For most people, overwork is normal. For some of those, it’s a badge of honor. Silicon Valley consultant and author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is no stranger to the cult of busyness driving today’s tech culture. In fact, it shaped his desire to use technology more mindfully, which led to his 2013 book, The Distraction Addiction. (For his thoughts on this, visit “Intentional Computing“).
Appropriately enough, the inspiration for his latest book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, came while Pang was on sabbatical in England. “I realized that I was reading and writing a lot and having great ideas, yet I didn’t feel the kind of constant time pressure and frantic pace that I did in California,” he recalls.
Back home, the history buff began to draw parallels between his leisurely but productive daily routine in England and the working habits of the Victorian-era scientists, writers, and philosophers he studied. Digging into neuroscience and the psychology of creativity, Pang discovered how purposeful relaxation stimulated their creativity and prolonged their productive lives. Charles Darwin, for instance, took time for morning and afternoon walks in his village of Downe — a routine that helped him -produce 19 books.
And it wasn’t only Victorian luminaries who found success by prioritizing downtime. “Winston Churchill took daily two-hour naps, while Adolf Hitler stayed awake for days at a time on a combination of meth, cocaine, and heroin,” Pang notes. “We all know who won World War II.”
As naps and strolls helped Churchill and Darwin, rest can help us, Pang observes, by freeing us from believing something is wrong if we’re not feeling overwhelmed.
Q&A With Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Experience Life | Why do so many of us dismiss the need for rest?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang | First, we see busyness as a sign of social status. A recent study indicated that the busier someone appears, the more we assume he or she is powerful or wealthy.
Second, more people work in industries and services that don’t use a factory whistle to signal the end of the day. Thanks to laptops and smartphones, work is always present and there’s always more of it.
Finally, the economy is more competitive, even brutal. Jobs that used to offer lifetime employment, like college teaching, are largely temporary, yet they still demand years of hard training and advanced degrees.
Other jobs offer longer hours, lower pay, and instability, and yet there’s a weird rhetoric celebrating them. When you drive for Lyft or Uber, you’re not a temp worker — you’re an entrepreneur, a striver.
EL | How do deliberate rest and work relate — and help each other?
ASKP | Rest and work are partners. There’s a great study of conservatory students in Berlin by K. Anders Ericsson, which inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule.” Ericsson saw that, on average, about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice was necessary to become a great violinist. Gladwell argues that Bill Gates, the Beatles, and lots of other creative people also get “great” after 10,000 hours of programming or playing in nightclubs.
Ten thousand hours sounds like a lot of time, but over 10 years, that’s 1,000 hours a year. Assuming you take weekends off and vacation like they do in Europe, that leaves about 250 working days. A thousand hours divided by 250 days is four hours a day. Many well-known writers work four focused hours each day before knocking off.
One of the biggest insights for me is that even though super-ambitious people — those who live and breathe what they’re doing — tend to organize their lives around their work, they don’t organize every day around their work. Resting, like anything, is a skill. You get better at it the more you do it, but you must prioritize it.
EL | What other ways do people engage in deliberate rest?
ASKP | People who work in fields with high degrees of uncertainty or that require long hours — like law-enforcement officers, scientists, and doctors — tend to be stricter about being completely off the clock and better about taking vacations.
Many also practice “deep play.” They have hobbies that are mentally restorative because they are physically challenging, psychologically engaging, or — in the case of activities like rock climbing — both. Serious exercise keeps our bodies and minds sharp.
Winston Churchill’s hobby of painting, which he likened to politics, is a perfect example [of deep play]. He said that painting was like politics because it requires a clear vision, decisiveness, and an ability to marshal resources in the right way. Once you start, you must see the project through. These are things he liked about political life that he also experienced while painting.
But when he was painting, he didn’t have the Labour Party looking over his shoulder saying, “That cow is too big and the sky is the wrong shade of blue.” Painting offered many of the rewards he found in political life without any of the drawbacks, and in a very different kind of medium, which is another important feature of deep play.
EL | How can companies help their workers prioritize rest?
ASKP | There are some great examples happening today. Volkswagen turns off its email servers after work hours, so employees can’t check their email at night. Some companies are experimenting with shortening the workday to five or six hours. Others are changing around internal processes so meetings are 10 minutes long rather than an hour, or they set aside times of the day when people can be offline and focus solely on their work without interruption.
EL | How has writing this book affected your life?
ASKP | I’m more serious about exercise and more likely to take a nap in the afternoon. But the biggest changes are in the way I organize my time and how I think about creativity.
In college and grad school, I’d start writing at about 9 p.m. and assume that, with the right combination of sugar and caffeine, I’d get in the zone, drive forward, and knock off at 5 a.m.
When I was writing The Distraction Addiction, I had two kids and a regular job, so I’d get up at 5 a.m. to write. I noticed I had no distractions and no desire to check social media. Since it was a challenge to get up, I vowed to get something done.
I’ve discovered that having a routine is important. I used to assume that you get inspired and then you write, but people like Stephen King flipped the equation. He writes for a certain amount of time every day and he gets inspired based on the output.
The result for me is that in the last five years I’ve managed to write two books while holding down a job as a technology forecaster and consultant. I spend fewer hours every day writing, but I’m doing more and better work.