Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Page 2 of 120

“Our job as creative leaders is to be bouncers at the door of Club Rest”

Campaign Live, an online magazine of the creative industry, declares that “it’s time to join a movement for rest:”

What we need to do is fucking REST.

Not because we’re work-shy fops. Or Luddites who fail to grasp that the world has changed. But because it makes financial sense.

It’s the economics, stupid.

More rest = more creativity = more famous work = more £ for clients = more £ for agencies.

Quite literally: more for less.

“What we need to do is fucking REST” was the working title of my book; alas they didn’t go for it. Even Penguin, which has this piece of art in its reception area, squashed it:

This is Where It's F***ing At: Least It Will Be

What does this mean?

Our job as creative leaders is to be bouncers at the door of Club Rest.

Inside, there’s no rave music and very little dancing. People are reading and playing peek-a-boo with their kids and whittling sticks and thinking about setting up a sausage company.

And tomorrow, rested, their neurons will light up like a New Year’s Eve firework display instead of fizzing, pathetically, like a budget sparkler in the rain.

If we believe in the power of creativity to power our client’s business, then it is beholden upon us as an industry to protect and nurture that creativity.

We need to work hard at not working.

By coincidence, I was just conducting an interview this morning with the head of Agent Marketing, a Liverpool-based advertising, branding, and strategy agency that’s already put this into practice. They’re one of a number of companies that have been experimenting with shorter working hours, and seeing great benefit in increased creativity and productivity.

What’s true of individuals turns out to also be true of organizations: working less– but in a strategic and thoughtful way– and resting more can be a strategy to get more done.

A new project on the craft of academic sabbaticals

What makes a successful academic sabbatical? I want to find out. And I want your help.

Few of us get any explicit training in how to take a sabbatical as graduate students. After all, our advisors aren’t around to counsel us, because they’re away.

Once out in the world, we tend to assume that sabbaticals are simple, even unproblematic: once the obligations of teaching and advising are removed, our creativity will naturally uncoil, the Muse will be unleashed, and all the pent-up ideas and articles and revisions will just tumble out.

And while academics treasure sabbaticals, the practice is oddly under-studied. The research on academic sabbaticals is not nearly as extensive as sabbaticals themselves: for example, sociologists have studied their effects on job satisfaction, but little attention has been given to what distinguishes successful sabbaticals.

I know first-hand that a great sabbatical can be intellectually transformative. In 2011 I had a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. During those three months, I did much of the research behind my 2013 book, The Distraction Addiction, laid the groundwork for my current book, and helped me forge a new sense of my self as a writer.  When I was writing REST, I found lots of examples of scientists, scholars and artists who completed ambitious projects, extended lines of inquiry, or asked questions that defined their careers and occupied decades of their lives.

So my experience is not unusual. But I also don’t think that good sabbaticals are merely the absence of professional obligations and daily distractions. Sabbaticals, like all forms of creative rest, are actually a skill. We can learn a lot about how sabbaticals actually work by collecting stories from scholars of their experiences.

So I want to interview academics about their sabbatical experiences. (I include people who are on tenure lines, who are lecturers or adjuncts, or continue to do scholarly work.) I want to hear how you prepare for sabbaticals; how much you’re able to disconnect (or not) from your normal lives and duties; what your daily sabbatical schedules look like; and what non-professional interests or activities you develop. I want to know how things like e-mail, electronic publishing, the quickened pace of professional life, and publishing pressures have affected the way your spend time on sabbaticals. And of course I want to know what differences sabbaticals really make in professional lives.

How can you help?

I’ve got six open-ended questions, which you can read below. You can email your responses to askpang at restful dot company (yes, “company” is a top-level domain!); alternately, if it would be easier, we can arrange a time to talk via Skype or phone (or in person, if you’re in the Bay Area). I’ll treat all answers as confidential, and not identify people in talks or articles.

Thanks for your help.


1) I’m curious about how scholars view sabbaticals— what assumptions influence their expectations about the opportunities they present, how they should be used, what long-term effect they can have on one’s work or career. As a student or young professor, what were you taught about the purpose of sabbaticals, and how one should use them? For example, did your advisors or colleagues see the sabbatical as an opportunity to continue ongoing work, to finish existing projects or start new ones without the usual distractions of classes and committees; as a chance to explore a novel area or experiment with a riskier project; or as something more like a retreat, an opportunity for mental restoration and reflection?

2) How connected or removed were you from your normal life on your sabbatical(s)? Where did you go? Did you have regular contact with your graduate students, department, or other institutions, or did you avoid such contacts? Did your family move with you? More broadly, how helpful do you think being away— away from your home campus, normal working routine, and being among people in a similar situation— is for making sabbaticals a success?

3) I’m interested in the daily practices of creative people: how much time they spend each day doing their most important work, when during the day they work best, how regular their schedules or routines are, and what other daily activities (such as walks, cycling, or other exercise) that aren’t obviously productive but which stimulate new ideas or are mentally restorative. Can you describe your daily routine during your sabbatical— how your organized the day, how many hours you spent working? Did your routine include activities you did that to outsiders wouldn’t look like work, but which helped you think? Finally, how different was your daily routine on sabbatical from your routine during the academic year?

4) What difference did your sabbatical make in your intellectual trajectory? What significant publications did you start or complete during the year? Did you develop new research interests or embark on projects that you think you wouldn’t have otherwise?

5) What advice would you give to others about how to get the most from their sabbaticals?

6) For purposes of sorting people into their various scholarly and disciplinary categories, can you tell me what field you work in; when you completed your highest degree; and your current affiliation.

Empty labour is “the simulation of productivity”

I’m starting to read through Roland Paulsen’s work on the concept of “empty labor” for my new project on deliberate rest in the modern workplace, and was impressed by this 2015 article, “Non-work at work: Resistance or what?” (behind firewalls 🙁 alas) Here’s the abstract:

Based on 43 interviews conducted with employees who spend around half of their working-hours on non-work related activities such as ‘cyberloafing’, a typology of empty labour is suggested according to sense of work obligation and potential output in order to set the phenomenon of workplace time-appropriation into a theoretical context in which wasteful aspects of organization and management are taken into account. Soldiering, which emanates from a weak sense of work obligation in the individual, may entail aspects of resistance, but there are also less voluntary forms of empty labour deriving from a lack of relevant work tasks. All types of empty labour are, however, bound up with the simulation of productivity. Therefore, they ironically serve to maintain the capitalist firm’s reputation for efficiency.

I quite like the idea of empty labor as being more than just inefficiency, but rather a “simulation of productivity.”

In my own working days, I find it’s essential to remember that the feeling of productivity– the sense that I’ve got my mind around an idea, that I can see how to finish something– is not the same thing as actually doing the work. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve had to learn that the positive emotional hit that comes during those little a-ha moments are not a substitute for actual words on the page, or things delivered to clients. They’re simulations of productivity, not actual accomplishment.

Time for those intervals, old folks

I try to get to the gym several days a week, and generally do a mix of weights and cardio. (I need to do more core and ab exercises, but I hate those.) Gretchen Reynolds’ New York Times piece on new research about “The Best Exercise for Aging Muscles” makes me think I should hit the stationary bike and Stairmaster more, though:

Exercise is good for people, as everyone knows. But scientists have surprisingly little understanding of its cellular impacts and how those might vary by activity and the age of the exerciser.

So researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., recently conducted an experiment on the cells of 72 healthy but sedentary men and women who were 30 or younger or older than 64. After baseline measures were established for their aerobic fitness, their blood-sugar levels and the gene activity and mitochondrial health in their muscle cells, the volunteers were randomly assigned to a particular exercise regimen.

The groups either did weight training, interval training, or a mix of cardio and weights (a control group just sat around). At the end of the study, they found that all three groups were generally fitter, but there were dramatic differences in the interval trainers:

Among the younger subjects who went through interval training, the activity levels had changed in 274 genes, compared with 170 genes for those who exercised more moderately and 74 for the weight lifters. Among the older cohort, almost 400 genes were working differently now, compared with 33 for the weight lifters and only 19 for the moderate exercisers.

Many of these affected genes, especially in the cells of the interval trainers, are believed to influence the ability of mitochondria to produce energy for muscle cells; the subjects who did the interval workouts showed increases in the number and health of their mitochondria — an impact that was particularly pronounced among the older cyclists.

Shultz hours and the need for breaks

David Leonhardt has a piece in the New York Times about George Shultz’s practice while he was Secretary of State during the Reagan era of taking an hour a week to just think:

When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called:

“My wife or the president,” Shultz recalled.

Shultz, who’s now 96, told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.

This is especially interesting to me because I’m working now on a sequel of sorts to REST, a project that looks at how companies today are finding ways of shortening working hours (like the famous Swedish experiments), moving to a 4-day workweek, and experimenting with other way to help people get their work done and have more time to themselves– free time without email or unfinished projects hanging over them.

One of the reasons it’s possible to shorten the work day is that the conventional workday is awfully inefficient: surveys over the past decade have estimated that between 25% and 50% of knowledge workers’ days are spent dealing with information overload, email deluges, being interrupted, or recovering from distractions. (I’ll leave the specific citations for another post.) So there’s a lot of slack in the system that can be taken up, without a big hit on productivity.

But one of the things that people worry about when they shift from a conventional workday is that they intuit that a certain amount of “unproductive” time can be quite valuable, and can provide either a break from work or a chance to explore new ideas. The problem is that most of these wasted hours are genuinely wasted: checking your Zappos order in the middle of a two-hour meeting isn’t going to lead to a company-transforming insight.

Instead, you have to build in time for breaks, be they regular walks, naps, or Shultz hours. Scheduling them means that you can control when in the day they fall, and thus improve the odds that they’ll yield something useful. Scheduling them also means that you’ll actually take them: in a super-busy job like secretary of state, it’s very easy to never have any time to yourself. Finally, there’s plenty of evidence that practice helps you enter creative states, and that scheduling them both gives you practice, and gives your creative mind a regular time to stretch itself.

The power of walks, chapter one million: Theresa May’s snap election

According to The Guardian’s article, “Theresa May calls for UK general election on 8 June:”

The prime minister later repeated her suggestion that she was taking the decision reluctantly, arguing that she had decided to go for the election last week. “Before Easter I spent a few days walking in Wales with my husband, I thought about this long and hard and came to the decision that to provide for that stability and certainty, this was the way to do it,” she told ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston.

Of course this reminds me of Maurice Wilkins’ decision to star working on DNA, which he describes in his book Maurice Wilkins: The Third Man of the Double Helix:

Before returning to the lab after Christmas 1950 I had taken Edel [his wife] on a short holiday in the Welsh mountains. The mild winter sun shone clearly on the peaks covered with snow. We had fine talks, and in the evenings we read Jane Austen together. The beautiful atmosphere seemed to clarify my thoughts, and I remember very well how, one morning after breakfast, I stood looking at the mountains in the distance and thoughts of research drifted into my mind. I suddenly came to see that my interest in following with microscopes the movements of DNA in cells was based on vague ideas. What were we really aiming at? I could see no way in which my fascination with microscopes and living cells could lead to a meaningful program of research….

[I]t came to me clear and strong, and my mind was made up. I must give up completely the microscope work and concentrate full time on X-ray structure analysis of DNA.

Clearly there’s something about walking in Wales. I hope to try it myself some time!

Writing about talking: An old set of posts about the craft of speaking


Sometimes you write something and  forget about it for years, only to rediscover it and think, Hey, this isn’t bad. (More common is rediscovering something and think, Boy, this is terrible. What was I thinking?) In the course of chasing down some broken links, I came across a series of posts about the business of speaking: about making the transition from academic to business speaking, working with an agent, building talks, and the logistics of travel and delivery.

Speaking at The Hopkins School

The pieces were written in 2014, before my most recent round of interviews, podcasts, radio appearances, and conference talks about REST. However, I think the basic advice is still pretty sound. The posts in this series include:

New article on the history of spontaneous thought

Later this year Oxford University Press is publishing The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought, edited by Kieran Fox and Kalina Christoff. I have a chapter on the history of spontaneous thought– or really, an argument about the possibility of writing the history of something that seems completely ephemeral and unrecoverable, and a description of some works that could help guide such a history.

I’ve put the near-final draft up as a PDF on Google Drive.

Kurt Vonnegut: “I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day.”

One of the most consistent findings in REST is how many really prolific and creative people do their most important work in about four focused hours a day. They’re not taught that this is a magic number; they often start their careers as workaholics; and some find this sweet spot when they’re younger, others when they’re in middle age of later.

Add Kurt Vonnegut to this list, as Literary Hub contributor Emily Temple notes in this piece on “Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Writing Advice:”

I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours. (From an interview with Robert Taylor in Boston Globe Magazine, 1969)

Need to brush up on your German? Read “So wichtig sind Pausen”

As thepPublication of the German edition of REST nears, the Austrian magazine Woman interviews me about work, stress, and rest:

Stress, Überarbeitung und wenig Schlaf gelten heute als cool. Doch wer ständig übers Limit geht, tut weder sich noch seiner Firma was Gutes. Wie essenziell wichtig Pausen sind und wie man sie optimal nützt, sagt US-Forscher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang im Talk.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2017 Deliberate Rest

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑