Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

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“rest is as important” as “ticking off all those items on our to-do list:” Readers on REST

One of the great pleasures of having written Rest is coming across feedback on Twitter or blogs from readers who’ve enjoyed the book and put it to use in their lives. I’ve posted about some of of these reader reviews (and videos) before. Today, I came across three such mentions, on three continents, and that seemed worth a post.

First, Vineyard Churches communication director Mark Crosby tweets from Wales (or maybe somewhere warmer?):

(I always like seeing the book in the wild!)

Actually, John Wright tweeted nice things about the book too…

…though it kind of looks like the book is about to get chucked in the pool.

Second, Northcote, Australia-based coach Tess Bartlett writes about “How to transform burn out to intentional rest.” As she so elegantly put it, “rest is as important, if not more important, than ticking off all those items on our to-do list,” and she has a number of concrete suggestions for how to make more space for rest in a busy life.

On the other side of the world, in New York, lawyer E. David Smith writes about how reading Rest encouraged him to reset his daily routine to better reflect what really matters to him, without neglecting the practice he founded:

I started leaving the office at 5:15 p.m. instead of 7:30 p.m. I started concentrating on my kids and giving them the attention they really needed. It wasn’t that they’d been neglected before, but it has been incredible seeing them blossom – getting used to having me around more, and knowing they can come to me anytime. That is my number one priority.

None of this has taken a thing away from my clients….

I wish I could tell you how much my life has improved since I’ve started taking these simple steps to refocus.

It all hinges on one simple fact: my business exists to support my family, not to take me away from them.

Of course, I’m grateful for positive reviews of the book, like Nilanjana Roy’s very thoughtful review in the Financial Times and Arianna’s incomparable review in the New York Times; but it’s really gratifying to see people take the book and make it their own.

“Children are always busy, even when they don’t look it:” Kids and deliberate rest

The Atlantic has an excerpt from a new book by psychologist Lea Waters, The Strength Switch, talking about the importance of free time and mind-wandering (or “free-form attention,” as she calls it) in childhood development.

free-form attention is what the brain defaults to when it’s off-task, allowed to move in any direction it wants. It happens when the brain is in what scientists call the resting state. In the 1990s, neuropsychologists began to delve into free-form attention and found that it has many benefits, including for children’s learning and their brain development. To shift instantly into free-form attention, all an individual has to do is goof off.

Now just any kind of goofing off won’t do. There’s a constructive form of goofing off that is restorative to the brain and therefore important for strength-based parenting—parenting that focuses on kids’ strengths instead of their weaknesses. Good goofing off is active; the mind is not simply being “fed” stimuli. Rather, the activity engages the mind in a way that simultaneously gives it free rein. Good goofing off happens when the person participating is competent enough at the activity that he or she does not have to focus closely on the process or the techniques. It happens when reading, cooking a familiar recipe, shooting baskets, or simply daydreaming.

Waters calls those periods when you’re not focused on specific tasks “deliberate rest,” which is of course a term I’ve used in my book; we use it in somewhat different ways– I’m talking about a particular set of practices that people discover and can get better at, while she’s talking more about mind-wandering.

Still, we both see focus and deliberate rest (whichever way you define it) as working together:

The ability to toggle between directed attention and free-form attention improves with practice, making the brain most effective. The brain can snap to attention when necessary and then downshift to deliberate rest mode whenever possible in order to maximize mental alertness, process information, and bring forward that knowledge to apply to the next attentive time.

Looks like a book worth checking out.

Honolulu fights ‘smartphone zombies’

More of Kauai
Just enjoy the sunset!

The city of Honolulu has passed a law that “targets ‘smartphone zombies’,” people crossing the street while using their smartphones and not looking where they’re going:

“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” [Honolulu mayor Kirk] Caldwell said.

The ban will go into effect in late October and will run from $15 to $99, depending on the severity of the offense.

I was recently in Hawaii, though on a different island, and was struck by how reflexive checking phones in restaurants, taking selfies, etc. has become. Even in an island paradise, many of us feel the need to keep our phones out and active all the time.

When the world doesn’t provide us stimulation, it’s offering us a gift: More on creativity and boredom

More people seem to be getting interested in boredom. Now the World Economic Forum has a video about the value of letting your mind do nothing at all:

It’s kind of a follow-up to a piece by Silicon Valley author Jordan Rosenfeld about why we should “Learn how to be bored instead” of constantly reaching for our phones during down moments. Since writing The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I’ve become more of a fan of taking those moments and just doing nothing at all, staring into space and letting my mind wander.

Of course, what Rosenfeld and the World Economic Forum are talking about isn’t really boredom, per se, but rather treating those moments when you don’t have to focus on anything– that time in line at the store, for example– as an opportunity and positive thing, rather than a negative space defined by an absence of stimulus. As I argued in my Maria Shriver Sunday paper article this weekend, boredom isn’t a state that’s determined by the world around us. It’s conjured by us.

Boredom isn’t like a thermometer that measures how dull our environment is. it’s a more complex reaction of our selves and our surroundings. We might be bored by a movie that we’ve seen many times; we might find a conversation at a reunion dull because our lives and our classmates’ have gone in very different directions; or we might find a place dull because we were dragged there by our stupid parents who think stupid Renaissance paintings are cool. All kinds of things can be boring, as this piece of graffiti in Oxford reminds us:

Capitalism is Boring

Still, the underlying idea that when the world doesn’t offer us stimulation, it’s offering us a gift, is one that is worth repeating, even if I think we need a better term than “boredom” to describe it.

 

On rest and value of boredom

Over the weekend I had a short piece in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, which was dedicated to “the benefits of boredom.” My piece explains why “Rest and Boredom Are Scientifically Beneficial for Your Brain:”

We treat boredom as something that we can banish from our lives, like smallpox or polio. But boredom isn’t a disease. We don’t catch it. We cause it ourselves. Boredom is a state of mind, a reaction to the world rather than a reflection of the world. Sure, we can be bored standing in line or waiting around for a delayed plane. But we can also be bored of a once-favorite haunt, or under-stimulated by a too-familiar restaurant. Teenagers are geniuses at weaponizing boredom: kids are brilliant at being stubbornly bored by this dumb thing in this dumb place that their dumb parents have dragged them to.

This suggests that we can modulate even control, our reactions to situations that normally trigger boredom. But why should we? In a world where we can binge-watch television in line at the grocery store, why should we ever let those empty moments stay empty?

The answer is, those moments when we don’t have to focus on anything in particular, and can allow our minds to roam free, are actually quite valuable.

I first realized that boredom was a state of mind that we could control, and that when we’re young we weaponize it, when I was at the British Museum with my kids. We were at the Rosetta Stone, which of course is one of the great jewels in the Museum’s collection, and one of the single most important archaeological artifacts in all of history.

From today's visit to the British Museum

There was another family there, and while the parents were explaining why the Stone was important (and by implication why it was cool that they were there), one of the kids Was. Not. Having. It. He was determined to stay disengaged, no matter what. (It’s not the child in the striped shirt. That’s my son, six years ago!) It struck me just how forcefully the kid seemed to want to be unimpressed, and wanted his parents to know just how stupid the whole thing was. I doubted that he could come right out and say it, but conspicuous boredom made his feelings pretty clear.

Rosetta Stone

This is probably something I did plenty of myself when I was younger. Of course there were times when I legitimately felt like there was nothing for me to do– this was my default state from roughly third grade through high school– but there were probably times when I was bored to make a point. For kids, who don’t have a lot of choice in their lives, the ability to be bored is probably a useful form of rebellion: you can drag me to all these places, but you can’t make me like it, even if it’s something really cool.

But like most of us, as I’ve gotten older and busier, I now have a greater appreciation for the value of those periods when I have nothing I need to focus on; it’s less something to flee from, and a little more a luxury. It can even be good for you.

Things to do the night before your vacation starts

A good complement to my recent discussion of vacations: this piece on Business Insider on things to do “before you jet off to some sunny shore:”

you need set your affairs in order at work.

The night before your vacation is a crucial time to prepare.

Effective planning will give you peace of mind while you’re catching some rays, and it will prevent problems from cropping up when you drag your sunburnt self back into the office in a few days.

Talking about restful vacations on CBC Ontario Today

Scenes from Kauai

I was on CBC Radio’s call-in show “Ontario Today” earlier today, talking about “The key to a restful vacation.” You can listen here:

It was a fun time for me at least, partly because it involved more interaction with an audience than many radio interviews, and because I actually went into it with a certain amount of apprehension. To be honest, in Rest I have about six pages about vacations, so I was concerned that I’d have enough to say!

Fortunately, guest host Amanda Pfeffer was outstanding, and did a terrific job of guiding the conversation back to the book. I also do a fair amount of prep before these interviews, and now have a decent system for working through my notes and thinking about my responses, as you can see.

HipstaPrint

The Stanford Video folks (who are outstanding– they’re all the kinds of low-key professionals you want to work with during stressful situations, or just during moments when you need to be totally focused and on) keep a sheet music stand in the studio, and I make good use of it.

Beforehand, I’ll take some time to write out some notes, the key ideas I want to repeat or return to, and reminders to keep my answers short, stay on point, and let the host guide things. It’s usually the same set of notes, the same points, and same reminders every time (I am talking about the same book, after all); but it helps to write them out every time, to keep them fresh in my mind.

I also carry a copy of the book into the studio, though frankly I don’t refer to it during a live show– there’s not time to page through it.

You’ll notice a couple post-its, which have the host’s name– you never want to get that wrong– and the schedule for breaks.

I also keep my small notebook handy (in my lap), and write down the names of callers and the main points I want to make in response to their stories or questions. The virtue of this is that if I have only one or two points to make, I’ll make them more quickly if I can write them down and refer to them, and I’m less likely to strike off on some digression. I’m also more likely to get people’s names right if I write them down and can refer to them. Finally, if I can connect points that two callers 40 minutes apart make, I look like A Freaking Genius.

Today’s setup is not unusual for me. I’ve learned that interviews go better if I have some aide-memoire to jog my memory, or anchor the conversation. This was the desk when I was interviewed by Bob Edwards about The Distraction Addiction:

Bob Edwards interview

 

I’m very big on note-taking as a tool for thinking more clearly, as the book below illustrates, so realizing that doing it for interviews would help was a significant thing.

Reading is a martial art, 1

I think I’m getting better at interviews, though it’s like being a musician or teacher: it’s one of those pieces of craft that you can refine and improve for a lifetime. But at least I recognize that it’s a craft, and I’m learning how to build a structure that helps me do well and improve. (So I hope.)

“I no longer let myself be bored. I wondered just how bad that was for a writer—or for any other creative type”

Bay Area author Jordan Rosenfeld as a piece in Quartz about “The scientific link between boredom and creativity:”

As a freelance writer, it made sense that I’d check my email frequently. But I also enjoyed surfing the Internet to break up the dull moments of child-rearing. Checking Facebook was a great way to keep tabs on far-flung friends. Before long, I was never bored: not at the post office, the grocery store, or while getting my oil changed. None of this seemed like a problem—until I noticed a creeping feeling of mental clutter, and a significant decline in my creative writing.

It hit me while I was driving one day: I no longer let myself be bored. I wondered just how bad that was for a writer—or for any other creative type.

Vacations, boredom, and stress: Recent articles and an upcoming radio show

Scenes from Kauai

I like to tell people that the only bad vacation is the one that you don’t take. There’s a ton of research on the benefits of vacations, both in the short run and the long run. But Quartz reports that “Going on vacation is stressful, according to recent surveys of workers:”

A poll of 1,000 UK workers conducted by Britain’s Institute of Leadership and Management noted that just the prospect of an upcoming vacation made 73% of respondents anxious. One 2015 survey from US medical information site Healthline found that 62% of over 2,000 readers who responded had “very or somewhat” elevated stress levels during winter holiday vacations. Finances are a major driver of vacation-related stress: CNV Vakmensen, a trade union in the Netherlands, surveyed its members in 2017, and found that being forced to take vacation at certain points of the year, such as the long summer break when children are out of school, stressed people out. Accommodation and travel options tend to be in higher demand during this time, which raises costs.

Then there’s the disruptions vacation can cause: In 2013, the Huffington Post surveyed 1,000 adult US workers, and found that having to work longer hours in the run-up to a vacation and longer hours afterwards to make up for lost time, stressed out potential vacation-takers.

I’m not going to alter my recommendation, because the virtues of time off from work are in my view way too well-established to argue that the potential stresses of vacations outweigh the gains.

Embankment

Rather than give up vacations, it would be better for us (and for companies) to learn how to deal better with the financial and logistical challenges. If you prospect of getting stuck at the airport or dealign with rental cars stresses you out, or paying for an expensive vacation keeps you up, the solution isn’t to stay at work: instead, it would be better to make more modest plans, but still take the time off.

San Gregorio State Beach

As a parent, I discovered that not being too worried about, or letting myself be too responsible for, my kids’ emotional states was important for me enjoying my vacation. In particular, I decided at a certain point that if my kids were bored, that was their problem; so long as they didn’t break stuff (or each other), they could be bored.

This is one of the big ideas behind Sandhya Nakani’s “Discover the Perfect Gift for Your Kid This Summer,” which applies some of the ideas in REST to kids and vacations. As she rightly notes, when a kid announces that “I’m bored!” it’s partly a declaration, but also “a challenge, with an embedded invitation for me to find something for her to do or to entertain her.” And it’s liberating to realize that it’s not a challenge we have to accept.

We go on in the article to talk about the role boredom and dealign with boredom plays in creative lives, and the role of down-time in kids’ psychological development.

The wave that may have killed my camera

If you want to skip the neuroscience and child psychology and just go for the listicle, I also offer “5 Summer Vacation Tips for Getting Serious About Rest,” starting with “take rest seriously” and ending with “let kids be bored.”

Finally, I’m talking about this tomorrow on “Ontario Today,” a call-in show on CBC Radio. Tune in and call in!

Find the time to give it a rest

Tasmanian newspaper The Mercury has a long piece (“Find the time to give it a rest“) about REST and Robert Dessaix’s fine book The Pleasures of Leisure:

Ever since my artist friend Maria La Grue told me she did her best painting while talking on the phone to a friend I’ve been fascinated by the notion of deliberate distraction and the possibility of achieving one thing while doing something else. Of working at something while not working at it.

This is not just the realm of artists or creative people who rely on letting go so their subconscious can take over. Think of the times you’ve tried to recall the name of a movie, find a lost object or solve a thorny problem. How you struggled for ages, racked your brain, strained your memory, only to have the answer come to you when you’d finally stopped trying and given it a rest.

Seemingly, it’s a bit of the brain we know little about but which in this overworked country is occupying the minds of some of our best thinkers. That is, that we operate at our best, most notably as high achievers, when we regard non-work, or downtime, as just as relevant and important as work itself. And that, rather than being in conflict, work and play are inextricably linked.

I confess I’ve never been to Tasmania– I’ve been to Perth on business, and stopped for a day in Sydney on the way home– but the piece makes me curious about what Hobart is like.

But having Rest there is almost as good. It’s always nice to see the book traveling and being read in places you’ve never been. It’s good for books to have lives of their own. Books are very much extensions of ourselves, but they’re also more than that; they reflect their author’s interests (and limitations), but they also can go in directions and places that we don’t anticipate. They’re a bit like children in that respect: yours but not yours to control, and your responsibility consists of making sure that they’re ready for the world when they leave.

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