many powerful illusions about creative work” that keep us from finding new and better ways of working, and get in the way of doing our best work.

Arlington VA

There are LOTS of stories we’re told about how we need to work– how many hours we have to put in, how we need to approach our work, how much time we have, how we should present ourselves to our colleagues and bosses— and many of them are so pervasive and well-entrenched that we never think to question them; or they’re never formally articulated, which makes it especially hard to recognize their effect on us. But people who manage to craft lives that are satisfying,  and that support really great work, learn not to take for granted that the world has figured out the best way to work.

On creative lives and the art of saying “no”

One of the striking things I noticed when writing REST was how often the people I was studying said no to things, arranged their lives to smoothy avoid distractions, and were ferociously protective of their time. As Kevin Ashton notes, they say no a lot.

No

When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was writing his book on creativity, he asked 275 creative people to participate in his study. “A third of them said ‘no.’ Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing.” Saul Bellow’s secretary wrote back, “Mr Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’” Peter Drucker said, “One of the secrets of productivity… is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours.”

I’m not at all surprised by this. Notable creative people are highly conscious of how they spend their time; they treat it as a precious resource; and they’re always on the lookout for things that will help them be more creative.

Timing

Routines are one way to say no. I’ve been reading the new biography of James Merrill, and am struck at how when he was young, he first tried to live the bohemian life of an artiste: as Langdon Hammer puts it,

In New York, where everyone was busy and ambitious, it was easy not to get much done. When Jimmy’s day was over at the desk, there were too / many options: the opera, the San Remo, a vernissage, book parties, and more parties, which made it hard to get to the desk the next morning.

Merrill, Hammer says, quickly realized that he needed more focus in order to write. In the summer of 1948, he and a friend rented a cottage on Georgetown Island, in Maine. There, Merrill spent the summer

testing what it was like to write without the distractions of New York. He opened his diary every day and copied yesterday’s stanzas again, growing his poems by increments, establishing the laborious process of daily revision that would be his mature writing practice.

Merrill had always shown considerable literary talent, but he didn’t really take off until he realized that he could either behave like a poet, or be a poet. As he later put it, he discovered that “the life of leisure doesn’t give us a moment’s rest.”

Scenes from PopTech
Camden, Maine

Doing creative work, people discover, requires two kinds of focus. The first is hours to focus: time set aside to work, every day. As Chuck Close puts it, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Embedded in this practice is the recognition that creative work isn’t powered by lightning bolts from the Muse; if you want to really explore your craft, you need a steadier and more reliable source of energy, and you have to give yourself time. 

The second kind of focus is more of an attitude: an embrace of a specific kind of minimalism, of a life that had fewer diversions and more space to do what really matters. When James Merrill moves from New York City to the town of Stonington, Connecticut, or Charles Darwin leaves London for Down, they’re consciously looking for spaces that will buy them more time, without keeping them close enough to their professional networks to stay engaged and productive. They’re still close enough to the centers of publishing and science to stay in touch with colleagues, agents, etc., but far enough to deter casual admirers, cranks, and the like; and even their friends have to plan their visits.

Darwin Walk

But, and this is a very big BUT, what “really matters” isn’t just endless work: they’re not turning down invitations and chairmanships and speaking gigs to spend eighteen hour days in the lab or studio. In fact, even people who spend “only” about four hours a day doing what we recognize as “work” are ferocious defenders of their time.

You might think that if the bulk of your creative work was done before lunch, you’d have lot of time for committees or get-togethers. Wrong. Really creative people are just as careful about protecting time for deliberate rest. They build long walks, afternoon naps, and exercise into their routines; indeed, those routines exist partly because without them, it would be too easy to rationalize away that rest, to say yes to that little speaking engagement or reviewing that manuscript.

Creative people put work first, but they put rest a close second. They make time for both. And one reason they make that time is they see themselves as having time, because they understand how work and rest support teach other. As I explained in an earlier post, successful scientists see hobbies as another “expression of a general aesthetic sensibility about nature,” and recognize that “time relaxing or engaging in their hobbies could be valuable” to “their scientific efficiency and thus to their careers” (to quote Robert Scott Root-Bernstein and his coauthors).

Having the time for these hobbies, or for long walks, for time for the kind of mind-wandering that builds to breakthroughs, requires structuring your life in the right way. It requires routines. It requires cultivating an attitude that accepts that in order to do important things, you have to refuse to do unimportant things, even if they’re interesting. (It may require developing a reputation for irresponsibility, so people stop asking you to do things.) Finally, it requires saying no to a lot of distractions and things that would eat up that time.

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