It seems to have the ominous title “part 1,” so there’s more coming!
So I was just on BBC Radio 4’s morning show (it’s night here in California, but 8 hours ahead in London, people are having their coffee and checking the weather). I was on with Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, talking about careers, aging, retirement, and the challenge of making work suitable for populations that have longer life expectancy (and increasingly, social safety nets and retirement systems that suck).
This was a bit of a last-minute thing: I got a message from a producer this morning asking if I was available, we did a sound check a couple hours later, and they rang me up a couple minutes before the segment ran.
I find that I perform better in these situations when I don’t just rely on my natural brilliance and extemporaneous speaking ability, but actually do some prep– which for me means writing some note about the subject beforehand. (I’ve written other posts about doing radio.)
Here’s what I wrote out and was trying to get across:
People who have very long and productive careers often alternate periods of intensive focused activity, with periods for recovery and reflection. This is true at the weekly level (i.e., detaching from work and having hobbies or other things that occupy your time), and at the level of years (having sabbaticals or other longer breaks).
This is a more sustainable pattern because, as recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists has shown, humans effectively focus for 4-5 hours a day. We’re also more creative when we have time built into our schedules for both hard work and deliberate rest. Finally, we vastly underestimate how much checking email after-hours erodes our ability to recover and recharge, and both our technologies and professional norms make that problem worse.
Whether consciously or not, parents who take time off with their young children, professionals who burn out after a decade in a high-pressure job, “digital nomads” who spend their 20s doing projects while traveling the world, etc. are all trying to find alternatives that play around with more extended periods of time off, or remix work and other things.
But companies have yet to make sense of these experiments, and instead see the traditional linear career as the norm, and these experiments as concessions or deviations. They also see long hours as a sign of dedication and productivity, and have generally been unwilling to share increased productivity with workers in the form of either higher wages or shorter hours. Finally, we see this problem of work-life balance mainly as one to be solved by individuals, not as an organizational design or policy challenge.
However, there are companies (mainly in software, advertising, and financial services) that have shown that it’s possible right now to shift to a 4-day week, or a 6-hour day, simply by using existing technology more productively, making meeting more efficient, and redesigning the workday to give people longer periods of focused, uninterrupted time.
Companies moving to 4-day weeks show that ever-longer hours are not inevitable, nor are they necessary for a company to make money and do good work. And if we can move to a 4-day week just by using our time and technology more wisely, this suggests that by designing new technologies like robots and AI with an eye to helping workers become more skilled and productive, and sharing the resulting time savings with workers, a 3-day week— or Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour workweek— could be closer to hand than we think.
The challenge we face now is to figure out how we can put these parts together: to do things like shorten the work day, rebuild the wall between work and private time, and design careers that allow for longer breaks and sabbaticals.
It’s not that you find the paragraph that best fits the question the presenter asks and then read it, but rather, the point of the exercise is to get you thinking about a subject, and give you a starting-point.
You’ll also notice the post-it that says “Answer JUST the Question.” This is a constant issue with me: I tend to want to answer a question and then discuss the implications, or a related point, and in a short-format radio show, you have to curb than instinct, and let the presenter guide the conversation. (BBC presenters, in my experience, are really outstanding, so it’s best to let them lead.)
Having a serious microphone is also a MUST for things like this. I love my Yeti Blue mic, and adding the wind guard and stand has only improved both the audio quality and ease of use.
I think I’m slowly getting better at these things. It’s not something that comes effortlessly, but it is possible to improve!
Now to bed, as I have to be up very early tomorrow!
Erica Alini interviewed me a couple days ago about rest and vacations, and now how an article in Gobal News about “The smartest vacation: How to get the most R and R, according to science.“
It’s a more important subject than you might think at first, because so many of us overwork and treat vacations like a Miracle Cure-All, a couple weeks when we can de-stress, relax, recover the energy we’be poured into our jobs, and generally make up for months of overextension and mistreatment.
But too often, we design vacations that don’t do us as much good as they could. We overstuff them with activities, or sneak in a little work, or do other things that degrade the restorative value of our vacations.
On a recent episode of my podcast I talked with Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist who specializes in vacations, about her research and findings. She has a number of insights about what makes vacations truly restorative, and some excellent advice about how we can better approach vacation design.
One thing she highlighted was the importance of control as something that affects whether a vacation is good or bad. If you do what you like and don’t have to face unexpected problems, you’re a lot more likely to rate vacations as good, and you’re more likely to benefit from them. This helped me explain why over the years I’ve gone from taking vacations that were really packed with activities, to vacations that feature one or two big things a day (at most), and more time for either doing “nothing at all,” or for exploring things we discover on the ground. If you have a crazy vacation schedule (kind of like your normal life!) and feel like you need to see Absolutely Everything in order for it to have been a success, two things are likely to happen. First, you’ll fail to cross everything off your list, and that will affect your level of satisfaction with your vacation. Or, you’ll push to do it all, but turn the vacation into a slog.
The most interesting thing de Bloom said was that her research has led her to take non-vacation rest more seriously. The more she gets into the science of recovery, and understands the factors that make vacations successes or failures, the more de Bloom appreciates the value of taking evenings off, of putting work away on weekends, of cultivating hobbies. Vacations are great, but maybe the biggest problem with them is that we expect too much of them.
I certainly understand the temptation to Do It All, especially if you want the kids to be exposed to new things, or you spent a lot of money to get to your destination; and if the point of the vacation is to educate your kids, or to see lots of things, then go for it.
But if the point of your vacation is to actually recover the energy you’ve drained while working, or to step back from the precipice of burnout, then you could be better off doing less.
The latest episode of the “Psychologists Off the Clock” podcast features a conversation between me and Brown University psychologist Yael Schonbrun, in which we talk about deliberate rest, the role of downtime in creative lives, and why young children are like vampires.
I’ve been doing a little more media recently, as I head toward the release of the paperback edition of REST (with a new foreword by Arianna Huffington) on June 12. I’ve also got a number of other things that are happening to mark the publication of the new edition, and to spread the word, so yesterday I spent a few hours cleaning up my backyard office, getting things together, and making lists of things I need to do before the book comes out.
Interestingly, it’ll be out in the United Kingdom several days earlier, as a retailer wanted to include it among some summer titles, and needed it sooner.
It was a good time, in part because the interview was somewhat more autobiographical than most, and because Srini is doing some pretty interesting stuff. I actually met him when I was in Utrecht for the Happinez festival (he was a fellow speaker), so it was cool to connect again and trade ideas.
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!
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.)
Between this and the release of the Calm masterclass, it’s quite a week for video!
Should we be working less to achieve more? Maddy Savage reports from Sweden, where workers are trying to balance the traditional outdoor life with longer working hours and increased screen time. Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang puts forward his argument for working less and taking ‘active rest‘ in order to get more done. And could you save time by outsourcing your life? University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks about her research into the rise of outsourcing careers in the United States.
I appear around 06:45, and the producer did a good job of taking the interview and turning it into something that sounds coherent! And it’s always extra fun to be on a show that you listen to. I don’t tune in regularly, but I often listen to BBC World Service, so I catch it now and then.
I can’t figure out how to embed the player, alas.
In September when I was in Europe, I gave a talk at Jabra corporate headquarters, just outside Copenhagen (where I had some excellent food, and saw some cool cats). We shot some video of me talking about deliberate rest, and Jabra has now created a short video from it. (Sorry about the auto-play.)
As a place that makes some outstanding headsets for office use, Jabra is really interested in issues of focus and concentration in business environments, so it turned out to be a great place to talk about deliberate rest and my earlier work on contemplative computing. (I’ll confess I have no fewer than four pair of Jabra headphones– two sets that I’ve used for everyday listening, a pair of their Bluetooth earbuds, and a set of noise-canceling office headphones. They’re all awesome.) And of course they did a great job with the video!
A few months ago I was doing an Al Jazeera show, and during the sound check beforehand one of the other guests described me as “the silver gent.” I suppose I see what he meant. Mentally I don’t feel like i’ve aged in the last twenty years (I feel like fundamentally the same person I was when I was a postdoc, or first married), but I have gotten more silver.
And anyone who meets me on the road is likely to see me wearing some variation of those clothes– the black shirt and black cashmere jacket, and jeans. What can I say; one of my professors extolled the virtues of wearing black on the road, and I still dress that way out of respect for her.
My latest interview, a conversation with journalist Kristen Marano in You Inc., was just published:
How do you build yourself up in moments of self-doubt?
I’ve gone through enough cycles of self-doubt (about a million) to know that they pass eventually, usually in a day or two. To move the cycle along though, it always helps to cross off even small things on my to-do list: return emails, finish some mindless piece of work, even clean the bathroom. Accomplishment is the best form of self-affirmation.
I was on CBC Radio’s call-in show “Ontario Today” earlier today, talking about “The key to a restful vacation.” You can listen here:
It was a fun time for me at least, partly because it involved more interaction with an audience than many radio interviews, and because I actually went into it with a certain amount of apprehension. To be honest, in Rest I have about six pages about vacations, so I was concerned that I’d have enough to say!
Fortunately, guest host Amanda Pfeffer was outstanding, and did a terrific job of guiding the conversation back to the book. I also do a fair amount of prep before these interviews, and now have a decent system for working through my notes and thinking about my responses, as you can see.
The Stanford Video folks (who are outstanding– they’re all the kinds of low-key professionals you want to work with during stressful situations, or just during moments when you need to be totally focused and on) keep a sheet music stand in the studio, and I make good use of it.
Beforehand, I’ll take some time to write out some notes, the key ideas I want to repeat or return to, and reminders to keep my answers short, stay on point, and let the host guide things. It’s usually the same set of notes, the same points, and same reminders every time (I am talking about the same book, after all); but it helps to write them out every time, to keep them fresh in my mind.
I also carry a copy of the book into the studio, though frankly I don’t refer to it during a live show– there’s not time to page through it.
You’ll notice a couple post-its, which have the host’s name– you never want to get that wrong– and the schedule for breaks.
I also keep my small notebook handy (in my lap), and write down the names of callers and the main points I want to make in response to their stories or questions. The virtue of this is that if I have only one or two points to make, I’ll make them more quickly if I can write them down and refer to them, and I’m less likely to strike off on some digression. I’m also more likely to get people’s names right if I write them down and can refer to them. Finally, if I can connect points that two callers 40 minutes apart make, I look like A Freaking Genius.
Today’s setup is not unusual for me. I’ve learned that interviews go better if I have some aide-memoire to jog my memory, or anchor the conversation. This was the desk when I was interviewed by Bob Edwards about The Distraction Addiction:
I’m very big on note-taking as a tool for thinking more clearly, as the book below illustrates, so realizing that doing it for interviews would help was a significant thing.
I think I’m getting better at interviews, though it’s like being a musician or teacher: it’s one of those pieces of craft that you can refine and improve for a lifetime. But at least I recognize that it’s a craft, and I’m learning how to build a structure that helps me do well and improve. (So I hope.)