by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. The core thesis of the book is that there is a limited amount of focused creative work that one can do each day, and that rest is an integral part of creative work. The book is a delight to read and (unlike many books in this genre) not overly long.
To prove his thesis, Pang relies on a combination of scientific studies relating rest and productivity as well as a collection of case studies of famous creative people including writers and scientists. As a scientist, I really appreciate that Pang correctly identifies scientific research as a fundamentally creative task, and seems especially fond of famous physicists.
The “resting” brain is not inactive. During rest the subconscious mind continues processing the ideas that the conscious mind was thinking about, but it does it in a different, freer way. This explains the often-reported phenomenon of getting your best ideas while you’re in the shower, or while out on a walk. Working more hours isn’t a guarantee of accomplishing more:
A survey of scientists’ working lives conducted in the early 1950s … graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced. … The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between ten to twenty hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working thirty-five hours a week were half as productive as their twenty-hours-a-week colleagues. From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly.
Across disciplines from science to writing to music, the limit for focused creative work seems to be 4-5 hours per day. A study of violin students at the Berlin Conservatory found that the best students weren’t those who practiced the most.
“Deliberate practice is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
Pang also discusses the roles different kinds of breaks—detachment, deep play, sabbaticals—play in enhancing creativity. It’s worth noting that rest in this view need not be passive.
I’ve taken Pang’s message to heart and the results of my small uncontrolled study confirm his thesis. Over the past few months I have tried to make more time for rest. That has taken many forms. During the work day I make sure to take breaks for my mind to wander. Just a few minutes at a time, but it seems to help. I have also cut back on podcasts so I have more time with my thoughts. On the weekends, I find long bike rides very refreshing as a rare time where I am free from electronic distractions. As a result, I now feel more focused and present with the tasks that I am doing. I am spending a bit less time in the office, but I am getting much more science done.