Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

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Is this the solution to overwork? [Narrator: It was not the solution.]

A while ago I saw this in article asking “How Can We Curb ‘Death by Overwork’?“:

North is referring to “T-FREND,” a first-of-its-kind drone currently in development by the Japanese security firm Taisei. Come October, T-FREND will hover over after-hours workers blasting “Auld Lang Syne,” commonly played when stores are closing in Japan, to force them to leave. “Great attention has been paid to overworking in Japan,” says Taisei’s Norihiro Kato, who confirms T-FREND is being created to tackle the problem.

This will not solve the problem.

“the key to his fantastic work… was that he was phenomenally boring”

Sophie Beck’s essay on Joan Miró gets at something important:

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.

Long hours, weekends and mental health

This 2018 episode of the Life’s Work podcast has an interesting brief conversation about the impact of working long hours and weekends on mental health?

UCL researcher and consultant in wellbeing at work Gill Weston discusses her research looking at the links between working long hours and weekend work and signs of depression in both men and women. Key findings from the research:

  • Women who worked 55 hours a week or longer showed more signs of depression than those who worked a standard 35-40 hour week;
  • Women who worked weekends showed more signs of depression than those who didn’t;
  • Men who worked weekends in poor quality jobs with little control or job satisfaction also showed high numbers of depressive symptoms compared with their peers who worked weekends but were in good quality jobs

The restaurants just keep coming: Los Angeles’ n/naka

One more example of a great restaurant that operates on a four-day week: Los Angeles’ n/naka, profiled by Helen Rosner in this week’s issue of The New Yorker:

The most prominent American kaiseki restaurant is n/naka, a small Los Angeles establishment owned and run by the forty-four-year-old Japanese-American chef Niki Nakayama. Japanese cuisine, at the high end, is virtually all made by men. When n/naka opened, it may have been the only kaiseki restaurant run by a woman in any country. Housed in a low gray building on a quiet corner in Palms, a neighborhood tucked between sleepy Culver City and the Santa Monica Freeway, it is open four nights a week, and seats twenty-six guests at a time.

She’s also featured in an episode of the Netflix show Chef’s Table:

Not sure I want to try to fit in one more interview, but at the very least, I’d love to know if the restaurant is open four days a week because it’s so great, or it’s great because it’s only open four days a week.

It’s not just Michelin-starred restaurants that are doing 4-day weeks

Some of the world’s best restaurants– Noma and Relae in Copenhagen, Maison Baumé in California, Attica in Melbourne, Aizle in Edinburgh– are shortening working hours for their chefs and staff. But they’re not the only ones, and the examples of more casual restaurants are, arguably, more important than the big names.  A two- or three-star Michelin restaurant can pretty much charge what it wants, since they can be booked months in advance and have huge waitlists. But all other restaurants live and die by razor-thin margins, and it’s easy to imagine that they can’t afford to shorten working hours for chefs and staff.

However, I’ve been finding a fair number of casual dining places that are experimenting with four-day weeks. In Brisbane, Australia, for example, Sasquatch Bar, a casual craft beer bar and restaurant (they boast of “international cuisines that have been interpreted into our idea of great drinking food”) has implemented a four-day week for chefs. Casey Poland talks about it in this interview that I just came across. He started working in kitchens at 15, and almost 15 years later, he’s worked as a head chef and restaurant consultant.

Having 3 whole days off a week is amazing. It’s changed my life. It has changed the lives of the chefs I have at work.  I have chefs who have kids, I have chefs who have businesses on the side that they run.

I have a wife and I’m trying to start a family, and the most important thing, I’d like to say, before my work is my wife. I need to be at work on Saturday and Sunday, and if I only have two days off and it’s the middle of the week and my wife has to work late, I only end up having dinner once a week with my wife. It’s terrible. Just the opportunity to have one more dinner with my wife a week has been amazing, you know?

Recently, Baumhower’s Victory Grille, a 10-restaurant chain in Alabama, shifted its managers and staff to a 4-day week, apparently with no reduction in pay (I’m trying to verify that). Baumhower played football for Bear Bryant at Alabama (if you don’t know American college football I can’t explain how significant this is, but it’s huge), then went on to a career with the Miami Dolphins, before getting into the restaurant business; and for them, it’s about recruitment and retention. As Baumhower says in a press release,

So much of what we do is about celebrating, making memories, and enjoying amazing food… [and] we want our teams to be able to enjoy those things too. Allowing our managers to have the life-work balance they desire while being able to better serve our guests at the same time makes this revolutionary concept a no-brainer. It’s funny how ideas come to you, and you wonder to yourself – ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’

There are other places doing it– AO Pasta in Stratford, Ontario, Model Milk and Pigeonhole in Calgary, for example– and I’m sure there are many others that I haven’t heard about.

It’s important to note that for restaurants, a 4-day week doesn’t necessarily translate to a 32-hour week: you might still be working 12-hour days normally. But there’s still a significant difference between 48 and 60 or more hours, and having three days in a row off is huge.

Young sociology faculty publish twice as much today as in the 1990s

I’m taking a glance at academic work and careers in the book, and came across this really interesting article by John Robert Warren asking, “How Much Do You Have to Publish to Get a Job in a Top Sociology Department?” The brief answer is, twice as much today as in the 1990s.

Here’s the abstract:

Many sociologists suspect that publication expectations have risen over time—that how much graduate students have published to get assistant professor jobs and how much assistant professors have published to be promoted have gone up. Using information about faculty in 21 top sociology departments from the American Sociological Association’s Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology, online curricula vitae, and other public records, I provide empirical evidence to support this suspicion. On the day they start their first jobs, new assistant professors in recent years have already published roughly twice as much as their counterparts did in the early 1990s. Trends for promotion to associate professor are not as dramatic but are still remarkable. I evaluate several potential explanations for these trends and conclude that they are driven mainly by changes over time in the fiscal and organizational realities of universities and departments.

Warren argues that this is mainly due to greater competition between job seekers, and more pressure to work in interdisciplinary sub fields that encourage collaboration and multiple authorship. The risk at the disciplinary level, of course, is that higher expectations to publish risk driving down the quality of publications (the number of sociology journals has risen in the past 20+ years, and so editors are chasing more articles); and at the individual level, that the pressure to publish a lot makes it harder for people to do good work.

Tash Walker on the Boundless podcast

The Mix

Last fall I spent some time at The Mix, a London research agency, and interviewed several people about the four-day week. The Mix moved to a four-day week a little more than a year ago, and founder Tash Walker does a great job of explaining how to make a four-day week work, and how it can benefit founders like her, employees, companies, and clients.

The Mix, London

Recently I found an interview with Tash on the Boundless podcast. In it, she talks about The Mix’s decision to change how it works, how clients reacted, and what people do with their spare time.

It’s worth a listen. The Mix also recently published a report on its experience with four-day weeks.

It’s not just about efficiency: MADE Agency’s 6-hour day

One of the things about companies working shorter hours is that while they pay a lot of attention to tightening up their processes, making meetings more efficient, keeping email from running roughshod over your day and attention, and so on, it’s rarely just about improving operations. Rather, these functional things often are expressions of a deeper effort to create more balanced and psychologically sustainable ways of working.

For example, Norwich, England-based creative agency MADE moved to a 6-hour workday in late 2017. Like lots of places, they wanted people to have more time to be more creative, to give people better work-life balance, and so on, but they talk about it in terms of “lagom,” a Swedish word meaning “just the right amount:”

This one little word has been at the very heart of every change we have made as an agency. It is more than a word; it is a behaviour, a mind set, a framework, it’s a contemporary idea that we really think the UK could prosper from embracing…. it’s not about making big changes, but rather making improvements to the small things which make a big difference.

As business manager Emily West explains elsewhere,

the art of Lagom is about making more conscious and mindful decisions to cut down on waste (both time and physical amount), to ensure life is uncluttered and productive and, crucially, to find that balance between not too much and not too little.

I often see in these companies that small changes can reflect big intentions, and that incremental changes can under the right circumstances have outsized impacts. In business innovation as in geology, catastrophists– those lovers of big paradigm-shattering disruptive innovations, of continent-sinking floods and earthquakes– get more attention, but gradualists– the people who see real change as proceeding from slow, modest improvements, like grand geological features produced from the long-term effect of natural forces– often are better at describing how the world works.

So in their case, what’s the key? The biggest thing they do for workers– and for each other– is to remove

unnecessary distractions, focus their minds on their jobs in short, intense bursts and give them more time outside of work instead.

We find an hour and a half of concentrated time (no phones, social media, even emails) in the morning and the afternoon has helped our productivity increase tenfold, allowing the flexibility and possibility to leave the office at 4pm, giving us time to attend appointments, do our shopping, see our family and friends, rest and enjoy ourselves after a productive day of work. We genuinely think that’s as good as well-being initiatives get.

It doesn’t sound like a huge thing, but it has a huge impact.

Emily West also talked about the 6-hour day at an event in Norwich in late 2018, a year after the company made the switch:

Norwich, by the way, has become a bit of a hub for shorter hours. A video agency called Curveball Media switched to a 6-hour day in 2016, and accountancy Farnell Clarke made the switch a few months ago. The town’s got a bit of a rebellious history– the entire town was once excommunicated in the 1200s after a riot between townspeople and monks– so perhaps there’s something in the water that makes people challenge authority.

The magic trick of workism

Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic about how workism, “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose,” has taken over American culture, and how “making Americans miserable:”

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.

The fact that the well-off are working ever longer hours is pretty well-known; but Thompson makes the point that workism “isn’t just a cultist feature of America’s elite. It’s also the law:”

Most advanced countries give new parents paid leave; but the United States guarantees no such thing. Many advanced countries ease the burden of parenthood with national policies; but U.S. public spending on child care and early education is near the bottom of international rankings. In most advanced countries, citizens are guaranteed access to health care by their government; but the majority of insured Americans get health care through—where else?—their workplace. Automation and AI may soon threaten the labor force, but America’s welfare system has become more work-based in the past 20 years.

In Rest, I talk about scientific research that’s measured the costs of overwork, and in the new book I need to explain why we’ve come to see overwork as alternately inevitable, natural, and desirable. Seeing how the magic trick of inevitability is done is the first step to realizing that its apparent naturalness is actually an artifact, and that we don’t have to work to these rules in the future. Understanding the role regulation plays in normalizing workism can help us see that the trick is a trick, and maybe not even that magical.

The next phase of writing

This weekend I printed out a draft of the next book. It’s just under 50,000 words, out of about 70,000. I’ve still got plenty to write, but I’m making good progress.

Printing out the first draft of my next book, on the four-day week.

With each of my recent books, I’ve found that at a certain point, it’s essential to have a physical copy of the manuscript. I absolutely love computers aa writing tools. When I was in grad school I spent a lot of money to buy a then-cutting edge Macintosh with a whole megabyte of RAM, and ever since then have probably devoted more energy to choosing and thinking about note-taking and writing software than just about anything else I own. One of there reasons I’m able to write fairly quickly is that I have a system that works pretty well for me: Evernote for note-taking, Scrivener for book drafts and organizational stuff, and at the very end stage, Word for printing things out and handling revisions suggested by my editor.

But there’s still a point where it’s useful to have a physical copy of the manuscript. For me, it’s a good way to have a sense of the overall shape of the project: I can see it more clearly on paper than I can on the screen, despite Scrivener’s strengths for organizing and reorganizing big projects. I also find that I’m more effective doing line edits on paper, and constructing transitions between paragraphs and other sections.

It does mean having to keep track of when I’ve carried changes I make on the printed page on the electronic file, but I find it’s not so onerous an additional task. It’s also definitely the case that at a certain point a manuscript gets too heavy with changes and has to be thrown out in favor of a fresh copy, but that’s always the case no matter what medium you work in.

After I punched holes in the paper, I put the manuscript in a binder I’ve had since roughly my postdoc days.

My ancient binder, with a postcard from one of my best friends and fellow historians, ca 1992.

(I don’t have a lot of artifacts from my professional life, and this is undoubtedly one of the oldest, and one of the most useful. I assume Marx would approve.)

I have one more big interview I’d love to arrange, and a couple smaller ones, but essentially I’m done with the research. So it’s a pretty straight shot to the finish line from here: fill in the sections that I haven’t written, work the current material into shape, get it all to feel like one long long argument, and then I’m done.

Sounds easy, right?

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