Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

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WeWork, Lord & Taylor, and the death of leisure

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Ginia Bellafante has a piece in the New York Times about the sale of Lord & Taylor to WeWork, and its cultural significance.

She she notes, there’s a sad inversion at work here.

In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter…. Today, of course, shopping is something else entirely, not a diversion but just an extension of our working or “productive” lives.

So while shopping has become less like leisure and more like work, work (or at least certain kinds of work) are trying to dress themselves up as leisure– or at least obliterate the boundaries between work and life:

“WeWork’s mission is to help people make a life, not just a living,’’ as one of its executives recently explained in a news release. The tech sensibility, which has leaked into so many other industries, imagines distinctions between work and private life as benighted. You are always working — posting to Instagram your vacation pictures in Bali, where you also happen to be sourcing materials for your new app-distributed small-furniture line — and you are always living.

So:

With the rise of the internet, shopping came to look like work, and work, in many instances, came to look like leisure, which is why WeWork’s purchase of the Lord & Taylor building has a resonance beyond the obvious.

New study: UK workers are productive 2 hours, 53 minutes a day

Vouchercloud.com, a UK-based company, just published the results of a survey of 1,989 full-time office workers in the UK  “as part of research into the online habits and productivity of workers across the nation.” (I learned about it from Canadian journalist Joanne Richard, who quotes me in an article she wrote about inefficiency in the workplace.)

This isn’t the most scientific survey so take it with a grain of salt, but it does as some interesting questions.

Do you consider yourself to be productive throughout the entire working day?

A whopping 79% of respondents said no. Though I suppose anyone who’s totally honest or totally pedantic would say “no.”

If you had to state a figure, how long do you think you spend productively working during work hours on a daily basis?

According to the company, “the average answer… [was] ‘2 hours and 53 minutes’ of actual productivity in the workplace across all respondents.”

This of course is the big headline-grabber, but an average of self-reported numbers should be treated not as an exact figure, and more of an indicator of how productive people feel, or how much work they think they’re able to get done. However, I think what we can take away is that most people feel like they’re not especially productive for most of the day.

What are you guilty of spending time doing during the working day rather than working productively?

This is where things get interesting. Respondents were given the choice to select non-work activities that they engaged in, and asked to estimate the amount of time they spent at each one. Here are the results:

Checking social media: 47% (44 minutes)
Reading news websites: 45% (1 hour 5 minutes)
Discussing out of work activities with colleagues: 38% (40 minutes)
Making hot drinks: 31% (17 minutes)
Smoking breaks: 28% (23 minutes)
Text/instant messaging: 27% (14 minutes)
Eating snacks: 25% (8 minutes)
Making food in office: 24% (7 minutes)
Making calls to partner/friends: 24% (18 minutes)
Searching for new jobs: 19% (26 minutes)

What jumps out at me is how many of these activities are actually forms of self-distraction. They’re not Facebook luring you away with a carefully-engineered dopamine hit, but the siren call of the break room and another cup of tea, or a check to see how Sunderland is doing or to catch up on the latest Brexit news. (At least one vending machine company has interpreted the survey to mean that having vending machines at work improves productivity.)

Do you think that you could get through the working day without partaking in any distractions?

65% said no, they couldn’t, but 54% also argued that because distractions make work “more bearable,” it was a net positive.

The specific numbers are less interesting, I think, that the general trends the survey reveals: people find lots of ways to be distracted or self-distract in the modern workplace.

As Joanne Richard’s piece mentions, I’ve been doing some work looking at companies that are experimenting with shorter working hours (and also naps), talking to CEOs about why they implement these programs, and what their companies get out of them. (These are all small firms, or in a couple cases, local offices of big companies.) One of the things that motivates all of them is a recognition that most offices today are really inefficient places: for all our talk about overwork, and our belief that long hours are an essential if regrettable part of modern life, the reality is that much of that expansion comes from poor planning, inefficient or distracting use of technology, or a recognition among employees that the work they’re doing isn’t terribly meaningful or engaging.

So if two hours a day are wasted in meetings and checking email (which a couple reputable sources estimate), why not control those and let people go home early? Better to design a workday that is shorter, more engaged and challenging, and leaves people with more free time.

Stephon Alexander, physics, jazz, and inspiration

In his recent book The Jazz of Physics, Brown University theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander talks about the connections he sees between playing jazz and doing physics. Of course, there’s a long tradition of physicists being musicians: many are classical musicians, but a fair number play rock, blues or jazz. (There are also noted professional musicians who start out as scientists. Queen guitarist Brian May was an astrophysics Ph.D. at Imperial College in London, while American blues guitarist Elvin Bishop studied physics at the University of Chicago.)

For many, this is an example of deep play, an activity that is a diversion from their work, but also provides some of the same satisfactions as work. (This combination is essential for driven people who are obsessed by their work: it allows them to channel some of that obsession into another activity that gives them a break, and it raises the odds that this diversion will be something that they do regularly, rather than get bored with and give up.) In Alexander’s case, playing also provides a space for coming up with new ideas, as an NPR Code Switch piece relates. While on a postdoc

in Paris, Alexander was stuck on a problem concerning the early universe.

“So I shipped myself to the jazz clubs. You have to create a solo on the spot while conforming to some kind of structure. Well, physics is like that, too,” Alexander says. “In between sets, I would play around with my calculations or just think very freely.”

Sure enough, one night, he watched the audience applauding, which made him think about tiny charged particles slamming into one another – and the solution came to him.

This is a classic Graham Wallas moment, by the way: a bout of hard work that ends by hitting a cognitive wall, setting the problem aside to do something else, giving the subconscious time to let the idea percolate, and finally having a moment of inspiration (and then more months of working out the details).

This excerpt about hanging out with Brian Eno and thinking about vibration in music and physics is also great.

“overwork is just one tool to fight deadlines, and not a solution of first resort”

I’ve been looking at companies that are fighting back against the culture of overwork (mainly in software, Web development and video games), and this morning came across this terrific piece by veteran developer Keith Fuller, “Fixing overwork isn’t easy, but it’s the best investment we can make“:

It’s not reasonable to suggest we make games in the complete absence of long work weeks. Of course there will be times when a measure of overwork takes place due to consensus or company ground rules. But what I would suggest as a guiding principle is this: First show me the discipline to adhere to a no-overwork policy, then we’ll talk about extending grace in exceptional times. It shouldn’t happen the other way around.

This line also jumped out at me:

Overworking any employee is bad enough, but the situation becomes even more evil when you start with people who have addictive personalities and then reward their worst impulses.

I was recently on a Malaysian radio show, talking about hobbies and deep play, and one of the points I made was exactly this: that lots of Nobel laureates (to take one population of high achievers in strenuous, competitive fields) have serious hobbies, in part because they know that otherwise they’d default to spending all their time in the lab, and that would be bad. They like their work, and often have a lot of control over their time and the resources to pursue whatever they want; but even they recognize that they’ll do better work if they do other things.

Anyway, go read the whole piece.

Nap cafes in Korea

So apparently nap cafes are now a thing in Korea.

Mr. Healing, a “healing” cafe franchise, has opened 47 branches in just two years. Three more are set to open by early May.

“The customers vary from people who come alone to couples, friends, families, travellers — simply anyone who needs a break in their life,” said Park Hye-sun, manager of Mr. Healing in Myeong-dong, central Seoul.

The coffee store devotes half of its 115-square-meter space to a healing room. Customers who purchase beverages can nestle in big massage chairs and relax for up to 50 minutes.

Within Korea, it’s part of something called the “fast healing” movement (which sounds largely like a marketing term), but it’s getting exported. According to the Hindustan Times, Koreans are on the leading edge of a cultural trend across Asia (as they so often are), and in Tokyo and London there are pop-up nap cafes (one was cosponsored by food giant Nestlé and bedding company Caspar).

Even Korean movie theaters are getting into the business:

CGV, Korea’s biggest cinema chain, has also jumped on the bandwagon. In March, the chain began offering a siesta service. During lunchtime, customers can lay on a fully reclining chair in its premium theaters listening to the sounds of nature, with a cup of tea and blanket.

“I think anyone in any type of creative, scientific, or business field should pick this up:” more reviews of REST

Romance writer Roni Loren (you might know her from her nine-book Loving on the Edge series, or maybe the two-book Pleasure Principle series, or her eight other books, and I’m getting exhausted just writing this) reviews Rest on her blog. She recommends it: “I think anyone in any type of creative, scientific, or business field should pick this up,” which is great to read.

But in keeping with my feeling that utility is just as important as beauty, I really consider THIS to be high praise: “[U]sing a lot of these methods over the last week has resulted in a week of steady writing, hitting my word count every day, and having no stress about it. It’s been fantastic.”

Also, Elyse Romano explains “Why Doing Nothing and Wasting Time Are Actually Good For You.” As she writes, “When we blend deliberate rest with deliberate work, we are smarter, more creative, and happier people.” It’s one of the few articles in D’Marge that doesn’t feature Eastern European lingerie models and doesn’t have an [NSFW] warning in the title. Though it does describe itself as a magazine “for Magnificent Bastards,” a phrase I can only repeat in my mind in George C. Scott’s voice. And some people read Playboy for the interviews.

Finally, Paul Gaffney has a nod to Rest in his Irish News article about the importance of vacation— and the challenge of taking a vacation that’s actually restful, rather than stressful.

Entrepreneurs reading Rest

Recently I noticed several entrepreneurs and career coaches who’d reviewed Rest, and wanted to capture some links to their work.

  • Business coach Curtis McHale (his motto is “Running a successful business should leave time to be a good dad!”) argues that “The Long and Strong Career You Want is Marked by Rest.” “[D]o I recommend you read Rest? Yes, I do. More than that, I recommend you incorporate times of no work into your day. I recommend you build in weeks away from anything digital. If you can read this book and put its ideas into practice, you’re going to get more done and have longer to contribute to your field in a meaningful way.
  • Vancouver, Washington-based filmmaker and entrepreneur Chris Martin talks about rest and recovery on his Getting Work to Work podcast. He has a shrewd observation about learning to “press the reset button” on your life, and the particular challenge entrepreneurs and founders face in learning to rest.
  • “Most projects that change the world take at least 10 years,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong writes in his post about Rest on Medium, “so practicing the rest skillset feels important for anyone who wants to have an impact.” Good point! (Also: “I’ve see so much material out there about work, it feels like the other side of the coin, rest, has often been overlooked.” You’re welcome!)
  • Ovidijus Okinskas takes time off from writing about Java and PDF on the IDR Solutions blog to talk about Rest. “I personally found it can open you up to the ways the mind works and recovers,” he says, and “can completely alter your outlook on how you should treat the two supposed ‘opposite forces’ and allow them to benefit each other.”
  • Sustainable leadership expert David Ducheyne, Chief People Officer for Securex, suggests that “maybe we need to train (young) people in the art of rest, because many people seem to have lost it….. [I]f we talk about sustainable employability, rest might be the key to combine health and competence development.”
  • Expat career advisor Tim Rettig writes about “Why All Expats Need Regular Periods of Conscious Rest.” Most expats are not only caught in the usual cultural traps of long hours and performing busyness; “the problems… [of] adapting to a new environment come in addition to the existing problems of the modern society.” So perhaps more than most people, “Expatriates need to plan consciously during which blocks of time they work or expose themselves to other forms of stress, and during which blocks of time they make the space for conscious ways of resting.”

Of course, it’s always flattering to see people say nice things about your work, but what’s really gratifying is to see them thinking about how to put it to use. The Roman poet Horace argued that poetry should be dulce et utile, beautiful and useful (or a sweet and useful thing, depending on your preferred translation); it’s always great to see readers take a book seriously enough to apply it to their own lives.

“One day without notifications changes behaviour for two years”

Several years ago, Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica ran something called the Do Not Disturb Challenge.

It’s one of a number of such events that have been sponsored by schools, civic organizations, and groups interested in helping people regain control over our devices.

At the time, it looked like it was kind of a failure. Even after they scaled it back from a week to 24 hours (“[W]e couldn’t recruit anybody to take part,” one of the researchers told New Scientist. “We just got empty, horrified stares. And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours.”) Even after that, only about 30 people signed up. (The researchers explained their preliminary findings in a 2015 article.)

However, New Scientist notes, “two-thirds of the participants said they would change how they managed their notifications.” The researchers have gone back to the participants and talked to them about their smartphone use and attitudes towards notifications, and found something really interesting, as they report in a new article (with the somewhat discouraging title “Productive, Anxious, Lonely: 24 Hours Without Push Notifications“).

The New Scientist reports that “half had actually stuck with this goal two years on, suggesting that even a short, enforced holiday is a powerful intervention.” But as they put it in the article,

The evidence indicates that notifications have locked us in a dilemma: without notifications, participants felt less distracted and more productive. But, they also felt no longer able to be as responsive as expected, which made some participants anxious. And, they felt less connected with one’s social group.

It’s really interesting that digital sabbaths can have a long-term effect on behavior.

The other thing I would note is that it’s possible to customize notifications so that you’re still accessible to the people who really matter, but aren’t disturbed by messages about how the online retailer you visited 6 months ago is having 20% off everything. I talk in this article about how to reset your notifications so your phone does what it’s supposed to– keep you accessible to people who count– and not what app makers and retailers want. It’ll help your phone pass what I call the “zombie apocalypse test,” keeping your connected to the people you’d call during the zombie apocalypse, and no one else.

Martin Pielot and Luz Rello, “Productive, Anxious, Lonely – 24 Hours Without Push Notifications,” in Proceedings of MobileHCI ’17 (Vienna, Austria, September 04-07, 2017).

Saiid Kobeisy talks about the importance of rest in Vogue Arabia

One of the greatest things about a book like REST is that it goes all kinds of places I don’t, and gets picked up by all kinds of interesting people. Case in point: Lebanese fashion designer Saiid Kobeisy, the subject of the Fall 2017 Haute Couture Review in Vogue Arabia.

After talking about this season’s line (which features “Light structured dresses, high collars, playing on volumes, with a touch of gold, and ivory cream colors,” in case you were wondering), the interviewer asks what he’s been reading. Kobeisy replies:

I’ve recently been flipping through the pages of a book entitled “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s about getting more work done by working less. In our busy lives, rest is defined by the absence of work, but in this book, the author explains about “active rest” which means doing activities while resting and not necessarily sleeping or watching TV. Dismissing rest suppresses our ability to think creatively and truly recharge. So I’m definitely trying to fit in some “deliberate rest” in my schedule.

AWESOME.

“10 Ways That Working Less Will Make You More Productive”

Singapore Women’s Weekly has a slide show of 10 Ways That Working Less Will Make You More Productive:

It’s hard to say no, especially when there’s work piling up to the walls at the office, but author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues in her book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less that this attitude is downright damaging.

I know. Just roll with it. So long as people read the book!

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