Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: 4 hours (page 1 of 2)

Oliver Burkeman on the four-hour working day

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman talks about REST in his latest column, “Let’s hear it for the four-hour working day,” and makes a connection that I confess I hadn’t thought of:

Half a century ago, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins caused a stir by suggesting that people in hunter-gatherer societies aren’t ceaselessly struggling for survival; on the contrary, they’d built “the original affluent society”, by keeping their needs low, then meeting them. Crunching numbers from Africa and Australia, he calculated the average number of hours hunter-gatherers must work per day, to keep everyone fed. That’s right: it was “three to five hours”.

That number keeps popping up. And thanks for the great piece, Oliver!

Deliberate rest and daily schedules

Writer and artist Carey Dunne has a piece in Quartz that talks about deliberate rest and daily schedules, and argues for shorter, more focused working days:

An underlying assumption driving today’s pervasive cult of productivity is that the more hours you work, the more you get done. This seems like a logical enough formula, but it is also leading to an epidemic of job-induced stress and burnout. Regardless, being perpetually “busy” has become a 21st-century status symbol; the option to work fewer than the average American’s 34.4 hours a week (or a whopping 47 for full-time workers) is usually a privilege reserved for the leisure class.

But according to a growing anti-workaholism movement, the counterintuitive key to greater productivity could be working fewer hours. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work LessSilicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang makes the case for a four-hour workday. “Decades of research demonstrate that the correlation between the number of hours worked and productivity is very weak,” says Pang, a Stanford University visiting scholar and founder of the Restful Company.

Always nice to see a writer get the space she needs to dive deeply into a subject, especially when your work is the subject. Read the whole thing.

“Science demands a lot of its disciples, so scientists should take control, not be controlled”

This piece about scientists’ working hours was written from last year, but it recently came to my attention after Jennifer Polk tweeted it out. (Of course I’m not shy about writing about something from 1876, so 2015 is not a problem!) Bryan Gaensler, Director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, argues that “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science:”

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have risen to senior academic positions have the privilege and responsibility of serving as mentors and role models to our junior colleagues. As young scientists learn the skills and approaches needed to become the science leaders of the future, they are deeply influenced by the advice of their lab heads and department chairs. So when someone asks me how many hours they should be working, I refuse to give them a number. Instead I tell them that they need to make sure they eat, sleep and relax, and that they should make time for their friends and families. Within those constraints, they need to figure out their optimal working hours for themselves.

Science demands a lot of its disciples, so scientists should take control, not be controlled. Young researchers should determine how, where and when they work best, should set themselves rules, and then should try to stick to them. Ever since my time as a postdoc at MIT, I aim to walk out the door by 5 or 6 every night, I try not to answer emails on weekends and I take my allotted vacation time. Just as heads and directors are expected to be exemplars in our research, we must lead by example in work–life balance.

He noticed that when he was a postdoc at MIT and tried to compete with people by working crazy hours, it hurt his productivity. “The additional hours were not translating into extra progress, but rather only into extra exhaustion,” he writes. “So I went back to working eight-hour days, before moving on a few years later to a faculty position at Harvard.” But, he continues, there are all kinds of evidence-based reasons that chronic overwork is bad for you, and for your career.

MIT's Stata Center

Of course it’s easy to assume these days that the correct answer to “how many hours should I work” is more, especially in super-competitive fields like academic science, where the standards are high yet fuzzy (is your slightly lower science citation score in a more prestigious sub-specialty plus strong recommendation letters better than the other finalists’ much higher citation index in a bigger field? you’ll only find out when one of you is hired!), and you live with the lurking sense that everyone else understands what’s going on and you’re the only fraud. (Plus the possibility that there are 14 grad students at Tsinghua living on instant noodles and benzedrine who are going to duplicate and surpass your work in about 20 minutes.)

MIT's Stata Center

Lots of really accomplished scientists advocated shorter, more intensive working hours, and saw the right kinds of rest as essential to doing good work. Darwin of course is my go-to example, but there’s also the example of his next-door neighbor, banker, and amateur naturalist John Lubbock,  tons of other Victorian examples, the mathematician John Littlewood, and others whose days consisted of four or five serious hours a day of hard concentration, with many other hours of apparently leisurely but actually very creative time. More recently, McDonnell Foundation president Susan Fitzpatrick made the case for unstructured time in a scientists’ life, and the ways that trying to take on too much can be counterproductive:

Paradoxically, doing more can lead to fewer impactful results—smaller questions, smaller insights, and smaller advances in knowledge. It is unfortunate that just about every professional reward and incentive in academic science requires that more and more be piled onto ever-crowded plates.

This actually echoes something that Santiago Ramón y Cajal said more than century ago: that

the observer can no longer afford to concentrate for extended periods of time on one subject, and must work even harder. Gone are the wonderful days of yore when those curious about nature were able to remain withdrawn in the silence of the study, confident that rivals would not disrupt their tranquil meditations. Research is now frantic. When a new technique is outlined, many scholars immediately take advantage of it and apply it almost simultaneously to the same problems—diminishing the glory of the originator, who probably lacks the facilities and time necessary to gather all the fruits of his labors, and of his lucky star.

So it’s good to see someone who treats sane working hours not as some kind of occupational mutation, but as a sign that they’re in charge of their own careers and lives. Too often we treat busyness as a sign of commitment, when in reality it can signal some pretty bad things: that we’re in over our heads, that our bosses aren’t very good at setting priorities and managing time, or that we’re just really bad at estimating how long it will take of us to do our jobs.

“You will eat vegetable soup again today and like it; Mommy’s beginning chapter three:” Shirley Jackson and creative lives

The author and critic Ruth Franklin has a terrific article about Shirley Jackson in New York Magazine (it’s a selection from her new book, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which comes out today– very exciting!) that includes these couple paragraphs:

Jackson often complained about the mental calisthenics required to be at once a mother and a writer — the “nagging thoughts” about finishing the laundry or preparing meals that often interrupted her creative work. When she was working on a novel, she once wrote to a friend, she preferred to “lock myself up in my cave for four dogged hours a day, and sneak a minute or so here and there for writing letters and making lunch (‘You will eat vegetable soup again today and like it; Mommy’s beginning chapter three’).” But many writers, especially women writers, learn to derive imaginative energy from their constraints. Alice Munro has said that she began writing short stories because as a young mother she had no time to write novels: “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time.”

Writing in the hours between morning kindergarten and lunch, while a baby napped, or after the children had gone to bed demanded a discipline that came to suit Jackson. She was constantly thinking of stories while cooking, cleaning, or doing just about anything else. “All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories,” she said in one of her lectures. Many of her stories were already virtually finished by the time she managed to sit down at the typewriter. Her friend Kit Foster told of playing Monopoly one evening with Jackson and Hyman when Jackson abruptly withdrew from the game and went into her study, where she banged audibly at her typewriter. Less than an hour later, she emerged with a story that was sent off to her agent the next morning. The idea for “The Lottery” came to her while she was grocery shopping with her daughter Joanne, then age 2. After they came home, she put away the groceries, put the child in her playpen, and wrote the story.

Two things jump out at me.

The first is the “four dogged hours a day.” This is an incredibly consistent pattern in the lives of creative people. Whether it’s mathematician John Littlewood, writer Raymond Chandler, cartoonist Scott Adams, novelist John Le Carré, or a host of others, they regard four really focused, productive hours as a good day’s work. And given everything that they accomplished, I’m inclined to trust people like Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens on this score.

The second is how Jackson managed to both cordon off her time for writing, and create a kind of mental state that allowed her muse to keep trying out ideas even as while she had the kids at the supermarket.

There’s also this conclusion, which is very insightful.

She needed the children as much as they needed her. Their imaginations energized her; their routines stabilized her. More important, their heedless savagery was crucial to her worldview. Jackson could not come into her own as a writer before she had children. She would not have been the writer she became without them.

Jackson was one of those writers, like JRR Tolkien and Bram Stoker, whose fiction drew on and was intertwined with their lives. Tolkien’s books started as stories he told his children; Stoker’s Dracula was drew on his decades working as a theatre manager in London, and spending time in the company of actors, men of letters, police, explorers, political exiles, and other colorful (or dark) characters.

Personally, I’m in awe of the fact that Jackson managed to write when she had two small children; I ended up taking several years off from doing serious writing when my kids were younger.*  But she did that in part by finding a style of parenting that both sustained the kids and worked for her: “she could be permissive — or absentminded — to the point of laxness,” Franklin writes. Jackson illustrates a balance that it’s critical to strike. You can draw material from ordinary life or family or child-rearing; but even when you do that, you still need to be able to seal yourself off for a time, to make sense of it and reinterpret it and turn it into something more creative than a simple transcription.

*This wasn’t intentional, and by “serious writing” I mean “books.” I should also add that I don’t think a second of that time was wasted.

“it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later:” John Littlewood on morning work

Clare College

The great English mathematician John Littlewood wrote an essay called “The mathematician’s art of work,” published in The Mathematical Intelligencer in 1978. (Here’s a link, though it’s behind a firewall.) It’s full of great advice, but on this Sunday morning when I’m up early to try to finish a piece that’s been on my desk for months, this bit jumps out at me:

Before World War I it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later. Time goes rapidly-one has a whiskey and soda at 11:30 and another later- and work seems to go well and easily. By comparison the morning seems bleak and work a greater effort. I am sure all this is one of the many powerful illusions about creative work. When put out of action by a severe concussion in 1918, I consulted Henry Head, an eminent psychologist, and known for wise hunches as a doctor. The traditional prescription was complete rest, but he told me to work as soon as I felt like it (I had leave of absence) and as much as I felt up to, but- only in the morning. After a month or two I discovered, that, for me at least, morning work was far the better. I now never work after 6:30 p.m.

Lots of very creative people start their lives as night owls, only discover that the early morning is a great time to work (especially after a good night’s sleep). They find that the mind is at its most creative, you can be your most productive in early undisturbed hours, and that getting work out of the way leaves more time for leisure.

Going home

Littlewood was a terrifically productive mathematician, but he was also– as he explains in the article– very strict about taking time off every week, and going on long vacations (three weeks, no more, no less). Getting up early was one way to make sure that he had time for that rest.

The paragraph also illustrates something else that happens to lots of the people I write about in REST: they come to aware of “the many powerful illusions about creative work” that keep us from finding new and better ways of working, and get in the way of doing our best work.

Arlington VA

There are LOTS of stories we’re told about how we need to work– how many hours we have to put in, how we need to approach our work, how much time we have, how we should present ourselves to our colleagues and bosses— and many of them are so pervasive and well-entrenched that we never think to question them; or they’re never formally articulated, which makes it especially hard to recognize their effect on us. But people who manage to craft lives that are satisfying,  and that support really great work, learn not to take for granted that the world has figured out the best way to work.

“science benefits when we think more and do less”

Susan Fitzpatrick, the president of the McDonnell Foundation, has an opinion piece in The Scientist about the importance of unstructured, social time in doing good science.

There was a stretch of time when I would spend a week or so each summer visiting some friends who were academic colleagues. Typically, our days were structured around generous amounts of “schmooze” time. First, there was the requisite two-hour breakfast at a quaint, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. These meetings were about more than sharing a meal; we covered a fair amount of ground over coffee, eggs, and whole-wheat toast. We hashed out serious questions related to our areas of scientific interests, argued over the changing politics of academic research, and strayed unflinchingly and irreverently into topics for which we have no particular claim to insight or expertise…. We indulged in those freewheeling discussions in which an out-of-left-field comment could completely alter the way we were pursuing a problem.

Of course, as a senior scientist and administrator, finding that kind of time seems well-nigh impossible; more disturbing, that kind of free time seems to be evaporating from the daily lives of scientists at every stage of their careers.

Cafe Milano

If you’re a graduate student, you have to demonstrate that you’re a super-brilliant Wunderkind by doing stunningly original work; if you’re a postdoc, you need to show you’re a paper-writing machine even as you apply for grants or bounce babies with your other hand.

Stairway to Peets Coffee
Gotta climb that career ladder!

If you’re lucky and good enough to win the tournament of science and become a PI, you now have to schmooze donors, read the tea leaves about what’s hot and not at the NSF and NIH, sit on review boards and editorial boards, chair committees, supervise dissertations, oversee postdocs, etc. etc. ad infinitum. You wouldn’t want to lose your lab, now would you?

MIT's Stata Center

In other words, everyone is in danger of being too busy working to do their jobs.

Coffee and Simon Schama

Does it make the science better? Fitzpatrick argues that it doesn’t.

I don’t believe that doing more is always better. Paradoxically, doing more can lead to fewer impactful results—smaller questions, smaller insights, and smaller advances in knowledge. It is unfortunate that just about every professional reward and incentive in academic science requires that more and more be piled onto ever-crowded plates. Can supervising more trainees, being named on more grants, and appearing as an author on more papers really equate to being more productive?

But, Fitzpatrick argues, having useful leisure is no less important now than in the past. Even in an era of computational biology, robots that can do experiments, machine learning, etc., we need to be able think deeply, and seriously. Which requires being able to think in a leisurely fashion.

Dog and iPad

This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it does mean taking science (or whatever you’re working on) very seriously, letting it settle into your brain and bones, but not holding yourself to a clock or factory model of research and writing.

The anecdotes of researchers at some of the most productive institutions during halcyon times of progress recall a complex web of time in the lab, competitive sporting games, whimsical parties, mountain hikes, and walks on the beach. There seemed to be a fair amount of wine, lots of long dinners, and plenty of bull sessions.

But, I’d argue, it still requires time to think. Time to talk…. To my mind, science benefits when we think more and do less.

I don’t know of many studies that have tried to determine a correlation between scientists’ working hours and productivity, I do know of one that’s really fascinating. In the early 1950s, Raymond Val Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues at the Illinois Institute of Technology about their motivation, work habits and schedules.*

In fact, when they graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced, they found something surprising. Rather than a straight line that showed a linear relationship between workplace hours and productivity, their data produced M-shaped curve. Productivity was highest among those who spent between ten to twenty hours in the office. (I’ve seen this pattern of four-hour days among creative and prolific people repeatedly, in many fields, across at least a couple centuries.)

The curve then turned downward. People who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five; at thirty-five hours, your productivity was half that of your twenty hour-a-week colleagues.

Studying

From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly. A researcher who clawed their way out of the thirty-five hour valley, buckled down, and spent fifty hours per week in the lab saw their productivity rise– to the same point as those who spent five hours a week. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this rise was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment” and continuous monitoring: most of those ten-hour days were spent tending machines, and occasionally taking measurements. From there, it was all downhill: the sixty plus hour-a-week researchers were the least productive of all.

Study Hotel

Val Zelst and Kerr also asked faculty how many “hours per typical work day do you devote to home work which contributes to the efficient performance of your job,” and graphed those results against productivity as well. This time, they didn’t see an M, but rather a single curve peaking around three to three and a half hours a day. Unfortunately, they don’t say anything about total hours spent working at the office and home; they only allude to “the probability that” the most productive researchers “do much of their creative work at home or elsewhere,” rather than on campus.

If you assume that the most productive office and home workers are the same, this cohort is working between twenty-five and thirty-eight hours a week. In a five-day week, that works out to an average of five to seven hours a day.

Corpus Clock

Now, this is an old study, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to explain what’s changed in the nature of scientific thinking, or creative thinking more generally, that requires we spend many more hours a day at it— other than all the flawed and external reasons The challenge is figuring out how we can get back to a form of work that is creative and prolific, rather than merely busy and rushed and time-crunched.

*Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr, “Some correlates of scientific and technical productivity,” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 46(4), Oct 1951, 470-475.

“I love to do research, I want to do research, I have to do research, and I hate to sit down and begin to do research”

Mathematician Paul Halmos, from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society:

I love to do research, I want to do research, I have to do research, and I hate to sit down and begin to do research—I always try to put it off just as long as I can. It is important to me to have something big and external, not inside myself, that I can devote my life to. Gauss and Goya and Shakespeare and Paganini are excellent, their excellence gives me pleasure, and I admire and envy them. They were also dedicated human beings. Excellence is for the few but dedication is something everybody can have—and should have—and without it life is not worth living.

Despite my great emotional involvement in work, I just hate to start doing it; it’s a battle and a wrench every time. Isn’t there something I can (must?) do first? Shouldn’t I sharpen my pencils, perhaps? In fact I never use pencils, but pencil sharpening has / become the code phrase for anything that helps to postpone the pain of concentrated creative attention. It stands for reference searching in the library, systematizing old notes, or even preparing tomorrow’s class lecture, with the excuse that once those things are out of the way I’ll really be able to concentrate without interruption.

He also has this fascinating bit about how many hours of sustained attention he is able to maintain. It matches up pretty exactly with… almost everyone else I’ve looked at.

During my productive years I probably averaged 20 hours of concentrated mathematical thinking a week, but much more than that was extremely rare. The rare exception came, two or three times in my life, when long ladders of thought were approaching their climax. Even though I never was dean of a graduate school, I seemed to have psychic energy for only three or four hours of work, “real work”, each day; the rest of the time I wrote, taught, reviewed, conferred, refereed, lectured, edited, traveled, and generally sharpened pencils all the ways I could think of.

Halmos was also in the habit of walking a lot every day, and was “one of the discipline’s most enthusiastic and vigorous practitioners.” In his 70s he was affiliated with the math department at Santa Clara University, and according to one of his collaborators,

the way to ensure one’s getting the minimum daily dose of one hour (equals four miles) is to live two miles from the office. Paul claims (and there’s no reason for doubt) that he found the San Jose house by drawing a (Euclidian) circle of radius two miles, centered at O’Connor Hall and scouting the perimeter.

Indeed, there’s a Halmos commemorative walk in Washington DC.

“Control of the mind… can be accomplished with deliberation and repose, never with hurry and worry”

From William Osler’s A Way of Life: An Address to Yale Students, Sunday evening, April 20th, 1913:

Control of the mind as a working machine, the adaptation in it of habit, so that its action becomes almost as automatic as walking, the end of education— and yet how rarely reached! It can be accomplished with deliberation and repose, never with hurry and worry. Realize how much time there is, how long the day is. Realize that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery.

Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind however dull can escape the brightness that comes from steady application. There is an old saying, “Youth enjoyeth not, for haste;” but worse than this, the failure to cultivate the power of peaceful concentration is the greatest single cause of mental breakdown. Plato pities the young man who started at such a pace that he never reached the goal. One of the saddest of life’s tragedies is the wreckage of the career of the young collegian by hurry, hustle, bustle and tension the human machine driven day and night, as no sensible fellow would use his motor.…

A few hours out of the sixteen will suffice, only let them be hours of daily dedication in routine, in order and in system, and day by day you will gain in power over the mental mechanism, just as the child does over the spinal marrow in walking, or the musician over the nerve centres. Aristotle somewhere says that the student who wins out in the fight must be slow in his movements, with voice deep, and slow speech, and he will not be worried over trifles which make people speak in shrill tones and use rapid movements. Shut close in hour-tight compartments, with the mind directed intensely upon the subject in hand, you will acquire the capacity to do more and more, you will get into training; and once the mental habit is established, you are safe for life….

Four or five hours daily it is not much to ask ; but one day must tell another, one week certify another, one month bear witness to another of the same story, and you will acquire a habit by which the one-talent man will earn a high interest, and by which the ten-talent man may at least save his capital.

Steady work of this sort gives a man a sane outlook on the world. No corrective so valuable to the weariness, the fever and the fret that are so apt to wring the heart of the young.

“Four or five hours daily it is not much to ask”

I’m constantly amazed at how, in the past, the idea that four or five hours or really focused work was a solid day for the thinker or artist was the conventional wisdom– and how thoroughly we’ve forgotten it.

Lest one think this is the kind of advice that you’d only hear from artistic types like Oscar Wilde, or independently wealthy savants like Charles Darwin, here’s William Osler making the same argument, in A Way of Life: An Address to Yale Students, Sunday evening, April 20th, 1913 (available on the Internet Archive):

Realize that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery. Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind however dull can escape the brightness that comes from steady application…. A few hours out of the sixteen will suffice, only let them be hours of daily dedication in routine, in order and in system, and day by day you will gain in power over the mental mechanism…. Shut close in hour-tight compartments, with the mind directed intensely upon the subject in hand, you will acquire the capacity to do more and more, you will get into training; and once the mental habit is established, you are safe for life…

Four or five hours daily it is not much to ask; but one day must tell another, one week certify another, one month bear witness to another of the same story, and you will acquire a habit by which the one-talent man will earn a high interest, and by which the ten-talent man may at least save his capital.

In his case, Osler matches the idea of four solid hours with being focused and systematic with your time: the more you can control your day, the more you clear away the time necessary for really deep thinking.

 

My Washington Post interview: “How Charles Darwin used rest to be more productive”

Charles and me

I’m in today’s Washington Post, thanks to Brigid Schulte, a Post contributor and author of Overwhelmed.

In the United States, we work among the longest hours of any advanced economy, and we tend to most highly prize workers who log the most hours at the office. But what if we’re wrong? What if the most productive and creative work gets done when we also take what author, consultant and futurist Alex Pang calls “serious rest?”

We talk about deliberate rest, how  four hours of hard work gets a lot done, and why we need to take rest a lot more seriously. She also (thankfully) pushed me to explain what lessons we ordinary mortals can take from the lives of people like Darwin and Hemingway (the non-drinking part of Hemingway’s life, anyway).

Charles Darwin

Darwin has long fascinated me, and I’ve become even more  interested in him over the years. He’s a great introduction to the rest project for a couple reasons.

  • He’s, well, Charles Darwin. You can’t really dispute his importance.
  • We have terrific documentation of his life. You can write a day-by-day account of his life from the moment he steps onto HMS Beagle until his death.
  • He clearly was thinking about big questions all the time: his children write fondly of his absorption in his work, and his productivity speaks for itself.
  • Yet at the same time he manages to get so much done while only spending about four or five hours a day in his office.

Even if we can’t all be him, we can still learn from his example!

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