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BOOK REVIEW: The importance of taking rest seriously

May 04 2017 05:00
Ian Mann*

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

IF LIVING excitedly and hurriedly would only enable us to do more, then there would be some compensation, some excuse, for doing so. But the exact reverse is the case.

That was the opinion of William James, the philosopher, psychologist and physician, in 1899. I wonder what he would say of our 24/7, always-on world, where the concept of turning off is an anachronism?

Many business people today treat stress and overwork as a badge of honour, and will brag about how little they sleep and how few holidays they take. However, as Dr Soojung-Kim Pang shows, it is a mistake to think of rest as nothing more than the absence of work. Rest is work’s partner that, when correctly understood, improves output exponentially, and the quality of our lives commensurately.

We have made astounding discoveries in sleep research, psychology, neuroscience, organisational behaviour, sports medicine, sociology, and other fields over the last couple of decades. These discoveries have shown the critical role that rest plays in strengthening the brain, enhancing learning, enabling inspiration, and making innovation sustainable.

The book reviews the achievements of world-class musicians, Olympic athletes, writers, designers, and other accomplished and creative people. It shows how they alternate daily periods of intense work and concentration with long restful breaks of the right kind.

Rest is a skill like singing or running that everyone basically knows how to do. However, with a deeper understanding you can learn to do it a lot better, and enjoy more profound rest and be more refreshed and restored.

It’s often when you’re not obviously working, or trying to work, that you can have some of your best ideas. According to a 2014 survey, one in five start-up founders got the idea for their company during holidays.

The author doesn’t propose a single ‘correct’ system because he doesn’t believe that there’s a single way we all should work. The principle of ‘deliberate rest’ needs to be adapted to your work, whatever that is.

The book has many suggestions on how to enhance the quality of your work through deliberate rest.

Start with this insight: “If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they laboured but how they rested, and how the two relate.”

Illinois Institute of Technology Professors Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues’ work habits and schedules. If you expected a correlation between the hours scientists worked and the number of articles they published, you would be mistaken.

The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. Then it turned downward, so that scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five.

Researchers of world-class performers tend to focus only on measurable forms of work, and then try to make those more effective and more productive. What is overlooked is whether there are other ways to improve performance.

There is a popularised belief that world-class performance comes after 10 000 hours of practice. In fact, world-class performance only comes after 10 000 hours of deliberate practice; 12 500 hours of deliberate rest; and 30 000 hours of sleep. 

For many thinkers and doers, a walk is an essential part of their daily routine, a source of exercise and solitude. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick walks 40 miles a week on the indoor track at the company’s headquarters and walking meetings have become popular, especially among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and CEOs.

Steve Jobs was famous for his walking meetings around the leafy streets of Palo Alto. LinkedIn, Google, Facebook and others have walking paths around their headquarters.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle came to Heisenberg during a late-night walk in Copenhagen in 1927. He had been working on the uncertainty problem for almost two years.

Walking doesn’t look like an intellectual activity, and there are plenty of times when it’s purely utilitarian or recreational, but we can learn to use it to help us think better. Many creative people are diligent about carrying notebooks when they walk.

The power nap - much more than a siesta

An underestimated form of rest is the nap, and the preferred time for a nap is the hour after lunch. Winston Churchill had the daily routine of a nap in the afternoon during World War 11, as did Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. John F Kennedy would normally take a 45-minute nap after lunch, and Lyndon Johnson broke up his long day with a nap and shower in the afternoon. 

It was not that these men had comfortable corporate jobs: they were saving or running the world, with all its problems.

Hitler, in contrast, kept erratic hours. As the Allies closed in on Germany, he tried to stay up for days at a time, powered by a mix of amphetamines, cocaine, and other drugs.

A twenty-minute power nap is enough to give you a mental recharge without leaving you groggy. Power naps boost your ability to concentrate by giving your body a chance to restore depleted energy and increased alertness. But there are other benefits such as improving memory and consolidating things you’ve just learned.

A power nap improves emotional regulation and self-control, reduces impulsiveness, and improves frustration tolerance. All are critical leadership skills.   

Sleep deprivation has immediate effects on your ability to focus, make good judgements, perform under pressure, and be creative. Long-term sleep deprivation can affect your mental health and physical condition.

If you were raised (as I was) on the heroics of “pulling all-nighters”, know that advanced science shows that to be as intelligent as driving cars at breakneck speed in urban areas.

Humans need to sleep about seven hours a night on average, and paradoxically, it’s restful because our brains aren’t really shutting down. Instead, while we sleep our bodies shift into maintenance mode and devote themselves to storing energy, fixing or replacing damaged cells, and growing while our brains clean out toxins. The day’s experiences and problems that have been occupying us, are processed.

Our emotional resources are as important for workers as physical energy is for athletes. German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has studied how opportunities for recharging the physical and emotional batteries affect workers’ health and well-being, job satisfaction, productivity and resilience. 

Across professions the findings have been consistent: people who take opportunities to get away, mentally switch off, and devote their energies elsewhere are more productive. They also have better attitudes, get along better with their colleagues, and are better able to deal with challenges at work.

Breaks can be nutritious meals or empty calories

Four major factors contribute to recovery: relaxation, control, mastery-experiences, and mental detachment from work. “Breaks that are high in all four are the equivalent of nutritious meals; those that don’t, are like empty calories,” notes the author.

Relaxation is an activity that’s pleasant and undemanding. Control is choosing what you will do on vacation, being crew not a passenger. Mastery-experiences are engaging, interesting and require effort. They are often challenging, mentally absorbing and so are more rewarding when you do them well. In Bletchley Park during World War II, for example, chess was a popular pastime among code-breakers.

Mental detachment from all work issues is necessary to promote recovery. People who carry work smartphones during non-work hours, or who have to keep in touch with the office while they’re on holiday, have higher levels of stress and work-family conflict.

Work and rest are two sides of the same coin. Taking shorter but more frequent holidays every few months provides greater levels of recovery because it is integrated into the work routine, rather than the quite separate annual vacation. Recovery is active, not passive, and we must design it to get greater benefit. 

Physical stamina is also as important for creative work as it is for manual labour. President Barack Obama maintained a strict fitness routine throughout his political career, with daily workouts seen as a key to surviving long campaigns and the rigours of governing.

The impact of sport on the careers of businesswomen may be even stronger. In 2014, four hundred female executives were surveyed about their athletic experiences. Ninety-seven percent of the executives who had “chief” in their titles had played sport at some point in their lives, 52% had played sport in college, and 53% still played some sport. 

We shouldn’t be surprised that people manage to be physically active and do world-class work. We should recognise though that they do world-class work because they are physically active.

“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.”

Taking rest seriously requires recognising its importance, and boldly making space for it in our daily lives. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough! It could be life-changing. 

Readability:     Light ---+- Serious
Insights:          High +---- Low
Practical:          High -+--- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.


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