In his new book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (Basic Books, 2016; 320 pages), 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 and psychological studies to make his case, exploring the benefits of sleep, naps, play, sabbaticals and exercise. He answered questions from contributing editor Ferris Jabr. The full interview can be found online at www.ScientificAmerican.com/pang. An edited transcript follows.
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. For someone 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.
What is the brain doing when we are at rest?
The critical thing to recognize is that when we are letting our minds wander, 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.
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 during 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.