We all know that executives and leaders don’t sleep much. They burn the midnight oil, get up early, and by the time we mere mortals are staggering to the coffee pot are far ahead of us. Right? Continue reading
The Guardian reports that the South Korean government has voted to cut back the ‘inhumanely long’ 68-hour working week:
Employees in one of the most overworked countries in Asia are about to get a break after South Korea passed a bill to reduce the typical work week in an effort to improve quality of life and boost employment.
South Korea’s National Assembly overwhelmingly passed the law which cut the maximum weekly work hours to 52, down from 68. The law comes into force in July and will apply to large companies before being rolled out to smaller businesses.
The thing is, Korea’s productivity is not as high as countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which work far shorter hours– which suggests that those working hours are not well-spent.
It’s common, occurs whether you’ve eaten lunch or not, and is caused by a natural dip in alertness from about 1 to 3pm. So, if you find yourself fighting off sleep in the middle of the day and you’re somewhere where you can have a nap, then do it.
Taking the time for a brief nap will relieve the sleepiness almost immediately and improve alertness for several hours after waking. And there are many other benefits too.
Economist Stephen Kinsella talks about “Focus, Productivity, and the Lure of Twitter” with Freedom, and has this story about dealing with writer’s block:
I was working on an essay about transport economics and not getting on very well. I was sighing and making cups of tea and just generally not writing. My father, who was a taxi driver in Dublin, asked me what was wrong. I told him I thought I had writer’s block. He told me he didn’t get f****king taxi driver block and to get back to work. So I did, and I’ve never had it since.
I love this quote, partly for its strategic profanity, but also because it reflects a valuable sensibility: that writing is the product of work, not just inspiration. Sure, you can be inspired, and every writer lives for those moments when the ideas seem to come from somewhere outside yourself; but you don’t have to be in that exalted state to do good work.
Indeed, it’s more often the case that the reverse is true. Don’t treat inspiration as the signal to start writing. Treat writing as the trigger for inspiration. You’ll get more done, and be more inspired.
Last week I spent a day in San Francisco, recording a summary of REST for a company that’s putting together a series of lectures on work-life balance, digital distraction, and other topics. (I’m not sure what I can say about it publicly, hence my obscurity.)
I spent the morning recording the lectures in a studio that mainly does voice work for video games), then several more hours with a film crew shooting video that’ll go into a set of promotional videos and advertisements for the class.
Some of it involved responding to questions that’ll be used in a series of advertisements. We then decamped from the studio, and went over to the startup, so they could get some footage of me talking to people, looking thoughtful underneath a logo of the company, and so on.
I think one of the photographers also caught me napping at one point. We shall see.
It was an interesting experience. Of course I’ve given lots of talks about rest, but it’s still interesting thinking about how to organize your material for listeners you’ll never interact with, who are looking for things they can put to use in their own lives.
I’ve also done a very little video or TV work, and lots of radio interviews, but this was the first time I’ve done any studio recording, and the first time I’ve worked with a professional camera crew.
For one thing, I was stunned at just how much stuff a professional crew uses. Even in our iPhone-GoPro era, people who do this for a living wrangle a lot of equipment.
So this was no record-over-Skype kind of deal!
The whole interaction was really interesting because on one hand, there are a half dozen technicians— all very skilled people— who have been mobilized on your behalf, and you are literally the center of everyone’s attention; yet at the same time, you’re utterly objectified. You don’t have a name; you’re “the talent.” The cinematographer and photographer want to make you look great, but that means treating you as a bunch of shadows, angles, posture, etc.. (I guess it’s better than being the opposite of talent….)
Not that they always succeeded, of course.
And there’s just an enormous amount of artifice that goes into creating natural-looking scenes: the crew might spend 90 minutes setting up cameras for 3 minutes of me talking, and there was endless adjustment of lights, mics, and so on.
Anyway, it was an illuminating day, and I look forward to the finished product becoming available.
The term “workaholic” was coined in 1971, in a book called Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. The author Wayne Oates wasn’t a lawyer or HR executive; rather, he was a professor of psychology and pastoral care at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.
Oates had seen lots of workaholics among the pastors he worked with. It’s a field that people see as a calling. It requires a very high level of commitment and self-sacrifice, years of training, and financial sacrifice. The job has a variety of demands, from the administrative and organizational to the spiritual and intellectual. And it’s very difficult to set boundaries: not only do you have to be prepared to deal with emergencies, your to-list is infinite, and there’s always the sense that you could do a little more good if you just put in a little more time.
Sound familiar? What Oates was describing was a combination of circumstances– high levels of intrinsic commitment, professional demands, organizational demands, high standards for performance (and a worry that failure or detachment could be catastrophic), and a career dynamic in which success is almost certain to lead to greater responsibility and burnout— that you see in doctors, lawyers, military officers, and which has spread into other industries.
Recently, John Wright, a national director of Vineyard Churches in the UK, gave a talk about the importance of rest in the work of ministry. “Leading from a Place of Rest” that deftly weaves together Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor, Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick, and my book Rest.
John Wright looks at the importance of Rest as one of the keys to freedom in Leadership.
This is a freedom that only comes when we are not striving and struggling through busy times, but trusting in God and doing those things that he has uniquely created us to do.
God asks us to build rest into our lives because he understands the crucial role that it plays.
It’s a great talk, and well worth listening to, no matter what your calling.
[Note: Every book project leaves material on the cutting-room floor that deserves to be published somewhere. This is a piece based on some research that didn’t make it into REST, and which I recently wrote up for LinkedIn.]
Overwork is one of the great problems of modern life. The pace of business is accelerating, companies demand longer hours, smartphones allow us to carry the office around with us 24/7, and being busy is a badge of honor. But while overwork now has the quality of a public health crisis, for professionals, entrepreneurs and executives in America it’s nothing new. In 1878, a doctor lamented in the New York Times that rest was a “forgotten art.” In the 1890s, Harvard philosopher William James lamented Americans’ love of overwork, and argued his fellow citizens would be more productive if they embraced “the gospel of relaxation.”
But one of the early twentieth century’s most consistent critics of chronic busyness and overwork was one of the most unexpected: Bertie Forbes, the pioneering business journalist and founder of Forbes magazine.
Bertie Charles Forbes was born in 1880, and spent his childhood in the Scottish Highlands. At seventeen he became a reporter in Dundee; in 1901 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War, then in 1905 moved to New York, where he became of the leading financial reporters of his day. He then started the B. C. Forbes Publishing Company; his eponymous magazine first appeared in 1917.
One of Forbes’ specialities was the biographical profile of industrialists, bankers, and inventors who oversaw the growth of its modern industrial and corporate America. In his profiles of leading businessmen (and in the early twentieth century they were pretty much all men), Forbes almost always noted the strategies his subjects discovered– often after periods of overwork and burnout– for maintaining their health, restoring their mental and physical energy, and balancing hard work with recreation. He anticipates by a century current research (summarized in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) that finds that rest doesn’t just restore mental and physical energy, but– when taken in the right ways– can stimulate innovative thinking and sustain creative lives.
These profiles almost always called attention to the hobbies of the era’s industrial giants. Andrew Carnegie “lived a well-diversified life in New York, with frequent trips to Europe, interspersed with journeys to the Orient and other distant places,” and “no man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than” Coleman du Pont. Teddy Roosevelt was an exemplar of the busy public figure who “boisterously… enters into recreation.” US Steel president James Farrell and mining entrepreneur August Heckscher were avid sailors. Railroad magnate James “Empire Builder” Hill was an accomplished violinist. Retail pioneer John Shedd praised golf as “one of the greatest blessings of modern times… for it has drawn men of responsible affairs away from their tasks into the open air.”
Others, Forbes reported, preferred more down-to-earth pursuits. Charles Nash would hunt and fish in the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin when he wasn’t running Nash Motors and turning around distressed companies. Tire giant Harvey Firestone spent weeks camping, albeit in the company of figures like naturalist John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Warren Harding. “Tramping and camping in the woods is the best thing I know of for developing, not only a man’s physique, but his mentality and his soul,” inventor Cyrus McCormick told Forbes.
Executives’ respect for the restorative power of rest sometimes influenced company policies. Dodge CEO Frederick Haynes declared that while he “would never think of putting up a recreation building at the plant” since “men want to get away from the plant after their day’s work, to be with their families,” his company supported worker-organized clubs and teams. George Reynolds implemented a five-day week at his Chicago bank, arguing that in modern finance, “The pace is so rapid and the pressure so great that a man cannot stand up against it… if he works more than five days a week.”
For someone who subtitled his magazine “Devoted to Doers and Doings,” this attention to recreation may seem odd. But Forbes argued that the right kind of rest, taken in the right doses, was essential for success.
According to Forbes, successful people revealed that “How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.” It was essential to recognize that “Real recreation quickens aspiration,” and helps “to increase our fitness, enhance our usefulness, spur achievement.” Too many people ”confound recreation with dissipation,” wasting their time on idle amusements and subverting their careers. Other more senior executives “are committing suicide by overwork.”
But this did not mean that recreation was the purpose of life, or that work was to be avoided. America’s industrialists had “taught effete aristocrats of Europe that industry is no disgrace, that honest work and money-making soil not the best of hands.” Indeed, the idle rich “are of all men the most miserable,” Forbes argued, for “[w]ithout toil there can be no blissful relaxation or recreation.” Hard work and healthy rest balanced and justified each other. “The person who has no work,” Forbes said, “can have no recreation, no relaxation.”
So what sorts of rest were the most restorative? Choosing a hobby, Forbes argued, couldn’t be done on a whim; “You need to settle that wisely and not by chance.” Recreation had to balance a busy life. Office workers and sedentary professionals needed sports and exercise; merchants and traders would benefit from retreats in contemplative and artistic activities; executives bearing the solitude of leadership needed the companionship of others in similar situations. Forbes was especially keen on exercise, advising readers to join a golf club or gym, or even “move into the country where you will have to walk a mile to catch the train even in the dead of winter.”
Forbes was not along among early business writers in taking rest seriously. Walter Dill Scott, who pioneered the use of psychology in advertising, advised his busy readers on the need to balance long hours with a hobby “so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind.” Winston Churchill wrote that “The cultivation of a hobby” is “of first importance to a public man.”
Today, businesses and busy professionals are beginning to rediscover that, as Forbes put it, “Whether we use our leisure to re-create power or dissipate power is of decisive moment.” Efforts to improve work-life balance, encourage workers to take vacations, unplug in the evenings, get more exercise, or even take catnaps during the day all recognize that rest need not be work’s competitor, but can be its partner. Neuroscientists and psychologists are documenting the value of walks for stimulating creative insight, of time in nature for restoring emotional balance, and of a healthy social life for promoting resilience.
And as I explain in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, many highly creative, prolific, and successful people organize their days around bouts of hard work and “deliberate rest,” and choose leisure that stimulates their creativity, supports good habits, and sustains long creative lives. The careers of Nobel Prize-winners, authors, artists, and even generals show that, as Forbes wrote a century ago, success “is most often won during non business hours, the hours that are spent away from the bench or the office; the hours during which we are our own masters; the hours we are at liberty to use or misuse.”
It’s high time we re-read Forbes’ lessons, and applied them to our own lives.
I listen to music almost constantly through the day, and when I was working on REST I did some reading about music and the brain, and the different kinds of music people work to. It helped me make some sense of the music I listen to through the day, and why certain kinds work and others don’t.
At the most general level, creative people listen to music to drown out other auditory distractions; or to improve their mood, focus, or some other emotion. (If you’re in a boring job, you might listen to music to pass the time, which is a different kind of situation.) The research says that for most people,
For example, let me share what I listen to, illustrated by Spotify playlists. I often get up to write between 5 and 5:30, and the purpose of music in the morning is to help me stay in a calm, walking-up-but-not-quite-there state. For that, something like the Yundi Chopin nocturnes is just the thing.
I also like Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations (or the Calefax Reed Quintet’s arrangement of the variations), or the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I also like the Budapest String Quartet’s late 1930s recordings of the Beethoven String Quartets: I find the old, slightly shaky sound to be very romantic in a black-and-white, Europe-before-the-storm kind of way.
During the day, I usually want something that has more spark to it. When I was writing REST, I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks. Here are two:
The thing I find great about movie music is that the good stuff is great, but it’s almost always the case that composers have written music that’s meant to stir and energize, but not distract, viewers: the music is meant to underline and accentuate a scene, not call attention to itself. When I’m writing, this is perfect: I want the emotional charge, and just enough of my attention diverted so my creative mind has more freedom to operate.
Then there are times when I need more of an energy boost. For that, I have another playlist that’s highly idiosyncratic.
What this highlights is that while there are some general rules about what makes for good music to focus to, your own musical history and the associations you have with particular songs also matter. “Regiment,” the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration, is from an album I discovered in college; I’v loved Pat Metheny’s work since high school; Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” are from the Matrix soundtrack; Moby’s “Extreme Ways” is used at the end of the Jason Bourne movies, which I love.
I might also listen to Led Zeppelin, again because it’s music that I know really well, and because generally Robert Plant is incomprehensible so the words aren’t so hard to tune out.
So don’t assume that there’s a perfect playlist that works for you, or music that will be guaranteed to put you in a super-productive frame of mind (requiring employees to dance to Pharrell William’s “Happy” will NOT make them more productive). Rather, you should think about what you want to get out of the music (focus, more energy, or whatever); think about what you like; and then experiment. Don’t copy my choices, or anyone else’s. Make your own.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own)