I came to believe that the key to his fantastic work, to the sheer volume of work—he kept working without pause from age nineteen to ninety—was that he was phenomenally boring.
Miró didn’t do the sorts of things I can sensationalize—he just dug in and worked after a sensible breakfast like an accountant sitting down to his ledger. I stopped, aware that everything I had to say of Miró had boiled down to the subject of ordinary toil.
According to his friend and biographer Jacques Dupin, Miró’s routine and life were “utterly free of disorder or excess…. Nothing is left to chance, not even in his daily habits: there is a time to take a walk, a time to read, there is a time to be with his family and there is a time to work.”
There’s boring, and there’s boring with a purpose. Miró was the second.
(And yes, I took a screenshot of the tweet rather than figure out how to embed it. I’m in a hurry. Don’t @ me.)
This brings to mind William Davies’ excellent work about the weaponization of positive psychology (and wellness and yoga) in the workplace, and how the idea that you should “do what you love” can easily be turned against you by unscrupulous or manipulative bosses, and can lead people to take risks that are very unlikely to pan out, or make career and work decisions that are unwise. It’s a pervasive idea; according to some critics, it’s even what drives Pixar movies.
One problem is that passion, and even ability, don’t guarantee success. Even in a completely meritocratic system, if there are more people who are capable and qualified and passionate about their work than their are jobs, some people are never going to get jobs. The academic job market is a perfect example: there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone who is super-qualified, would do a great job, and happily do it for the rest of their lives. Passion doesn’t change that, and enthusiasm doesn’t make up for the disadvantages you have if you’re changing careers or don’t have well-cultivated professional networks. (However, belief that you should be passionate about your work can discourage women from working.)
Just as there may be more qualified people than there are positions for them (whether this is in the professions, or in the culture industry), so too is there a lot of great work out there that’s competing for readers’ and listeners’ and viewers’ attention. It’s easy for fabulous work to get buried, or never given a “fair” chance at finding its audience. Sometimes it takes ages for work to be recognized. And there’s always more coming.
When I was in London this summer, I made a habit of going into bookstores and looking for copies of Rest.
I was lucky to find them prominently displayed in some bookstores (Waterstones was especially good about putting it where readers were likely to stumble across it), but I was also struck at HOW MANY BOOKS THERE ARE IN THE WORLD. You’re lucky anybody ever reads you.
Another problem is that it often assumes that creative work is a kind of titanic struggle involving unruly, chaotic forces. Call this the “agony and the ecstasy” model. In order to do good work, you have to allow yourself to be taken over by muses that are likely to disrupt, and possibly destroy, your life. In the end you might survive, and you might be famous; there’s even the very remote chance that both will happen.
But “doing what you love” doesn’t have to mean living without boundaries, or entering into a race between creativity and self-destruction.
One of the big lessons I learned from the people I write about in Rest is that some of the most successful, ambitious, and creative people work hard to put boundaries around their time and their work, and I sense they do this partly out of self-preservation, and partly out of strategic calculation. They recognize that they could enter that arms race, and some in their earlier lives did work that way. But lots of them recognize that their creative drive could just as easily drive over them as make something new.
They also calculate that they’ll be able to do better work, for longer, if they don’t treat love and passion as things that have to be unruly, or impulsive. They treat love of their work as a river, not a flood— that is to say, a source of constant energy, rather than something that could drown them.
Daily routines, rituals for starting and stopping work, and especially periods of deliberate rest play a critical role in channeling that energy. They make it possible to stop work, because you don’t have to worry so much that if you do you’ll lose the next good idea. They have the added benefit of creating more time and more opportunity for having good ideas, for actually becoming more creative and having a more sustainable creative life.
Learning to not take rejection so personally, or other setback so personally, is another important kind of boundary-setting. Indeed, as I’m discovering, it’s just as essential.
We think that the publishing industry’s business is to manufacture and sell books. And yes, it does that. But from an author’s point of view, what the industry mainly does is manufacture rejection.
You know those stories about how Melville or JK Rowling got dozens of rejections, or how Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was read by twenty editors before finally being accepted? That’s the norm. When we were selling The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I got dozens of rejections.
Ultimately, though, all the rejections put together don’t matter as much as the one yes.
In fact, selling a book is like dating. Yes, you get tons of rejections, people who don’t think you’re right for them, and probably a few jerks. But they’re not as important as the person who says yes.
And maybe that’s an important lesson. Loving your work is like being married. Neither relationships nor creative lives (which is another kind of relationship) are sustained by impetuosity and impulse and self-destructive behavior. Both require a passion that is strong, but also steady. I think everyone can intuit that a couple who stays together for fifty years is more of a success, and has to develop and draw on different resources, than one who spends a wild weekend together then splits after a huge fight.
Putting boundaries around your passion for your work doesn’t indicate that you’re not serious. It shows that you care. It shows that you’re in it for the long run.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, esports is becoming a big thing in the gaming world, and in sports more generally. It took off as a professional, corporate activity in Korea in the early 2000s, and recently has expanded to the U.S. (In fact, some teams playing in the U.S. are from Korea [insert bad immigrants taking our jobs joke here]). If you’r not familiar with it, this video provides a good introduction to the business:
For a long time, many companies would set up “team houses in which players both work and reside,” but as aXiomatic Gaming CEO Bruce Stein explains,
When we formed the idea of a training center, it got [the players] out of training and living in the same environment…. We felt that was a little stifling. It didn’t give them a separation between relaxation and work. And it wasn’t the ideal setup for training with the coaches and the analysts. So, we built a facility.
Given that aXiomatic Gaming’s owners include owners or partners in two basketball teams, two baseball team, and two hockey teams, it’s not a surprise that they wanted to.
The center is like any other professional sports facility: there are playing fields, a film room for reviewing games, and a kitchen and chef.
What do the players think?
“I think this facility is insane…. Six years ago I was scrimming [practicing] out of like this tiny dinky house in Diamond Bar [in Eastern Los Angeles County], the cheapest possible place you could fit five people.
The coaches like it too.
Overall it fosters a more structured and work-focused environment compared to esports houses.
“Players would just wake up at 10:28 for a 10:30 morning and just crawl out of their beds to it,” assistant coach Jun “Dodo” Kang said, speaking about how it was in the gaming house.
Coach Nu-ri “Cain” Jang said, via translation, that, “Having living and working space in the same place makes it too relaxed for the players. . . . Separating that just helps players focus on being professionals. Like, you’re waking up and actually going to work.”
Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, one of the Korean players, said the facility helps him stay more balanced.
We hear a lot about the benefits of being able to “blend” work and life, or professional and personal stuff, but there’s a big literature on the psychological and productivity benefits of work-life separation— of having really clear boundaries between work time and your work self, on one hand, and your personal life on the other.
For one thing, having time off is simply psychologically good for you. It gives you time to recover the mental and physical energy you spend at work. This is especially true for people who are in highly stressful jobs, or jobs that explode them to unpredictable, chaotic situations– ER nurses, doctors, and law enforcement are the obvious examples, but people who work in badly-managed offices can also benefit more from clear boundaries. Studies have found that people on zero-hour contracts, who can be ordered into the office on short notice, or are on call, have more trouble detaching from work, and their performance suffers over the long run. Having a physical distinction between work and home– like a training facility rather than a gamer house– goes a long way to enforcing those boundaries.
Predictable breaks and good boundaries between work and home life are good for short-term recovery, and for good long-term career development. There’s a reason people who discover what I call “deep play,” serious hobbies that are as engaging as their work, have more distinguished and longer careers than people who don’t: deep play gives them a degree of balance and control in their lives that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And people who are really ambitious, or get very involved in their work, need the benefits of breaks, and the structure of having them enforced by physical distance and time, even more than average workers. Your highest performers are also the ones most likely to burn out– and really cost your company– if you don’t get them out of the office on a regular basis.
Strong work-life boundaries also make it easier to enforce professional norms and get good performance. Like many people, I like the fact that work allows me to behave differently than I do in my private life; and that’s easier to maintain if those lives are actually separate. I know lots of employers like to talk about “bringing your best self to work,” but that assumes that your “best self” is the same whether you’re in the living room or the courtroom or operating room. One of the reason we find work and hobbies meaningful and rewarding is that those activities let us cultivate different best selves, or exercise parts of our selves in one context that we can’t in another.
The example of gamers moving to a training facility model is significant because these guys are the perfect workers of neoliberal corporate capitalism. They’re young men, unmarried, without families or even house plants. They have no lives, and it’s not clear that they really want them. They live and breathe their work. Most corporate sponsors (or employers) assume that to get the most of these people, you want to encourage those habits, and make it possible for work to overrun life.
But raw passion doesn’t make for world-class performance, and mere obsession can be beat by super-focused work. Combining great training and workplace with stronger work-life boundaries lets people work more intensively, at a higher level of performance– and that’s really what you want. You want them going home, so they can beat the guys who are sleeping under their desks.
It might seem counterintuitive that more effort will help you recover from your workday, but that’s exactly what researchers have discovered. By engaging in activities that you enjoy, but that also challenge you, we’re able to disconnect more fully from work.
Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and all the more rewarding when they’re proficiently executed.
One great example is of the codebreakers during World War II who spent their days trying to crack the Nazi’s encryption. Rather than use their downtime to relax from their mentally and emotionally taxing work, they chose to play chess. Most of them had played at a high level (and were even recruited for their proficiency), and so playing the game allowed them to work towards their mastery and get in a state of flow—that amazing moment where their abilities matched the difficulty level.
Pursuing mastery is a perfect example of the importance of hobbies outside of work, which not only help you recover, but can lead to more overall happiness due to lower stress, more social relationships, better structure to your day, and a sense of accomplishment and meaning.
MacKay goes on to talk about the value of closing rituals, which I found illuminating. When I’m deep in a project, the last things I do at night all relate to setting up for the next morning’s writing. I’ve been doing this for years, but MacKay’s account makes me realize that this also serves as a good way of closing out the night, and helps me put things to bed (mentally and literally).
Some people really like Rest because it helps them make sense of things that they already do, and understand why they provide benefits. Even though I’ve thought a lot about working practices and rest, I can still have the same experience.
I work with… total calm from about 9.30 until lunchtime. Ideally I then go out to a local Italian restaurant, preferably with someone who talks brilliantly about themselves, not totally impossible to achieve in London W11. I can then covertly mull over the morning’s work. I never work in the afternoon, preferring to go swimming in a local health club, for more mulling as I slowly and happily traverse the pool for 20 minutes. Swimming is the best sport I know for reflecting seriously on history. In the early evening I go back upstairs, but it will be for reading over the day’s pages, and correcting them, rather than something more creative….
The reason that this pattern of work-in-the-morning-only is something so deeply ingrained in me, is that I began trying to write history seriously when I had six children born in 10 years. I have actually written all my life, but history was It. So I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery, the moment I could cram the children into cradles, kindergartens, schools … with the wild hope they would stay there. (There are wicked stories of notices on my door saying “Only come in if you have broken something”, which I utterly deny.) Under the circumstances, I never ever suffered from writer’s block.
Today the discipline remains. I still feel odd if I don’t work in the morning, and if I am not alone in the eyrie.
This theme of strict routine as a way of making the most of time that otherwise would be soaked up by kids and chores is one you see with other women writers, like Shirley Jackson. I suppose you could also see it as a way of exerting a measure of control over one’s life and attention– a kid of authorial version of the strategy Janice Radway describes romance readers practicing in Reading the Romance.
Fraser also talks about having “a special computer for work, so that while I’m upstairs I do not receive those delightful distracting emails for which my baser self is secretly longing,” and being “forced to learn typing on Saturdays at my convent school as a punishment for being uppish,” something that my mother was also forced to learn– though in her case it was so she would have a useful skill and could become a secretary, since that was what high schools girls in the 1950s could look forward to if they weren’t nurses or teachers.
However, there are creative people whose day jobs, kids, etc. don’t allow for that kind of rigorous daily practice; and there are times when it feels like a super-concentrated burst of work is what you need to get a project going. The four-hour day is an ideal, and I think even if we can’t adopt it we can learn from it about how to do better work.
Today I ran across a tweet by Dublin-based author Sinéad Gleeson linking to a 2014 Kazuo Ishiguro piece about writing The Remains of the Day. He didn’t write it in four-hour days; in fact, he explicitly rejected that method, in favor of an immersive four-week period that he and his wife called “Crash:”
Many people have to work long hours. When it comes to the writing of novels, however, the consensus seems to be that after four hours or so of continuous writing, diminishing returns set in. I’d always more or less gone along with this view, but as the summer of 1987 approached I became convinced a drastic approach was needed. Lorna, my wife, agreed.
Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward.
So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one….
I kept it up for the four weeks, and at the end of it I had more or less the entire novel down: though of course a lot more time would be required to write it all up properly, the vital imaginative breakthroughs had all come during the Crash.
It would be interesting to note whether Ishiguro still goes into Crash to write books, or whether that was a one-time thing. (It sounds like it hasn’t been a consistent feature of his working life, but I’m not sure.) I still look back on writing my dissertation as one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, in part because I was simultaneously doing a ton of research, learning how to write something that large, and going through all the work of self-fashioning an academic identity*. In contrast, in some ways writing Distraction Addiction and Rest was a lot easier, because even through I was learning to write in a new way, the fundamental mechanics of writing had long become a sort of muscle memory, and I felt like I had a better handle on what I was doing, and I knew I could learn how to write for this new audience.
Ishiguro also talks about how a Tom Waite song inspired him to change the end of the story, and to introduce a twist that I find so brilliant and devastating (it remains my favorite of Ishiguro’s books).
The rest of the thread is also worth reading through– lots of other authors replying to talk about their experience.
*Which as a faculty brat was probably a lot easier for me than for other people. My attitude to a secure place in the academic firmament was rather like the one Lady Mary expresses in an episode of Downton Abbey when her fiancé asks, “Where does your class of people get your furniture?” She replies, “I suppose we inherit it.”
August 16, 2017 / askpang / Comments Off on “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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”