Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Routines (page 1 of 3)

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

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.


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.


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.

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.

“Make the mistake of focusing too much on what matters most”

Y Combinator’s Sam Altman warns about the perils of “fake work” for startups that can apply to just about any serious creative endeavor.

In general, startups get distracted by fake work. Fake work is both easier and more fun than real work for many founders. Two particularly bad cases are raising money and getting personal press; we’ve seen many promising founders fall in love with one or (usually) both of these, which nearly always ends badly. But the list of fake work is long.

I tell founders to consider how directly a task relates to growing. Obviously, building and selling are the best. Things like hiring are also very high on the list—you will need to hire to sustain your growth rate at some point. Interviewing lots of lawyers has got to be near the bottom.

This resonates with me for two reasons.

First, when I’m writing a book, I have to pull myself away from all kinds of fake work. There are lots of things that feel like they’re productive, but really aren’t. The real work is work that gets you words on the page. Everything else is fake.

Cafe dog

Some kinds of fake work are easy to identify and avoid. Playing around with the footnotes or fonts obviously won’t get your more words on the page, even though it might make it look like there are more pages.

But other things are harder to classify as real work or fake work. Reading another article about this subject or that, spending just a little time exploring this avenue— this could be fake and probably is, but now and then it turns out to be really fruitful.

The challenge is to do a little of this kind of work, but not too much; and to avoid doing it when you have other, clear tasks at hand.

Altman continues:

So how can startups avoid this slump?  Work on real work.  Stay focused on building a product your users love and hitting your growth targets.  Try to have a board and peers who will make you hold yourself accountable—don’t lose the urgency that you developed during YC.  Keep sending updates on your traction to your investors and anyone else who will read them (in fact, we’re building some new software at YC to automate this for our startups in the hope that it prevent some of them from going off the rails).  Make the mistake of focusing too much on what matters most, not too little, and relentlessly protect your time from everything else.

The other reason this resonates with me is that, in my studies of people who learned to work and rest well— who learn that rest is an essential part of their creative or productive process, who make room in their busy lives for rest, and who practice it skillfully— pretty much work, rest, and maybe have one other thing they’re devoted to (often their family), and that’s it. That’s their life.

I Unplug To Write

Joe Fassler holds up Ingmar Bergmann as a great example an artist who “had extreme discipline when it came to his art and the way he ran his life around it.” For a long time his personal life was quite complicated (especially by bourgeois Swedish standards of his day), but eventually he simplified, this was a key to his amazing productivity.

For the last 25 years of his life, he was married to the same woman, and the chaos of his life had settled. He lived on a small island called Faro, north of Gotland, where he would plan his films, write the scripts, make the screenboards, and everything. He limited his activities: Besides working and thinking, he might go for a stroll. He would only drink buttered skim milk, and have one cookie in the afternoon—his ailing stomach couldn’t take more than that. In the late afternoon or evening, he would have visitors over to go and look at a movie in his cinema. And that was his routine, every day. He didn’t try to do more.

At times I think this is the real measure of whether someone will have a creative life or not: whether they look at that kind of minimalist life and think

  1. It would be a recipe for boredom.
  2. It would be a way to focus on what really matters, and to do the work they were meant to do.

Scenes from London

If they choose the first, they should give up whatever ambitions they have of doing serious creative work. This is not to say they can’t have great, happy lives. Most people are quite content to not write books or start companies, and there are lots of unhappy writers and CEOs. But it if you can honestly choose the second, then you have a shot at doing serious work.

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