In his engaging new book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, to be published this December by Basic Books, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues that respite is an essential component of both productivity and creativity. Pang, a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, draws on biographical accounts of famous artists and scientists and a trove of psychological studies to make his case, exploring the benefits of sleep, naps, play, sabbaticals and exercise. Contributing editor Ferris Jabr, who wrote “Give Me a Break” for our special workplace package in this issue, spoke with Pang to learn more about the importance of giving rest and relaxation the respect it deserves.
What was the inspiration for the book?
It got started when I noticed a paradox in the lives of some really creative people: people like Charles Darwin, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, who are obsessed with their work. But when you look at how many hours a day they spent working, it's a surprisingly small number. Living in Silicon Valley and growing up in an era that assumes overwork is the norm, the idea that you could go in the opposite direction and yet still do really amazing stuff was really compelling. I started to think that maybe the secret had to do not just with how they work or their innate intelligence but also with the way they rested. What I found is a community of people including scientists and artists and authors who follow this pattern of working very intensively a few hours a day and then resting deliberately in various ways. Rest is something we all know how to do naturally, but it’s also something we can treat as a skill.
How have you come to define rest and what are some of the biggest misconceptions about it?
What I mean by rest is engaging in restorative activity. It's not necessarily completely passive for one thing. We tend to think of rest as putting your feet up and you've got the margarita and you're binge-watching Orange is the New Black. For people in my study, their idea of rest was more vigorous than our idea of exercise. These are people who go on long walks covering 15 or 20 miles in a day or climb mountains on vacation. For them, restful activities were often vigorous and mentally engaging but they experienced them as restorative because they offered a complete break from their normal working lives.
Why does modern work culture undervalue rest and encourage nonstop busyness?
It seems self-evident that more work equals more output. This is true of machines, so why shouldn't it be true of us? Well it’s not. We have adopted industrial-age attitudes, and they don't really work for us. There is also a long-standing assumption that not working hard is morally suspect.
What is the brain doing when we are at rest?
The critical thing to recognize is that when we are mind-wandering, when our minds don't have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active. When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising, that is what pops into your head as an Aha! moment. The people I looked at are able to construct daily schedules that allow them to draw on that process in little increments.
The phrase "burnout" gets thrown around a lot. Is it a real phenomenon? And if so, what really happens?
It's easy to think of the mind burning out the way circuits burn out, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't work that way. Rather, the psychological consequences of intensive sacrificial work are what we are talking about when we talk about burnout. It's not that you can no longer calculate problems or think about plot twists. If you work intensively on things and there is a bad psychological consequence, your mind learns not to do that again. It's more like that than a loss of innate ability. Even if you have these burnout experiences, you can in fact recover from them. When you learn how to balance work and rest, you can sustain a higher level of productivity and creativity. It makes it possible not just to have one brilliant work when you are young but a whole shelf of work.
Why did you include a section on exercise in a book about rest?
If you think of rest as mainly about mental restoration, recovery of the energy you need to do a job well and be creative, exercise is a really great way to provide that. We have this stereotype of scientists and writers and other creative people as not being athletic or athletes being dumb jocks, and that's an incredibly unfortunate assumption. I was really surprised at how many people who learned to rest well were also serious athletes. There are academic subcultures where athleticism is really valued. In modern mathematics and physics there are lots of really respected scientists who are avid rock climbers. Lisa Randall [the theoretical physicist] has climbs named after her in Colorado. There are so many people who find that a workout, a long hike, clears their minds, helps them calm down, gives their subconscious mind opportunity to think through problems. What all of that teaches us is that exercise is a really important form of rest.
What exactly is the form of rest known as “deep play” and why is it beneficial?
It offers similar psychological rewards to work but in a very different medium or context. Winston Churchill took on painting after the First World War. He talks about it in a book called Painting as a Pastime as being very much like political argument—it requires the same kind of boldness and decisiveness; you literally have to have a clear vision of what is in front of you and what you want to achieve. At the same time the materials you are using are completely different and the way you are using brush and paint allow you to put your cares aside. Over and over again people choose hobbies that they describe as being like their professional disciplines, but also totally different.
What were the most surprising insights uncovered in the course of your research?
I think about rest very differently now than when I started working on this project. I thought about rest as much more passive and as something you do when you're finished with everything else you have going on. I now firmly believe that is wrong. Rest is not this optional leftover activity. Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can't have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.
How did your own work and rest routines change while writing this book?
I realized that it was important for me to do the work in order to earn the rest. That meant being ruthless about my time. It also means saying no to a lot of stuff. While it seems that turning down things in order to apparently do nothing is crazy, it actually turns out to be a really essential discipline. I also nap more—naps are really restorative and work very well, they are not just for four-year-olds. I am a lot more conscious now when I am in line at the bank or have a couple free minutes; rather than pulling up my phone and checking e-mail, I will let my mind wander. I think it's a good discipline and I think I have become better at crafting those moments that invite insight. And I carry around a little notebook and pen all the time now.