In the last few weeks I have been enjoying reading Rest: Why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s a really interesting book that uses stories of great figures from the past alongside rigorous evidence from the science of rest, which shows that the brain is doing critical work whilst in a resting state. Pang’s thesis is that rest is an essential component of good work, rest is active, it’s a skill, and deliberate rest stimulates and sustains productivity.
We have probably all had moments where solutions to problems suddenly present themselves when we’re in the shower, out for a walk, or, less helpfully, in the middle of the night. It turns out that we can actually help create these moments by not trying to force them and by trusting our unconscious mind to get on with it for us. This isn’t magic – it’s a process of preparation, incubation and illumination. These insights aren’t really sudden and unexpected, they happen because we’ve given the brain the time and space to get there.
A chapter on ‘four hours’ shows how many of the greatest creative thinkers who had control over the way they used their time actually worked for only about four hours a day. This didn’t stop them running countries, making our greatest discoveries or writing scores of books. Their approach to work also often involved moving to the quiet of the countryside, breaks of long walks, and very early starts – the subject of another chapter.
Working in the very early morning when no one else is awake can boost productivity – this involves getting straight to work after waking and breaking later for exercise – the reverse of what people often do today. A day that starts with work creates later rest that can be enjoyed without guilt. But this doesn’t work well for those who are office-bound.
Walking is also a key – a theme of many other books I have read on creativity and happiness (see my blogs on Flow and Thrive). So is napping – again not that helpful for everyday office work (unless you work at a Google and can pop into a sleep pod). And of course there is a chapter on sleep. I need no more convincing of the centrality of enough sleep to a good life (see my blog on The Sleep Revolution).
Proper recovery and exercise are also examined in detail, as is deep play (having a serious and engaging hobby outside of work) and sabbaticals. Using even short working breaks away from the office enables CEOs to get away from the ‘cognitive whiplash that comes from jumping from one subject to another every few minutes’, giving them a chance to get a broader perspective on their business.
Stopping at the right moment was a really useful piece of advice – counter-intuitively this is when you are in the middle of something but know where it is going, which makes it much easier to pick up and start again the next day. I have been trying this since reading this book and so far it’s working for me. Pang argues that it creates a steadier pace which makes you more productive in the long run and may tease your brain into thinking about a problem in the background.
The book in a nutshell is beautifully summarised in the conclusion:
‘In this book, I’ve argued that we should treat work and rest as equals; that we should treat rest as a skill; that the best, most restorative kinds of rest are active; and that when practiced well, rest can make us more creative and productive, without forcing us into a funhouse mirror of endless work and ever-rising expectations. A life that takes rest seriously is not only a more creative life. When we take the right to rest, when we make rest fulfilling, and when we practice rest through our days and years, we also make our lives richer and more fulfilling.’
So, being stressed and overworked should no longer be seen as a badge of honour. In fact that’s the opposite to traditional ideas of how leaders should behave under pressure. Instead, deliberate rest helps you recognise and avoid the trap of pointless busyness to concentrate on what’s important. It helps create calm, deepens capacity to focus and drives off anxiety. It deepens your emotional reserves and resilience. It creates a life that is rewarding, has purpose and pleasure in equal measure.
It turns out that rest is not idleness.