Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

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Time isn’t money: “I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time”

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were interviewed by Charlie Rose (I don’t know the date it aired, sorry), and in this excerpt on YouTube, Gates talks about what he learned from Buffet about protecting his time.

“The fact that he is so careful with his time” was a revelation to the young Gates, and it taught him that “sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority” than responding to the normal demands of CEO life. “You feel like you need to go and see al these people, [but] it’s not a proxy for seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.”

“People are going to want your time,” Buffett says. “It’s the only thing you can’t buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time.”

This is a really interesting exchange in my view, because we often think of time as being like money. It’s not just that we work X hours a day, to earn a living. It’s not just that our language jumbles the two together: we say that “time is money,” and that we “spend” time.

What I mean is that we treat time as something to invest, and treat inactivity as like an underperforming asset. Our time can’t be like the money that we’ve stuffed in a mattress: it has to be out in the world, circulating, creating value, working for us. Our calendars are like hotels: the closer you get to being 100% occupied, the better off you are.

So it’s striking that Buffett doesn’t treat his own time that way. Not that he’s unfamiliar with the idea that time is money. Berkshire Hathaway owns (among other things) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, logistics companies, insurance companies (GEICO, National Indemnity), NetJets, and construction companies. Lots of these are companies where you don’t want stuff just sitting in warehouses or worksheets, idling on the runway or train yard: the more things are moving, the more money they make. You can bet that Buffett understands this.

And yet, he doesn’t treat his own time that way. At one point in the interview, he shows Charlie Rose his appointment book (and it’s a simple paper diary): many of the pages are blank. It’s not that people don’t want Buffett’s time; it’s that Buffett values his time more than they do, because he knows that time isn’t money.

“We can hack our technologies, and even our societies, so why not ourselves?”

Samuel Arbesman writes in The Atlantic about “ The Hubris of Biohacking:

this hacking ethos relies on the idea that if people can just collect more data to better understand themselves, perhaps they can engineer themselves to perfection. We can hack our technologies, and even our societies, so why not ourselves?

Alas, things are not so straightforward.

the existence of the dieting industry might offer a warning that even simply-stated biological goals aren’t always easily reached. Indeed, Arbesman notes, the problems with bio hacking are illustrative of a broader problem Silicon Valley has with complexity:

When it comes to hacker types parachuting into biology, especially for the purpose of improving the human body, failing to account for the inherent complexity of biology can mean failing to recognize that a messy system might not be easily modified in the way they want or expect

It seems to me that this particular blind spot, where you’re surprised that reality doesn’t give way in the face of your efforts at optimization or maximization, is one we’ve been seeing a lot of around here….

“What people are angry about… is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives”

In my book The Distraction Addiction I talked about how humans have evolved to have incredibly powerful relationships with technologies, starting with hand axes a million years ago, and continuing down to the present; how our relationships with technologies are among the most powerful we have; and that the challenge with today’s technologies was not to learn to live without them, but to learn to use them better. This meant recognizing the power of those relationships; thinking more deeply about them; and re-learning how to use them well, rather than being used by them.

Arianna Huffington has a piece about “The Anger at the Heart of the Facebook Hearings” that echoes this:

What people are angry about, and what’s truly fueling this moment, is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives. That feeling of losing control has been building steadily for the last several years, as our lives have become both more dominated by technology and more dependent on technology. It’s the feeling that the pace of our lives, and the next thing on our to-do list, is no longer up to us. It comes via the endless screens and algorithms we’re immersed in. And we know that the feeling of autonomy is one of the single most important factors in our happiness. But we’re feeling less and less autonomous.

I think this has a lot truth to it, though there is real ill-feeling toward companies, not just technologies and our relationships with them. Control is one of the things we instinctively use to measure the trustworthiness of a technology; it’s also something we need in order to use them well.

So it make sense that the sense that a company is designing its product to elude our control should inspire suspicion and hostility. We’ve coevolved with technologies, and expect to be able to use them to extend our cognitive and physical abilities; and when that relationship is broken, it’s a big problem for us.

Using science in history: the case of spontaneous thinking

Within the discipline of history, the effort to use theories from the human and natural sciences– e.g., psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and other fields– to explain historical change is one that’s yielded, at best, mixed results. “Psychohistory” has come and gone; ecological history has fared somewhat better; and efforts to find a biological explanations for the Salem witch trials or other examples of mass hysteria have been met with pretty healthy skepticism.

At the same time, I think it’s worth thinking through how we can at least use insights from other disciplines, perhaps not as overarching theories for explaining how history moves forward, but more like probes or sensors that help us be more attentive to phenomena that we might otherwise overlook. Of course, Rest is one long argument for paying attention to something we usually ignore in explaining why some people are more creative than others. I have an article in the Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Daydreaming on “Spontaneous Thinking in Creative Lives: Building Connections Between Science and History” that explores how else we could use the neuroscience of mind-wandering and creativity to deepen the history of ideas and science.

Here’s the abstract:

Scientists have only recently begun to explore spontaneous thinking. It might appear that as elusive a phenomenon as it is in the laboratory, it would be impossible to detect in the historical record. This essay argues that it is possible to make space for accounts of spontaneous thinking in historical accounts of creativity and discovery. It argues that historians can use scientific work on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and other forms of spontaneous thought to illuminate the history of ideas. It explains how historical research informed by science could generate new insights in the history of writing and thinking, the history of attitudes towards reason and inspiration, the daily practices of creative thinkers, and even elusive phenomena like sensory perception and sleep. With diligence and imagination, it will be possible to reconstruct the place of spontaneous thinking in the history of ideas.

Creative professionals are overworked (surprise!)

According to Fast Company,

A new survey suggests creative professionals are being asked to do more work in less time–and it’s taking a toll.

The survey found that

the speed at which creative teams are expected to work and the volume of demand for their work were respondents’ No. 1 and No. 2 concerns, respectively.

Part of what’s happening is that while the “strategic” importance of design is considered greater than ever, the field is still very much at the beck and call of others: almost 40% of respondents said they have 50 or more internal stakeholders they need to deal with.

Another issue is that while the work of creating and editing any individual image may be easier (no more pots of glue and Xacto knives), the total number of images you have to produce has gone up dramatically. It’s no longer enough to do one web site; you have to optimize for different browsers, for desktop/tablet/mobile, maybe for different countries and languages. In fact, according to a 2011 survey, “71% of creative workers were producing 10 times more work in 2015 compared with 2010.” (My emphasis, because that statistic is totally insane.)


Plenty of mundane tasks endemic to creative work have been automated–but others haven’t. 46% of the survey’s respondents report spending three to seven hours a week on administrative tasks, like chasing briefs and getting projects approved. 34% spend a whopping seven hours a week on administrative work–that’s almost a full day out of a 40-hour work week.

(I suspect that the automation of mundane tasks is a really good way to tell if a job is valued.)

Anyway, it’s another reminder that, as I argue in Rest, just because you “do what you love,” you shouldn’t do it 24 hours a day– especially if you have to do it for dozens of different clients, some of whom will want different and mutually exclusive things, and many of whom knowingly exploit your passion and pride in your craft.

“the neoliberal tenets of unregulated self-interest” get “friendly, hand-lettered makeovers”

I’ve long been sympathetic to, but also skeptical, of the claim that you should “do what you love” or pursue your passion no matter what.


For one thing, creative industries (and let’s face it, people who are urged to “follow their passion” usually don’t become coal miners or accountants) are awfully cyclical, fickle, or crowded with other people trying to do what they love. Even artists or architects who achieve fame can end up penniless after fashions change and their work falls out of favor.

Further, as a Ph.D., and veteran of the academic job market, I know first-hand that loving a particular kind of work is no guarantee that the market will love you back. Indeed, that experience taught me just how double-edged a sword the belief that passion leads to success really is: if you achieve only modest success, or none at all, does that mean you failed because you weren’t passionate enough? DWYL seems like a great way to draw attention away from the fact that your chosen field has come to rely on the exploitation of adjuncts and freelancers and people working “for exposure.” Or as Miya Tokumitsu put it, the DWYL ideology is brilliant at “making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

Back among my people

Finally, after writing Rest, and accumulating many stories of people who are either do great work while having day jobs or who are creative across multiple domains, it was clear to me that being creative doesn’t mean working all the time– indeed, you’re more likely to have good ideas if you give yourself plenty of breaks, and have the freedom to detach from work.

So I was glad to find Andi Zeisler’s essay “Do What You Love*,” which offers some good advice about following your passion and doing what you love.

the phrase “Do what you love, love what you do” has become an urtext of the 21st-century creative meritocracy…. But with every new iteration, exhortations to “Do what you love” and “Love what you do” have come to seem like perky cheerleaders for a game in which the rules are frustratingly subjective and the outcomes rigged….

You can also love something, but simultaneously know what your limits with that thing are. The “what” in DWYL doesn’t have to be singular. And if we believe that the value of home cooks, hobbyists, and weekend artists can be equal to the value of critical acclaim and widespread recognition, maybe we don’t need to “settle” at all.

Definitely worth reading.

Weniger Stress, mehr Erfolg: “Wir müssen lernen, Pausen zu machen”

For anyone who speaks German, my latest article, “Weniger Stress, mehr Erfolg: ‘Wir müssen lernen, Pausen zu machen’” is out in the German magazine GEO.

I’ll admit I don’t speak German, and the article was translated by someone with far superior language skills!

Talking about “The Importance of Rest” at the Happinez Festival

This fall I was at the Happinez Festival in Utrecht, and while there I sat down for an an interview about rest. The edited video is now up, and basically features me talking for eight minutes.

The video was shot in a farmhouse adjacent to the festival, which itself was held in a 19th-century fort and barracks that’s been converted into a conference center. Quite the place for an event devoted to happiness!

Happinez Festival

We sat for about half an hour, talking about various parts of the book and my argument, and they did a great job of editing it down without making me sound fragmented or incoherent. (Indeed, it turns out that just as in writing, good editing in video makes the difference between sounding like you’re just wandering around, versus getting to the point.)

Happinez Festival

Between this and the release of the Calm masterclass, it’s quite a week for video!

Happinez Festival

My new Calm masterclass on “The Power of Rest”


A couple weeks ago I wrote about spending the day in San Francisco, and being the “talent” on a new project. Well, it’s now out:

It’s a new masterclass on “The Power of Rest” from Calm, the company that brought you 2017’s Apple App of the Year.

In the masterclass, I talk about the key insights from my book REST: why rest is important, what kinds of rest help promote creativity and recovery, how famous people have incorporated rest in their daily schedules to enhance their ability to solve problems. I also provide a teaser from the paperback edition of REST, building on the foreword that Arianna Huffington so kindly wrote for the book.

I have to confess, it was a terrific experience working with Calm and the film crew, and they did a FABULOUS job making me look good in this trailer (and on their app, too), but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing video of myself. Maybe this is a generational thing, and my kids and their peers are so accustomed to selfies and videos that they will never have this experience, but I still find hearing myself on answering machines (or more realistically, voicemail or podcasts) kind of odd, and watching myself onscreen is really strange. I wonder how actors do it?

Anyway, don’t mind all that. Check out the class, and get some rest!

“Bekerja Sebentar tapi Efektif, Kunci Sukses:” REST comes to Indonesia

Perhaps my favorite new example of REST going places on its own: a long article in Indonesian about rest and its importance. (It also name-checks Cal Newport, Anders Ericsson, and a couple other folks.)

It also includes this graphic:

My kids are still high school and college age, but I suspect that seeing them go off and have their own lives feels a little like this.

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