Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

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Giving away some books

My UK publishers sent me a box of copies of the new paperback edition of REST (the one with the foreword by Arianna Huffington).

Copies of the UK paperback edition.

One thing I’ve learned is that while it’s cool that they exist at all, and it’s cool to see a bunch of them all together, copies of your book don’t do you any good just sitting on your shelf. It’s like money: you want enough on hand in case you need, but in the long run you’ll be better off it it’s out in the world, circulating and being used.

Rest is the same way. The books do more good when they’re out in the world, and seeing the world. So I’m giving some copies away.

As you can see, I’ve added an unobtrusive newsletter signup at the top of the blog. I’m going to offer a copy a week to a randomly-selected newsletter subscriber, until I’ve put a dent in this pile.

If you want another copy, great. If you know someone who could really use it, and want me to send it to them, your generosity is inspiring. If you want to sell it on eBay, I won’t be angry, just disappointed.*

My one rule: because the cost of shipping books internationally is ridiculous, I’ll send books within the US only. (I’m not made of money, alas!) So if you live outside the States, sorry; but maybe you have an American friend?

In the future, I’ll probably also offer subscribers an early look at the next book, as well as other works-in-progress type things. More reasons to subscribe!

* Disappointed, that is, at how little you’re able to get for it. It’s really it’s not worth going through all the work of listing it, dealing with going to the post office, etc. Just keep the book.

One New Mexico school districts’ 4-day week

My old elementary school
One of my old elementary schools, now closed and scheduled for demolition, Waynesboro, VirginiaPBS’ News Hour recently had a piece about Bayard, New Mexico, a school district that haa moved from a five-day to a four-day school week. It did so mainly for financial reasons, and it’s now assessing the pros and cons of the shift.

It seems that there are benefits in terms of lower absenteeism, better teacher recruitment and retention, and some teachers reporting better classroom performance (both on their own part and on among students). Coaches like it because it makes more time for practices and games. And for kids in rural districts who are spending a lot of time on school buses— kids in this particular district may spend three hours a day commuting to and from school— it means less time on the road.

It’s also interesting how the concerns about the 4-day school week are framed. A lot of it has to do with the babysitting functions of school: librarians complain that they have more unaccompanied kids in their libraries (apparently children in the library are a negative), grandparents and other relatives are more tired, etc.. (This ought to highlight just how much energy teachers have to spend doing these things.) For others, there’s an equity issue: if my kid’s spending less time in school, will they be as well-prepared for college or work as a student who spends more? Equating time spent with outcomes is hardly unusual, in education or the workplace, but still it’s notable how quickly the discussion moves to this ground.

Self-help ≠ you’re on your own: New work on career advice vs. advocacy

When writing The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I could never shake a certain uneasiness with both projects: my concern that the self-help genre lets corporations and culture off the hook.

I believe very much in value of contemplative computing and deliberate rest. I think practicing both makes your life better. I think that it’s important for people to recognize that they can question technologies and conventional ways of working, and escape narratives of technological or cultural determinism.*

But there’s always the risk that the underlying message would slide from “here are some tools to recognize and solve the problems we all face,” to  “these problems are personal; don’t focus on anything beyond yourself.” By channeling your energy into personal empowerment, these messages deflect energy that might be spent questioning, and ultimately challenging, the structural factors that are responsible for creating these problems (or at least making them worse).

This problem was really driven home to me when I was doing the press tour for Rest, and kept getting asked, “What tips and tricks do you have for a single mom who’s also pursuing a career and needs more rest?” (Never single dads. It’s almost as if some questioners wanted single moms to be deprived of rest.) After about the tenth time of being asked the question, I finally came up with an answer that I liked:

If there were tips and tricks, single mothers would have already found them. The problem they face isn’t that they’re not smart enough about their lives; when it comes to how they spend their time, they’re some of the most ruthlessly efficient, no-nonsense people I know.  The problem is that they live in a society that systematically undervalues the work that parents do; that shifts the burden of parenting disproportionately onto mothers; and expects working women to raise children as if they don’t have careers, and to pursue careers as if they don’t have children. These women don’t need personal tips. They need a different system.

Ephrat Livni’s thought-provoking Quartz essay, ”All career advice for women is a form of gaslighting,” reminded me of these concerns. 

Working women get career advice for how to overcome obstacles and succeed while working in a sexist culture are beyond any individual’s control. And so advocating a do-it-yourself approach to on-the-job equality may actually be a kind of gaslighting—just one more way for institutions to deflect blame and make women question themselves and doubt their sanity. It’s the society we operate in that needs fixing, not how we ask for money, the tone of our voices, or our outfits.

In fact, research by Duke University department of neuroscience professors Grainne Fitzsimons, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim… shows that overemphasizing messages of individual female empowerment diminishes people’s sense of systemic obstacles that require societal redress. It puts major historic problems on the shoulders of individuals, who are actually minor players. 

Empowerment advice for women provides an “illusion of control” that’s not realistic, the researchers say. The advice may be good insofar as it gives us hope, but it fails to recognize larger, much more powerful forces at work, like a long history of discrimination and patriarchy. 

“We suspected that by arguing that women can solve the problem themselves, advocates of the ‘DIY’ approach may imply that women should be the ones to solve it—that it is their responsibility to do so,” they write. “We also hypothesized that this message could risk leading people to another, potentially dangerous conclusion: that women have caused their own under-representation.”…

The Duke University researchers argue that their findings on DIY equality should worry anyone who believes we need structural and societal change to improve the workplace. ”[T]he more we talk about women leaning in, the more likely people are to hold women responsible, both for causing inequality, and for fixing it,” they write.

“The truth,” Livni writes, “is that women face biases that are far too profound and complex to expect any individual to resolve them on their own.” Self-help books run the risk of flattening that complexity, of absolving companies and culture, and personalizing failure. If you don’t make it, if you don’t get a promotion or have your work recognized, it’s not because the deck is stacked against you; it’s because you didn’t lean in enough.

This is one reason I’ve been looking at companies that are shortening their working hours. I believe strongly that it’s good for people to be thoughtful about and protective of their time, and that they should take rest seriously and make room for it. Yet it’s also unquestionable that there are huge structural and normative impediments to doing so.

So showing that there are companies that have successfully cut 8 or 10 hours from their working weeks, without sacrificing productivity or profitability, is important: it shows that these structures can change, that the impediments can be lowered— and that this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game in which one side (the side that usually gets to set the rules of the game, not coincidentally) suspects that it is being cheated. This is why I started my podcast with interviews with heads of companies that are leading this trend: I wanted to make it really clear that these people exist, to amplify their stories, and to explain how they do it. Ultimately, I want other companies to ask, why shouldn’t we do this too?

* Another reason I haven’t written much about how companies try to manipulate our attention and time is that I don’t have any illusions about trying to change Facebook’s or Twitter’s strategy. They’ve made enormous amounts of money, and invest ungodly amounts of time and energy, getting people to spend as much time as possible on their sites, and getting them to behave in ways that are appealing to advertisers. If anything, these companies are even more addicted to behavior design than we are. One book isn’t going to get you to rethink your strategy if that strategy has allowed you to pay cash for a mountain in Hawaii or Montana.

Lasse Rheingans and the 5-Hour Workday at Rheingans Digital Enabler

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-4zdsx-987466

And we’re back! I’m afraid I was off for a couple weeks in England, doing some research and other interviews, then had lots of other things that demanded my attention when I got back. So my apologies for the hiatus. I know there are so few podcasts in the world, it’s a hardship to be without an episode.

But the wait is worth it. Here, I talk with Lasse Rheingans, the head of Rheingans Digital Enabler, about moving his company to a 5-hour workday. It’s a fascinating conversation, and it’s good to get a bit of European perspective on the subject of shorter hours.

My hope is to get back on a weekly schedule, as I have a ton of other interviews waiting to be shared.

Mentioned in this podcast:

Talking about deliberate rest on Bodyshot Performance

Ready for my closeup on BBC Radio 4!

My latest interview, with Bodyshot Performance founder Leanne Spencer, is now up online. (I recently wrote about Leanne’s TED talk on fitness versus weight.)

It seems to have the ominous title “part 1,” so there’s more coming!

Sleep, brain maintenance, and Alzheimer’s disease

More brains!

In Rest, I talk about how sleep turns out to be a form of what I call “active rest:” rest in which the body is actually doing things behind the scenes. One of the most important things it does is fire up glial cells, which you can think of as a kind of scaffolding and support system for the brain, to clear out the various toxins that build up in the brain during its normal activity. (You can think of these proteins as a kind of waste, just like the rest of the waste your body produces.)

A few years ago, neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard observed this system at work in the brains of mice. Now, writing in Science News, Laura Bell reports on new research on human subjects indicating that “The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep.” (Also, Bell’s article is a terrific overview of the history of this research, and its major lines of investigation.)

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin has been working on the “Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up” in 2001. So by now the Registry has 17 years of data, gathered from surveys, doctor’s exams, cognitive tests, even cerebral spinal fluid taps. (I love longitudinal studies like these: they reveal things that no other kind of research can.)

What Bedlin is finding is more evidence of a connection between sleep deprivation and the buildup of amyloid-beta protein fragments, which have been theorized to be one mechanism behind Alzheimer’s:

Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging….

In a different subgroup of 101 people willing to have a spinal tap, poor sleep was associated with biological markers of Alzheimer’s in the spinal fluid…. The markers included some related to A-beta plaques, as well as inflammation and the protein tau, which appears in higher levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Now, it’s important to note that the casual arrow between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s isn’t yet clear: scientists aren’t yet willing to say with certainty whether bad sleep increases your odds of developing the disease, or whether the mechanisms that are responsible for Alzheimer’s also disrupt your sleep. As Bell puts it, Bell notes that

most studies have a chicken-and-egg problem. Alzheimer’s is known to cause difficulty sleeping. If Alzheimer’s both affects sleep and is affected by it, which comes first?

But even though “the direction and the strength of the cause-and-effect arrow remain unclear,” she continues,

approximately one-third of U.S. adults are considered sleep deprived (getting less than seven hours of sleep a night) and Alzheimer’s is expected to strike almost 14 million U.S. adults by 2050 (5.7 million have the disease today).

Either way, it’s yet another argument for taking sleep seriously, and getting enough of it.

Why college students need to get regular sleep

The Penn campus at night

I was one of those college students who treated sleep with a kind of casual contempt. The combination of being an adolescent, being free from the strictures of family life and able to set my own schedule, and drinking in the casual contempt that many students (especially engineering students, which I was as a freshman) have for sleep, meant that I had terrible sleep habits.

So I could have used this New York Times piece on the importance of sleep for good performance in college:

Whatever you may think can get in the way of a successful college experience, chances are you won’t think of one of the most important factors: how long and how well you sleep. And not just on weekends, but every day, Monday through Sunday.

Studies have shown that sleep quantity and sleep quality equal or outrank such popular campus concerns as alcohol and drug use in predicting student grades and a student’s chances of graduating….

College students who fail to adopt more wholesome sleep habits are more likely to find themselves unable to handle their chosen course load and less likely to reach their academic potential, according to a national study of more than 55,000 college students.

Working late “just makes people think you’re inefficient”

DSCF1046

Ruby Anderson explains how “Dutch Culture Taught Me to Be Brutally Honest,” and relates this anecdote from a friend about attitudes to working hours:

“I had a Dutch boss who asked me why I was working so late,” [Canadian-born writer Colleen] Geske told me. “I would be one of the last to leave the office and he told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to work this late. It doesn’t make you seem like a better employee. Actually it just makes people think you’re inefficient and can’t get your work done on time.’”

Who knows how widespread this attitude towards time and efficiency is in the Netherlands. From the time I’ve spent there, I’m willing to believe it’s the case, but I’d love to know more.

DSCF2982

But it’s worth noting that the Dutch have some of the shortest working hours, and highest productivity levels, in the world.

Even the expectation of work email creates anxiety

This finding should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the literature on email, detachment, and work-life balance, but a new study finds that the “[m]ere expectation of checking work email after hours harms health of workers and families.”

Employer expectations of work email monitoring during nonwork hours are detrimental to the health and well-being of not only employees but their family members as well… [according to] a new study… showing that such expectations result in anxiety, which adversely affects the health of employees and their families. “The competing demands of work and nonwork lives present a dilemma for employees,” [coauthor William] Becker said, “which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives.”

Here’s the abstract of the Academy of Management article, “Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being:”

Using boundary theory and the affect-as-information framework, this paper tests the relationship between organizational expectations to monitor electronic communication during non-work hours and employee and their significant others’ health and relationship satisfaction. We theorize that organizational expectations trigger frequent employee micro-transitions during nonwork time, eliciting negative affect and leading to decreases in well-being. In a sample of 142 dyads of full time employees and their significant others, we found that detrimental health and relationship effects of expectations were mediated by negative affect. This includes crossover effects of electronic communication expectations on partner health and martial satisfaction. Our findings extend literature on work-related electronic communication at the interface of work and non-work and deepen our understanding of the impact of organizational expectations on employees and their families.

There’s decades of research on the importance of what psychologists call “detachment” for helping workers recharge, and having email hovering over their off-time is one of the most effective ways of destroying detachment. Any company that doesn’t have an explicit policy about after-hours email use— and either formally allows workers to turn off email after hours, or combines a better reason for requiring workers to check in than “the boss might have a brainstorm” or “the client might have a question” with some counterbalancing policy (like more vacation time)— is engaged in professional malpractice.

Leanne Spencer on fitness vs. weight

Great talk by author and fitness expert Leanne Spencer (she’s founder of Bodyshot Performance) about the importance of focusing on fitness rather than weight. She starts with some startling and depressing statistics: the average woman in Britain spends 17 years dieting, and that 25% of 13 year-old girls skip meals to keep from gaining weight.

But, she argues, it would be much better to concentrate and work on “what we can achieve with out bodies rather than what they look like,” to shift– both individually and as a society “from fatness to fitness.”

Recently I came to a similar conclusion. I decided that my objective in my workouts and exercise was not to try to look a certain way, but to improve my strength and flexibility– to concentrate, as Leanne puts it, “not on appearances, but on functional fitness.”

I recently recorded an interview with Leanne for her Remove the Guesswork podcast, and we talked a bit about how exercise turns out to contribute to creativity and longer creative lives. It’ll be fun to see it up.

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