If Thoreau perceived that humans led “lives of quiet desperation” way back in his day, imagine how he would react to the apparent mass desperation today. Imagine how the technologies of simultaneous convenience and overstimulation would strike him, how the prominence of work, work, work – much of it quantity-over-quality work – over contemplation, meditation and, especially, restorative rest and reflection, would appall him. Though we often hear the common complaint that too many people are lazy and don’t respect the value of work nowadays, the real situation is actually dire: work has bled into workers’ our off-hours, thanks largely to technology, managerial exploitation and the corporate/cubical mentality (which should be an outdated and odious anachronism by now) still holds strong in the general workplace.
The stressful intensity of this culture, which tends to demand “proof” of one’s worth in the form of relentless productivity and sacrificial dedication at the expense of personal/home life, also produces an atmosphere of expendability. If an employee can’t perform right “on” at all times and can’t maintain a constant level of optimal results, she or he is liable to be laid off or fired in order to make way for an abler – fresher – replacement. This creates an undercurrent of self-doubt and even paranoia, and if the ax does fall, the victims are made to feel like failures, not to mention being disallowed to “go out” on their own terms, as dignified humans rather than obsolete refuse. I’m reminded of a powerful passage from My Life in Parts, the recent memoir of actor Bryan Cranston, in which he captures this insulting position perfectly:
I stood there. I shook his hand and said, “Thank you”…He fired me, and I actually THANKED him. Damn. I wish I hadn’t done that…It was sort of like I was going to break up with a girl and she beat me to the punch. I didn’t want to be on the receiving end…I wanted to be the one who knocked.
I’ve read a good number of books about the perils of modern corporatism, the problematic nature of being a workaholic, and the need for balance between career and leisure (such as Stress at Work and Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts), but Alex Pang’s Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less is the worthiest of them. Pang, who also is the founder of the Restful Company, has compiled revelatory data on different aspects of what he categorizes under the term “rest” and has added his own wise insight to compose a very important book.
Pang’s basic prescription for a restful life is outlined by nine elements, which also are used as most of the book’s chapter titles: Morning Routine, Walk, Nap, Stop, Sleep, Recovery, Exercise, Deep Play and Sabbaticals. From the outset he clarifies that “rest is not idleness.” Part of the common disrespect for rest is due to the fact that the term is misnomered and mistaken as the opposite of work, even laziness. On the contrary, as Pang puts it in his epic 19-page introduction: “Rest is not work’s adversary. Rest is work’s partner.” It shouldn’t be an either/or deal, and work alone should not win the day just because of its default clout in society. “Many of us are interested in how to work better,” writes Pang, “but we don’t think very much about how to rest better.” A binary perception relegates rest to being “merely a negative space in a life defined by toil and ambition and accomplishment.” Pang points to the greater simplicity of life 100 years in the past, a life that allowed for more rest, which contradicts the how most of us imagine, say, the industriousness of the so-called Greatest Generation.
In Rest Pang has a preference for an individual’s “life’s work,” “the work that gives your life meaning.” This form of work is edifying, and it goes beyond the mere appearance of productivity that’s encouraged in many workplaces. “[S]ervice workers and professionals are rewarded not just for performing work but also for ‘performing’ busyness at work,” Pang writes. So, instead of genuine enrichment and a sense of voluntary accomplishment, performances are done under the ever-watchful eye of management. Also, the heroic status of workaholics downplays the value of contemplation and raises labor and long hours above all. Pang notices a fundamental change in professional comportment caused by the labor-intensive workplace culture: “Today, we treat being stressed and overworked as a badge of honor, a sign of seriousness and commitment…For most of history, leaders were supposed to appear calm and unhurried; success began with self-mastery and self-control.” (For more on the topic of stress, go here.)
The book contains many fascinating examples of historical and current creative giants and how they use rest to inspire their ideas and achieve excellence, from Charles Darwin and Anthony Trollope to Dilbert creator and artist Scott Adams. And the daily work routines of such people needn’t be dawn-to-dusk affairs. It’s revealed that many writers, mathematicians, scientists and prominent people – even Thomas Jefferson – are known for working intensely for about four hours per day and attending to other activities, during which better results than slavish crouching over the work desk are incubated and born. This healthy limitation also applies to people whose careers require regular practice. A study concluded that practice is most effective when it’s deliberate and “an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Basically, too much practice is as counterproductive as too little. “[Y]ou don’t do great work by sprinting to the finish,” says Pang, “you’re more likely to accomplish great things by stopping at a strategic point and continuing the next day.” That’s because rest, in its varied forms, provides time for the unconscious to work its magic, as described in this passage:
Whether they know it or not, creative people treat incubation and illumination like skills every day. That’s why they develop and refine daily routines and practices that preserve time for mind-wandering, sharpen their sensitivity to insights, and allow them to capture moments of illumination. That’s why they spend their lives feeding their curiosity and nurturing their instincts, trusting, as Finnish neuroscientist Ragnar Granit put it in 1972, that they would very gradually build up living and creative structure that would support great insights.
Early rising and getting to work right off the bat seems to be a common practice of creative types, whether it’s in the interest of making the most of time before the world wakes up or to leave time for other tasks or leisurely activities. Also, Pang presents a positive view of routine, claiming that it can be fertile ground for thought and creation rather than a stultifying thing: “Routinization of work…does not have to diminish creativity; if it’s accompanied by freedom, routine can enhance creativity.” Another beneficial form of rest is regular walking, an activity favored and practiced by recognizable names such as Kierkegaard, Thomas Jefferson, C.S. Lewis, Graham Wallace, Dickens, Steve Jobs, Francis Crick, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. (Walk-fanatic Thoreau was left out, sadly) “[I]t isn’t being outside that stimulates creativity,” notes Pang, “it is actually the walking itself that is most responsible for helping people be more creative.”
The book shares selected studies pertaining to rest, psychology, physiology and the therapeutic benefits of being kind to one’s body and mind, which involves allowing certain restorative and invigorating mental processes to flow freely. Studies by Bharat Bisnal discovered “that the resting brain isn’t inactive. The brain automatically switches on a default mode network (DMN), a series of interconnected sections that activate as soon as people stop concentrating on external tasks, and shifts outward-focused to inward-focused cognition.” Also crucial to a healthy balance of work and rest is “mind-wandering,” thinking that’s not related to tasks. According to sociologist Sabine Sonnentag, “workers who have the chance to get away mentally, switch off, and devote their energies elsewhere, are more productive, have better attitudes, get along better with their colleagues, and are able to deal with challenges at work.” This helps to avoid detrimental burnout, which can become fatal:
Workers suffering from burnout become detached from work, are less empathetic to colleagues and customers, and feel that their work has little value, to themselves or the world; it can also create marriage and family problems and contribute to depression, poor health, etc., and – especially among formerly hard-charging and career-oriented people – higher rates of suicide.
I needn’t go into the book’s focus on the health-related importance of sabbaticals (mainly because I’m deeply bitter that I’ll never have such a luxury), deep play, exercise or sleep, but I think the benefit of naps is quite neglected in today’s society. Perhaps naps are a primary symbol of sloth and non-productivity, of the same stuff as the rather insulting stereotype of a Mexican person in perpetual siesta. Pang relates how Winston Churchill, an apparent workaholic if there ever were one, considered his daily naps to be “essential for maintaining his mental balance, renewing his energy, and reviving his spirits.” Other famous lovers of naps include Ray Bradbury, Tolkein, Thomas Mann, Stephen King and Thomas Edison, by the way. Neuroscientist Sara Mednick found that “napping for an hour or more during the day – a nap long enough to allow one to dream – improves performance on memory and perceptual tasks.” This is due to the restorative nature of REM sleep, as well as the interaction of circadian rhythm and sleep pressure cycle. Even “power naps” that last only 20 minutes are better than no nap at all.
True to Pang’s appreciation for creative types, Rest goes over Salvador Dali’s bizarre prescription for naps and utilization of hypnagogic sleep (the interim between being awake and being asleep): “Dali used hypnagogia to access the inventory of images that his dreaming had generated while he was preparing for his next work…” Also featured is the Upright Napping Procedure developed by Tara Nielsen of the University of Montreal.
The main thesis of this enlightening, helpful book is that “deliberate rest helps organize your life.” Rest improves effectiveness rather than detracts from or avoids it, and it “reduce[s] your sense of time pressure,” which is crucial in this world of instant information and the demand for urgent results. Sure, work is necessary, but once work is taken care of, the rest of the time should be…rest.
– David Herrle