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Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
Foreword by Arianna Huffington
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Overwork is the new normal. Rest is something to do when the important things are done—but they are never done. Looking at different forms of rest, from sleep to vacation, Silicon Valley futurist and business consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang dispels the myth that the harder we work the better the outcome. He combines rigorous scientific research with a rich array of examples of writers, painters, and thinkers—from Darwin to Stephen King—to challenge our tendency to see work and relaxation as antithetical. "Deliberate rest," as Pang calls it, is the true key to productivity, and will give us more energy, sharper ideas, and a better life. Rest offers a roadmap to rediscovering the importance of rest in our lives, and a convincing argument that we need to relax more if we actually want to get more done.
The Problem of Rest
Only in recent history has “working hard” signaled pride rather than shame.
—NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB
IN HIS 1897 BOOK Advice for a Young Investigator, the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal warned aspiring young scientists that two major impediments would stand in their way as they tried to make new discoveries. First, science had become a source of industrial and political power, and growth of the scientific community, as well as faster communication within the community through journals, conferences, and newspapers, had made science faster and more competitive. No longer could scientists afford to “concentrate for extended periods of time on one subject” or think deeply “in the silence of the study, confident that rivals would not disrupt their tranquil meditations.” One had to hurry to stay ahead of the competition. “Research is now frantic,” he warned, and this meant that fast, superficial science—and lots of it—won over slower, deeper, and more profound work.
Second, most scientists assumed that long hours were necessary to produce great work and that “an avalanche of lectures, articles, and books” would loosen some profound insight. This was one reason they willingly accepted a world of faster science: they believed it would make their own science better. But this was a style of work, Ramón y Cajal argued, that led to asking only shallow, easily answered questions rather than hard, fundamental ones. It created the appearance of profundity and feelings of productivity but did not lead to substantial discoveries. Choosing to be prolific, he contended, meant closing off the possibility of doing great work.
Although Advice for a Young Investigator was published in 1897, it is still worth reading. Ramón y Cajal was one of the founders of modern neuroscience: he helped prove that the nervous system was composed of many cells and developed staining techniques that made it possible to study neurons, the axons and dendrites along which signals pass between neurons, and the star-shaped glial cells that support the neurons. (The words neuron, axon, and dendrite were all coined between 1889 and 1896, when Ramón y Cajal, who was born in 1852, was himself a young investigator.) He was a deeply talented illustrator, and his drawings of the brain are still used by teachers. He published some three hundred articles and monographs during a career that lasted fifty years, on subjects ranging from neuroscience to public health to science fiction. When someone with his accomplishments offers advice, we should listen.
Ramón y Cajal’s diagnosis of the challenges facing researchers remains timely. Complaints that modern life deprives us of opportunities for rest are as old as modern life itself, but even after more than a century, his argument that scientists are forced to trade quantity for quality, that overwork is the norm, and that the fast pace of scientific life discourages engagement and serious thinking, would resonate in any lecture hall today. And his recognition that this race to superficiality is driven by external and structural, as well as internal and cultural, forces is still a useful way to understand why we struggle to recognize the value of rest and make a place for it in our lives.
THE IDEA OF work and rest as opposites and competitors now seems perfectly logical, but it’s one of those logical ideas that’s actually a historical artifact. Before the eighteenth century, the boundaries between work and rest were not so clear-cut. Workplaces and domestic space were often intertwined: in the preindustrial era, skilled workers had shops in their homes, small farmers brought livestock into the house during winter months, scholars and teachers gave lessons out of their homes, and apprentices lived with their masters. Working time was more flexible and “task-oriented,” as labor historian E. P. Thompson put it, and many workers sought to work only long enough to provide for their basic needs. This order was upended by the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The factory and office came to be seen as the places where “real” work happened. The home, in contrast, evolved into the domestic sphere, the place where a man could relax and recover from work. (Of course, men could believe that the home was a retreat from work so long as they did no work there; for women it was a different story.) The labor movement’s advocacy of shorter hours, paid vacation days, and holidays further (though unintentionally) contributed to a sense that work and leisure were opposites and could be haggled over and won and lost.
The template of industrial labor, including its underlying assumptions about work and rest, was copied by service industries, professions, and bureaucracies in the mid-nineteenth century. The modern office was conceptualized as a machine for rationalizing and organizing intellectual labor, and it copied the working hours of factories. But the model has been an imperfect fit in creative industries, as it’s extremely hard to measure productivity and quality in creative and knowledge work. In factories and fields, you can point to tangible products at the end of the day; in industries where the “product” is intangible and projects may take years to complete, it’s harder to assess from day to day how you or your subordinates are performing.
But it is possible, especially in today’s open office, to see who looks busy, who looks engaged, and who seems passionate about their work. As a result, service workers and professionals are rewarded not just for performing work but also for “performing” busyness at work. This has long been true, but with the growth of global twenty-four/seven enterprises and the proliferation of mobile and digital tools that let you work anywhere and anytime, let work follow you everywhere, and let employers track your activities in and out of the workplace, the opportunities for performing busyness expand. These tools give us the capacity to measure everything—except when to stop work, when to turn off our devices, and when to disconnect. Flexible hours often collapse into work hovering over all our hours, transforming work from something you break into smaller blocks and spread across the day into a flood that soaks your whole life. In the modern office, all the world’s a stage, nowhere is off-camera, and the performance never stops.
Stories of consultants and law associates who schedule e-mail to go out in the middle of the night or workers who wear fatigue as a badge of honor update an old problem. In 1899 William James noted that that many Americans had gotten “into a wretched trick” of overwork and overextension, which increased “the frequency and severity of our breakdowns.” An anonymous writer in Singapore’s Straits Times observed in 1913, “The tendency of the present age is to mental overwork and the exhaustion of the brain force.” Two years later, Bertie Charles Forbes noted that the modern industrialist “works harder than any of his workmen,” and the banker “gets early to his office and performs more work—and brainier work—than any other three men in his nerve-wrecking profession.” Such men had made America the envy of the world, he said, but they were “committing suicide by overwork.”
Since the 1970s, a combination of forces has made the problem of overwork more pervasive. The service sectors in Western economies have grown dramatically while employment in manufacturing has declined. The erosion of labor unions and workplace protections has let employers push for longer hours while global competition, decreased job security, and flat wages (combined with rising housing prices in popular cities) have forced workers to work harder to stay in place. Corporations now shed staff in the course of restructuring and “process reengineering,” forcing surviving workers to carry heavier workloads. Supporting tasks are outsourced to freelancers or contractors, who are struggling to adjust to an uncertain, feast-or-famine world. The 2008 recession and recovery has solidified a pattern in which companies seek to grow by increasing demands on existing workers rather than hiring new ones. A few industries have turned into fast-moving, winner-take-all contests: small numbers of people stand to make immense fortunes when their tech company goes public, their hedge fund investment pays off, or their song goes viral—and since no one knows how long they have until fashions change, technology evolves, or the bubble bursts, it makes sense to go all-in right now.
As a result, many of us actually are working longer hours. Working hours generally decline with increased productivity, but in the 1970s, increased productivity stopped yielding shorter working hours, despite the expectations of generations of economists. Working hours started to rise in the United States in the 1980s, especially among salaried workers and professionals like doctors, lawyers, bankers, and academics; in contrast, working hours (and full-time jobs and salaries) in less skilled, hourly professions began to fall. Since then, this split has spread to other parts of the world: today, well-off, well-educated people in Western Europe, Australia, and South Korea are also more likely to be overworked, while more poor people struggle to find stable jobs and face chronic underemployment. (Americans are still more likely to work nights and weekends, though, further cutting into their leisure time.)
We’re not just spending more time at the office; informal work also absorbs more of our time. According to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, in the United States parents of young children spend an average of seven hours every workday taking care of children. Earlier generations gave children more independence and mobility, but today’s parenting is more time-and labor-intensive. This is one reason the amount of time spent on housework has barely budged in the last hundred years, despite the invention of dishwashers, washing machines, and other appliances.
We also spend more time commuting to work—and the proportion of people with long commutes is rising, too. In the UK, according to a 2015 study, roughly 3 million people, or 10 percent of the labor force, spent more than two hours a day commuting in 2014, a figure that had increased more than 70 percent since 2004. In the United States, workers spent an average of twenty-one minutes commuting in 1982; by 2014, that number had climbed to twenty-six minutes, with 17 percent of commuters spending forty-five minutes or more commuting. (The amount of time commuters spent stuck in traffic also rose, from sixteen hours a year in 1982 to forty-two hours a year in 2014.)
WE MAY SEE overwork and the marginalization of rest as a consequence of automation, globalization, the decline of unions, and the growth of a winner-take-all economy. But it also has an intellectual history, as Josef Pieper, a German Catholic theologian and professor of philosophical anthropology noted in a slender meditation on the place of leisure in modern society published just after World War II. Muße und Kult (or, as it was titled in the English translation, Leisure: The Basis of Culture) traced the history of Western thinking about how knowledge is produced, and how the rise of modern industry and bureaucracy changed how we think about intellectual activity. Indeed, Pieper would have noted that phrases like “producing knowledge” and “intellectual activity” are very modern: they assume that ideas are like manufactured goods and that knowledge workers (or symbolic analysts, as former secretary of labor Robert Reich calls them) are workers, presumptions that earlier eras would have found absurd. In ancient and medieval Europe, philosophers argued that the exercise of pure reason was never sufficient to make sense of the world. Knowledge (and the culture that formed through the accumulation of knowledge) required the marriage of logical and discursive methods (ratio) and contemplative practices and attitudes (intellectus). Intellectus, in turn, was enabled by leisure, which Pieper described as not just a “result of spare time” but “an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm.” The philosopher’s capacity for insight had its center in this “tranquil silence” that only the world’s deep truths could disturb and that provided space for the cultivation of intellectus. Leisure was, as the English translation of Muße und Kult put it, the basis of culture.
Modern thinkers and industry destroyed this organic vision, Pieper argued. Immanuel Kant argued that only active intellectual effort could serve as a firm basis for knowledge; as he put it in 1796, “reason acquires its possessions through work,” and forms of knowledge that claim anything other than formal, rational foundations are suspect. Cognition, Pieper wrote, became in the eighteenth century “an active, discursive labor of the ratio” alone, and intellectus and leisure were discarded.
Knowledge wasn’t just the product of work; how hard you worked to produce it became a measure of how significant and profound the knowledge was. Disciplines that were hard to master, like physics and mathematics, came to be seen as more profound than softer (or easier) fields like botany and natural history, their knowledge closer to the realm of absolute and ultimate truth. Philosophy only mattered if it was the product of “herculean labor,” as Kant put it. Anything created through contemplation (or religious revelation, or intuition) was, by definition, less impressive and trustworthy.
The rise of industry and technology, growth of the modern bureaucratic state, emergence of the modern office, rise of the labor movement, and triumph of the marketplace completed the transformation of knowledge from a product of leisure to a product of, well, production. The philosopher, writer, and scientist were all turned into “intellectual workers,” their products subject to the regulation of the state and judgment of the marketplace. Some fought back. The nineteenth-century Romantic genius declared that he created only for himself and his muse and turned his back on the dictates of the market. Likewise, the liberal arts were reinvented as treasuries of timeless knowledge, a canon of great works stretching back to the beginnings of Western civilization. But these were small battles in a much larger war. By the mid-twentieth century, Pieper lamented, the conversion of thinkers into intellectual workers was complete: “The whole field of intellectual activity [has been] overwhelmed by the modern ideal of work and is at the mercy of its totalitarian claims,” he wrote, while space for contemplation and leisure had been eliminated in the name of “planned diligence and ‘total labor.’”
These philosophical arguments might seem arcane, but the assumptions that knowledge is produced rather than discovered or revealed, that the amount of work that goes into an idea determines its importance, and that the creation of ideas can be organized and institutionalized, all guide our thinking about work today. When we treat workaholics as heroes, we express a belief that labor rather than contemplation is the wellspring of great ideas and that the success of individuals and companies is a measure of their long hours. We take for granted that great companies are built by hard-driven, work-obsessed founders who inspire others to chase the next breakthrough and stay ahead of the competition. In a world where we’re all encouraged to become entrepreneurs, figures like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk become the standards against which we’re supposed to measure ourselves. It’s not just executives who are workaholics: polymaths such as James Franco, Dr. Dre, Madonna, Kanye West, and Gwen Stefani combine careers as actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, and authors. (People who make more money are also more likely to describe themselves as workaholics.)
Modern assumptions about knowledge as product and labor are also built into open office layouts meant to support collaboration between groups or spark serendipitous exchanges in the line at strategically placed water coolers. Such designs assume that new ideas emerge from a stochastic process of people and ideas bouncing off each other, from brainstorms and chance encounters, rather than from contemplation or deep thinking.
SANTIAGO RAMÓN Y CAJAL argues that a view of science as demanding countless hours of dedicated effort—as a kind of “intellectual work,” as Josef Pieper put it—leads investigators to waste their energy on small and superficial problems. However, he has a solution: the cultivation of “cerebral polarization or sustained concentration,” a state of deep focus necessary to do great science.
The central feature of this state is a “steady orientation of all our faculties toward a single object of study for a period of months or even years.” It is not enough to be smart, Ramón y Cajal warns: the “thinking of countless brilliant minds ends up sterile for lack of this ability.” Just as an astronomer exposes a photographic plate for hours to “reveal stars so far away that even the most powerful telescopes fail to reveal them to the naked eye,” so too are “time and concentration” needed to “allow the intellect to perceive a ray of light in the darkness of the most complex problem.” Major discoveries require a “vigorous concentration of mental energy” to “raise to the conscious level” connections between observations made in the laboratory and “ideas slumbering in the unconscious.”
This state of sustained concentration “refines judgment, enriches analytical powers, spurs constructive imagination, and—by focusing all light of reason on the darkness of a problem—allows unforeseen and subtle relationships to be discovered.” Reaching it, he warns, requires “severe abstention and renunciation.” One must avoid distractions like “malicious gossip” and newspapers, the “intellectual dispersion and waste of time required by social activity,” and anything else that loosens “the creative tension of the mind” and “that quality of tone that nerve cells acquire when adapted to a particular subject.” But this does not mean that the investigator should try to concentrate all the time. Diversions that are “light and promote the association of new ideas” are to be taken freely. Long walks, art, and music offer good material for a break. And if, after a period of sustained concentration, a breakthrough does not come, “yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while.” A few weeks of “relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind” and provides “intellectual refreshment.” Even getting there can provide creative stimulus: “the powerful vibration of the locomotive and the spiritual solitude of the railway car,” he says, will often “suggest ideas that are ultimately confirmed in the laboratory.”
In other words, it is not constant effort that delivers results but a kind of constant, patient, unhurried focus that organizes the investigator’s attention when at work and is present but watchful during periods of ease. Devoting yourself only to the first (to ratio, in other words) and neglecting the second (intellectus) might make you more productive in the short run but will make your work less profound in the long run.
The founder of neuroscience was onto something. His era lacked the tools to observe the brain as it functions, but if they had been available, Ramón y Cajal would have seen that when we rest and let our minds wander, our brains are almost as active as when we’re concentrating hard on a problem. Further, while we’re not conscious of it, the “resting” brain turns out to be consolidating memories, making sense of the past, and searching for solutions to problems that are occupying our waking hours.
The Science of Rest
The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.
—ATTRIBUTED TO LEONARDO DA VINCI IN GIORGIO VASARI’S THE LIVES OF THE ARTISTS
IN THE EARLY 1990s, Bharat Biswal, a graduate student at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, was trying to eliminate background noise in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. fMRI provides a near-real-time view of the brain at work by measuring oxygen consumption in different parts of the brain. Just as you can tell who in a company is working late by seeing whose office lights are on, higher oxygen demand in an area of the brain means it’s more active. fMRI was brand new at the time, and the effects it measures are incredibly small, so scientists were still figuring out how to filter the small, hard-to-read signals amid the background of ordinary brain activity and how to tell a real signal from random fluctuations or noise. Biswal had trained as an electrical engineer, but even after factoring out brain signals that regulate automatic functions like heart rate and breathing, he still couldn’t get rid of a stubborn, low-frequency signal that the machines recorded when people were simply lying in them, doing nothing. Eventually, he concluded, it wasn’t noise; it wasn’t an artifact of the technology, or sampling technique, or signal-processing algorithm. Contrary to expectation, he was seeing a consistent pattern of activity in the brain’s resting state. When he presented his findings at a local journal club, one senior colleague suggested that, as Biswal recalled, “I, along with my research, should be buried since this would destroy fMRI.” Everyone knew that the resting brain didn’t do anything interesting.
At about the same time that Biswal was being attacked in his journal club, Washington University School of Medicine professor Marcus Raichle was using positron emission tomography (PET) to map brain activity during reading. Cognitively, reading is a pretty complicated activity, since it can involve several different skills at once, from the recognition of letters to the interpretation of a phrase to the construction of a mental picture of a scene or comparison to a previous work, and neuroscientists are keen to understand how those connected regions (or connectomes) work together. In order to accurately measure how brain activity changes in response to external tasks, it’s also important to have a baseline of comparison. Just as a doctor might want to know a patient’s resting heart rate and blood pressure before measuring them during exercise, it’s good to map a subject’s brain when they’re resting. When Raichle started looking at scans of people’s brains when they weren’t reading text but resting between tasks and staring at a blank screen, he was surprised to see that the subjects’ brains didn’t just quiet down; instead, a second, different set of regions switched on. When people turned their attention outward again, that region switched off, and other regions lit up. This resting-state activity wasn’t just scattered or random, either; it was as coordinated as when people were reading.
These studies convinced Biswal, Raichle, and other neuroscientists 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 from outward-focused to inward-focused cognition. As they’ve explored it further, scientists have realized that the DMN and resting state are doing critical work on our behalf. They’ve found that the DMNs of people who score high on creativity tests differ from those of people who are average: some regions of their resting brains are more active and there are higher levels of connectivity between some regions, while other regions are less tightly integrated. Further, in these people, some of the same areas that are active when they’re concentrating on work are still switched on when they just stare into space; even when they’ve stopped trying to think about problems, their brains still plug away, generating ideas that they’ll use when they return to work. This research has revolutionized our understanding of what happens when we rest.
ONE STRIKING CHARACTERISTIC of the brain in its resting state is that it’s barely less energetic than the engaged brain. Even when you’re staring into space, your brain consumes only slightly less energy than it does when you’re solving differential equations. We can drop into the resting state literally in the blink of an eye: the DMN can switch on and off in the fraction of a second it takes to blink. So why does the brain seem to want to return to the resting state?
As they’ve have mapped and compared the brains of different people, scientists have discovered that there are variations in the structures of DMNs. Some of these variations are age-related: DMNs change as we move from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. Some variations correlate to different cognitive strengths. To some degree these may be natural, but they’re also the product of training, in much the same way the bodies of swimmers, football players, and gymnasts differ.
Some people’s resting brains show greater levels of communication between different regions, or what neuroscientists call resting-state functional connectivity. These stronger connections predict enhanced cognitive abilities, like better performance on fluid intelligence tests and language ability. They can also correlate to achievements and outlook: various resting-state functional connectivity patterns can predict educational level and income, levels of life satisfaction, executive control, and focus. Other scientists have found that the complexity of the DMN shapes our capacity for self-awareness, memory, ability to imagine the future, empathy, and moral judgment.
- "I recommend Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang...The title says it all-if you're prone to burnout or still believe that overwork actually works, this book will set you straight."—Arianna Huffington in an interview with Lifehacker.com
- "[Pang] writes with an admirable focus on balance, on pleasure as well as success; in the end, it's difficult to argue with his conclusions."—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
"Consider this a much-needed guide for the overworked: a credible, factual case for chilling out and getting rest, by a well-known Silicon Valley consultant."
- "Whether by making space for daily naps, as Winston Churchill did during World War II; going on hours-long strolls like Charles Darwin; or spending a week alone in a cabin like Bill Gates, pursuing what Pang calls 'deliberate rest' is the true key to fulfillment and creative success."—BizTimes
- "Blending scientific research with examples of writers, painters and thinkers, from Darwin to Stephen King, the author exposes how we have underestimated the power of rest for our success."
—Daily Examiner (Australia)
- On Sale
- Jun 12, 2018
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Basic Books