Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: psychology

How much do we need to work to be happy?

One of the objections I sometimes get to the 4-day workweek runs something like this: Since we know that unemployment makes people unhappy, doesn’t this mean that reducing the length of the workweek will make people somewhat less happy?

This assumes that there’s a linear relationship between work time and well-being. If 0 hours/week creates very little well-being, and 40 hours/week creates N amount of well-being, might it be the case that 30 hours creates (3/4)N well-being?

There’s a group at Cambridge that’s been looking at exactly this question, and they have a new article asking “How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Here’s the article abstract:

Daiga Kamerāde, Senhu Wang, Brendan Burchell, Sarah Ursula Balderson, Adam Coutts, “A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Social Science & Medicine, In press, corrected proof, Available online 18 June 2019, Article 112353.

There are predictions that in future rapid technological development could result in a significant shortage of paid work. A possible option currently debated by academics, policy makers, trade unions, employers and mass media, is a shorter working week for everyone. In this context, two important research questions that have not been asked so far are: what is the minimum amount of paid employment needed to deliver some or all of the well-being and mental health benefits that employment has been shown to bring? And what is the optimum number of working hours at which the mental health of workers is at its highest? To answer these questions, this study used the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009–2018) data from individuals aged between 16 and 64. The analytical sample was 156,734 person-wave observations from 84,993 unique persons of whom 71,113 had two or more measurement times. Fixed effects regressions were applied to examine how changes in work hours were linked to changes in mental well-being within each individual over time. This study found that even a small number of working hours (between one and 8 h a week) generates significant mental health and well-being benefits for previously unemployed or economically inactive individuals. The findings suggest there is no single optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are at their highest – for most groups of workers there was little variation in wellbeing between the lowest (1–8 h) through to the highest (44–48 h) category of working hours. These findings provide important and timely empirical evidence for future of work planning, shorter working week policies and have implications for theorising the future models of organising work in society.

So it looks like there’s not a linear relationship between working hours and well-being. Rather, well-being rises quickly for the first 8 hours, then stabilizes. So just as a month-long vacation doesn’t provide much more happiness than a week-long vacation, a full week of work doesn’t provide more well-being than a day of work.

Or as the article’s conclusion puts it,

there is no optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are significantly at their highest. This study finds no evidence that the current full-time standard of working 36–40 h a week is the optimal for mental health and well-being, when job characteristics, such as hourly pay, occupational group and contract permanency are controlled… [T]he average effective dose of employment for mental health and well-being is only about the equivalent of one day per week.

How to have a more restorative vacation

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.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 4: Jessica de Bloom and the Science of Vacations

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-wn9tz-952bd4

Since we’re in the middle of summer break, I thought it would be fitting to take a break from the shorter hours interviews, and talk about something that’s on everyone’s mind: vacations.

Many of us have a conflicted relationships with vacations. We expect a lot from them, we spend a lot on them, but we don’t always get everything we want from them. When we go somewhere new, our default mode is to pack the days full of activities (this is doubly true if you have children), then we come home feeling like we need a vacation to recover from our vacation.

If we want vacations that are restorative, that recharge us and restore our energy, is there a better way?

In this episode I talk with Jessica de Bloom about the science of vacations. De Bloom is one of a number of academics who have been studying the psychology of restorative activities. I originally discovered her work when I was writing Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, and so it was a pleasure to talk to her in person about her work.

De Bloom’s work has some counterintuitive conclusions about vacations and breaks, and if you like getting away but feel like you’re not getting what you need out of your time away, this episode is for you.

Mentioned in this episode:

Happiness and LSE podcasts

rerum cognoscere causas

I’m a fan of podcasts. When I take the dogs out walking in the evening, I’ll often listen to a podcast, since the dogs generally have little to talk about. (In the mornings I’m often still focused on writing, and so I listen to music– not so much because I want to concentrate, but because I want to let my mind wander, and I can’t do that if I’m listening to a podcast.)

Recently I discovered the London School of Economics Public Lectures and Events podcast, and I’m really enjoying it. The audio quality is middling, but the intellectual quality is outstanding. It helps to be familiar with these kinds of events already: they’re not TED talk-level short and smooth, but if the frayed edges of academic conversation strike you as charming rather than irritating, you’ll learn a lot.

I particularly found this event about “the origins of happiness” to be really interesting. It’s a talk by Richard Layard, an LSE economic and the author of Thrive, Happiness, and coauthor of the new book The Origins of Happiness.

The event was to commemorate the publication of the new book The Origins of Happiness, which Princeton University Press is releasing in the US in a couple weeks. Here’s a description of the book:

What makes people happy? Why should governments care about people’s well-being? How would policy change if well-being was the main objective? The Origins of Happiness seeks to revolutionize how we think about human priorities and to promote public policy changes that are based on what really matters to people. Drawing on a uniquely comprehensive range of evidence from longitudinal data on over one hundred thousand individuals in Britain, the United States, Australia, and Germany, the authors consider the key factors that affect human well-being.

The authors explore factors such as income, education, employment, family conflict, health, childcare, and crime—and their findings are not what we might expect. Contrary to received wisdom, income inequality accounts for only two percent or less of the variance in happiness across the population; the critical factors affecting a person’s happiness are their relationships and their mental and physical health. More people are in misery due to mental illness than to poverty, unemployment, or physical illness. Examining how childhood influences happiness in adulthood, the authors show that academic performance is a less important predictor than emotional health and behavior, which is shaped tremendously by schools, individual teachers, and parents. For policymakers, the authors propose new forms of cost-effectiveness analysis that places well-being at center stage.

This resonates with me for a couple thanks to my work on companies that are implementing shorter working hours, for a couple reasons. First, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to trade income for greater control at work, and more free time. Working in a place that has a 5- or 6-hour day requires being able to focus and work harder than at a place where you are there for 8 or 10 hours, and it requires being able to work under conditions where you have a higher degree of autonomy and responsibility.

Second, it strikes me that if income inequality is less of a source of unhappiness than relationships and personal health, then as a matter of public or economic policy, giving people more time– which translates into more time for family and friends, and more time for yourself– could be the more important long-term aim. (This is not to say that inequality should be ignored or tolerated, but I suspect there are plenty of CEOs who’d have an easier time accepting shorter working hours for their company than higher taxes on themselves.)

Their new podcast on solitude versus loneliness is well worth listening to, too. But I need to add Layard’s work to my to-read list.

“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).

Dan Ariely on the paradox of productivity tools

Dan Ariely has a good post about why our current "productivity tools" generate time-wasting or addictive behavior: he looks to B. F. Skinner's work on "schedules of reinforcement" that found that random rewards inspired more work than predictable rewards. (It got more work out of rats, anyway. Come to think of it, it also works for graduate students.)

Ariely comments that Skinner's work

gives me a better understanding of my own e-mail addiction, and more important, it might suggest a few means of escape from this Skinner box and its variable schedule of reinforcement. One helpful approach I’ve discovered is to turn off the automatic e-mail-checking feature. This action doesn’t eliminate my checking email too often, but it reduces the frequency with which my computer notifies me that I have new e-mail waiting (some of it, I would think to myself, must be interesting, urgent, or relevant). Another way I am trying to wean myself from continuously checking email (a tendency that only got worse for me when I got an iPhone), is by only checking email during specific blocks of time. If we understand the hold that a random schedule of reinforcement has on our email behavior, maybe, just maybe we can outsmart our own nature.

There's also this observation of Skinner's own work habits.

Skinner had a trick to counterbalance daily distractions: As soon as he arrived at his office, he would write 800 words on whatever research project he happened to be working on—and he did this before doing anything else. Granted, 800 words is not a lot in the scheme of things but if you think about writing 800 words each day you would realize how this small output can add up over time.

This is something I try to do, but I'm also aware that I need to be more disciplined about it. There aren't THAT many e-mails waiting for me in the morning that require my immediate attention, and I suspect that I'm actually more likely to lose track of tasks or not reply to a message if I read it, think to myself "I'll deal with this later," then set it aside. For me, the in-box is not nearly as effective a place to stack tasks than, say, a physical pile (or even better, a written list in my little Moleskine notebook).

Calendars, concentration, and creativity

Via Lifehacker, a nice little essay on "the chokehold of calendars," and how we've accidentally (or thoughtlessly) designed them to kill our productivity and concentration:

The idea of a calendar as a public fire hydrant for colleagues to mark is ludicrous. The time displayed on your calendar belongs to you, not to them….

The problem with calendars is that they are additive rather than subtractive. They approach your time as something to add to rather than subtract from. Adding a meeting is innocuous. You’re acting on a calendar. A calendar isn’t a person. It isn’t even a thing. It’s an abstraction. But subtracting an hour from the life of another human being isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s almost violent. It’s certainly invasive. Shared calendars are vessels you fill by taking things away from other people.

"I’m adding a meeting" should really be "I’m subtracting an hour from your life."

Amen to that….

“Solvitur ambulando” was the first expression of embodied cognition

In the New York Times, Edinburgh philosopher Andy Clark has a nice essay on embodied cognition. If you’re familiar with his book Natural Born Cyborgs, you’ll already know the outlines of his argument; but it includes this update:

Most of us gesture (some of us more wildly than others) when we talk. For many years, it was assumed that this bodily action served at best some expressive purpose, perhaps one of emphasis or illustration. Psychologists and linguists such as Susan Goldin-Meadow and David McNeill have lately questioned this assumption, suspecting that the bodily motions may themselves be playing some kind of active role in our thought process. In experiments where the active use of gesture is inhibited, subjects show decreased performance on various kinds of mental tasks. Now whatever is going on in these cases, the brain is obviously deeply implicated! No one thinks that the physical handwavings are all by themselves the repositories of thoughts or reasoning. But it may be that they are contributing to the thinking and reasoning, perhaps by lessening or otherwise altering the tasks that the brain must perform, and thus helping us to move our own thinking along.

It is noteworthy, for example, that the use of spontaneous gesture increases when we are actively thinking a problem through, rather than simply rehearsing a known solution. There may be more to so-called “handwaving” than meets the eye.

I find this interesting because a lot of my thinking has an embodied, moving component to it. I do a lot of walking and pacing when I think; it got in the way of writing until I redesigned my home office to have a standing desk/writing space. I also spell with my hands: when I’m writing a long word (or telling someone how to spell it), I don’t remember its spelling as a series of letters in my mind’s eye, but as patterns that my fingers recall.

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“Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds,” but we need “personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings”

Linda Stone makes the case for post-productive, "conscious computing:"

Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds…. Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing….

[Today we need] personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious Computing. It's post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives…. We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel.

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