As you might remember from the last book reviews, I am on the quest for a better life in a digital age. I have tried reducing exposure to screens, but in Make Time, I came across more than just the allure of ‘infinity pools’ like the Internet. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘busy bandwagon’. The fact that your success is measured in how ‘busy’ you are or appear to be. The more I think about it, the more disgusted I am by it. I am sick of all the people around me being proud of their business – because obviously, how busy you are shows how successful you are, right? – and I could throw up at myself for answering ‘busy’ to every innocent ‘How are you?’. Since when has the standard answer to ‘How are you?’ changed from ‘good’ to ‘busy’?
Jumping off the busy bandwagon
Anyways, in my quest for a better life, I now try to find a way of jumping off the ‘busy bandwagon’. In Make Time, a few simple steps are already mentioned. Things like not answering email straightaway but rather in batches, not being constantly available, making time for family and so on. But there is more to it than just ‘changing how we work’. Because, after all, working constantly is what I am trying to avoid. So thinking about how to work more efficiently is not the right way to do it.
This is why today, I wanted to give a review of another book I recently came across. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, NY 2016. Also check out the website: http://www.deliberate.rest/
Overwork is the new normal. Rest is something to do when the important things are done – but they are never done.
Introducing ‘deliberate rest’
Rest isn’t primarily a book about productivity, that would be contradictory. It is a book which argues that (deliberate) rest is not just a by-product of being human, a necessary obligation to be reduced to a minimum. No, it is an enabler of creativity which is, after all, what we really want to achieve. Being ‘productive’ doing ‘superficial’ work does not create value. (Yes, I remember I still owe you the Deep Work review). What we really mean when we say we strive for productivity is: unique creative and valubable output.
I began to wonder if our productivity had as much to do with the pace of our lives as the place we lived. I started to think that maybe our familiar ways of working and living, and our unquestioned assumptions about our need to stay always connected […] to treat weekends as a time to catch up on work […] don’t work as well as we think. […] Today’s leaders treat stress and overwork as a badge of honour, brag about how little they sleep and how few vacation days they take and have their reputations as workaholics carefully tended by [PR. …] They remind us that the working lives of even the most powerful people unfold in an environment saturated with unquestioned assumptions about the virtue and inescapable necessity of constant work. Whether we embrace the idea that overwork is essential for productivity and creativity or reject it, we all are defined by it.
In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the habits of successful people. They have mostly been analyzed to see how those people work, how they are productive. Rest does the same. This particular book, however, notes how it is striking that all those creative geniuses mostly didn’t do more than 4 hours per day of what we would consider their most important work. Often, this had previously been judged as ‘Oh, they are so capable that they succeeded despite all their off-time’. Rest asks whether this might not have been the other way around: They weren’t successful despite the copious amounts of rest, but because of it.
I have come to see our respect for overwork as […] intellectually lazy. Measuring time is litterally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity. It’s also very unreliable.
Rest is more than just the mere absence of work. It is not an inconvenience. Leisure nowadays is seen as a luxury to be consumed and shared publicly on Instagram, at best, and at worst, the negation of all our values surrounding success (willingness ‘to go the extra mile’, etc.) With workaholics, it can easily happen that we don’t even really exist outside of work. I think many people who are considererd ‘successful’ in Academia do not have a life or even a self outside of work.
8 ways to work better using ‘deliberate rest’
As we become ‘more productive’, we work longer hours. […] You cannot work well without resting well.
- You are capable of no more than (max.) 4 hours of ‘real’ creative work per day. This is also the generally accepted amount from the 10.000h rule study and the ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘deep work’ movements. Of course, you’ll need to do some low value work which takes up a lot of the time every once in a while. But think about this the next time you’re about to work overtime. Do you really think this is going to yield quality output or could you do that night’s work in half an hour when well rested in the morning?
- Add walks or naps to recharge. A short walk will heighten your ability for creative work for multiple hours afterwards. So it’s not necessary to walk while thinking. But walking and creative thought are related.
- Have a morning routine where you get the most important task done for 1-2h. Regularity generates creative output. Routine is also a necessary step to protect rest from the invading work demands.
- Sleep enough.
- Take regular breaks.
- Stop work in a good moment when you still have energy left. Many know this rule as ‘leave one in the bar’. Stop before you’re tired. And, if possible, in a good place to continue for the next day.
- Exercise, deep play, sabbaticals. Hobbies, like playing music, allow you to detach emotionally from work. The way we spend our off-time determines how effective we are when at work. Rest even cites a long-term study on which academic careers succeed and which ones don’t. Most of the exceptionally successful scientists intensively engaged in sports and active rest, some even did climbing 😉 While according to a study, low achievers tried to get better at work by doing more work, the ones who really ended up successful were busy with “deep play”.
- Not taking time off creates exhaustion (emotional and physical) and has long term health risks. Take vacations. I actually don’t get how anyone can get along with 5 weeks of holiday per year. If I’m honest and wanted optimal productivty for myself, I would need at least two weeks off at least every three months. Not that it’s possible. But when I secluded myself in the south of France last Christmas for two weeks, that was one of the most productive and mind-clearing experiences I’ve had in a long time. People in Academia should be allowed to go on “writing escapes” to get their writing done. Maybe (hopefully) my upcoming fellowship this summer will have the same effect.
Vacations are like sleep. They need to be taken regularly to be effective.
The book isn’t super long. The audiobook lasts only 7 hours. Many of the tips don’t go deeper than what’s included in the summary here, except for lots of examples. But it mentions climbing as an activity for active rest. So yay for that. And examples might be helpful to you. If you feel that overwork and not resting enough is an issue for you, the book will definitely be interesting to you.