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Review of Rest, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

2017 September 13
by Ian Welsh

For many years, I’ve noticed something about the work schedules of writers. Most work about four hours a day, virtually none work six or more.

Rest is a part of that genre of books which consist mostly of anecdotes and descriptions of scientific studies. It’s not a genre I’m usually fond of: tedious. But Rest, in my opinion, is an important book.

Too many people today think that working more equals working better. It’s not that that’s never the case; in many jobs and disciplines, the simplest and best way to increase what you get done is to just add more hours.

But that prescription, startlingly popular among many, has always struck me as dubious when it comes to anything creative. Speaking personally, even when perfectly healthy and happy, after more than about four hours of concentrated creative work my brain turns to mush. Work done after that time is not only non-productive, it’s likely to be so filled with mistakes that it’s counterproductive.

If I want to work more than that, the best strategy is to work about three hours and then rest. Best is to take a full sleep cycle nap of about 90 minutes to two hours. Then I can do another two to three hours.

And that’s it.

Further, the best strategy when working on a specific project which requires me to come up with ideas is to completely splurge, learning everything I can about the subject, over however long that takes (in four to five hour daily segments), and then to do something else.

The “something else,” and ideally that involves not work, but rest or play, is necessary, and it is during that time at some point, perhaps in the shower, after a nap, or during a long walk, that the key ideas will occur. They rarely occur during the study period, unless they are fairly obvious.

This is the prescription given by Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought and far more succinctly by ad-man James Webb Young in A Technique For Producing Ideas and it is at the core of Rest:

  • Prepare by immersing yourself.
  • Try to solve the problem.
  • Give up and rest.
  • Eureka.

Rest starts by looking at how Darwin lived his life. Succinctly, he didn’t work that much, four and a half hours a day, in 90 minute periods, with breaks in between.

The book is replete with examples similar to Darwin, but what I found most stunning was a study on scientific production in the 1950s which plotted papers produced vs. hours in the office:

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.

Researchers who buckled down and spent fifty hours per week in the lab were able to pull themselves out of the thirty-five-hour valley: They became as productive as colleagues who spent five hours a week in the lab. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this fifty-hour bump was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment,” and that most of those ten-hour days were spent tending machines and occasionally taking measurements. After that, it was all downhill: The sixty-plus-hour-a-week researchers were the least productive of all.

When you add back in work at home, and not just office, it appears the most productive scientists were working about 25 to 38 hours a week.

Not 70.

The book also analyzes the famous violin study, of conservatory students who would go onto be world class violinists and shows the same thing: The best students practiced twice a day, and took a rest between. They did other “work,” but considered practice and rest the most important part of their day.

This isn’t a short book, and there’s a ton of detail on sleep, naps, exercise, play, walking, and so on, but the bottom line is simple enough: Too much work and no play (or rest) makes Dick a dull boy with few original ideas. This is true for novelists, scientists, artists, and so on.

The real work of creativity is done by the subconscious. You must put in the work–there is no skipping it. You must read the books, do the practice, try to figure out the problem, but it is not the conscious mind which makes the breakthroughs: You do the work until you just don’t want to think about it any more, both daily and on a longer time schedule, then you take a break, and it shakes out or it doesn’t.

This book is an important antidote to a trend in our society. If you’re working 80 hours a week? No, you’re not going to be peak creative. If you, or your child, spends all their time in school, on homework, and then on adult supervised extra-curricular activities, again, that’s bad for creativity (this kind of busy schedule is the profile of students who go to the Ivy League).

Work hard, have fun playing, and rest.


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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Webstir permalink
    September 13, 2017

    Wow. Completely on board with this.

    As an attorney, actually “billing” a 5-hour day is a killer. Wiped out after an 8-hour day. A two or three day trial? You are on your butt for two days recovering.

    Side note — If you ever get billed more than 5-hours in a single day by a lawyer, get a different lawyer.

  2. V. Arnold permalink
    September 14, 2017

    I agree completely, but, there is a problem for the average wage slave; employers will have none of it.
    When I was teaching here in LOS, I taught 23 hours per week, on average. That’s how I finished the last 5 years of my working life; and good it was…
    I’ve had almost 15 years away, to look back on my varied working life; if I had it to do over again; I’d do some things differently…
    I never did accept the U.S. work “ethic”; a misnomer if ever I heard one…

  3. September 14, 2017

    Research has shown that at eight hours you have pretty well run your batteries down, at ten hours not all the puppies are barking, and at twelve your physical and cognitive reaction skills are that of your average drunk. The thirty hour work week has been thoroughly demonstrated to be the most productive.

  4. V. Arnold permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Ten Bears
    September 14, 2017

    Research has shown that at eight hours you have pretty well run your batteries down, at ten hours not all the puppies are barking, and at twelve your physical and cognitive reaction skills are that of your average drunk.

    Having done all of the above; I concur 100%. I think the companies knew this but needed to show upper management they were “answering the call” to duty. Blech!

    That’s still a 6 hour day; 5 would be better and 4 perfect.

  5. September 14, 2017

    Unfortunately, employers and managers in most capitalistic companies don’t know how to pay for “creative.” They only know how to pay for X number of widgets (books, songs, legal briefs, engineering designs, etc.) or Y hours of butt in seat in an office. It’s maddeningly destructive to be told you have to put in a full 8 hour day to get paid when you know that at least half of that is filler time that doesn’t improve your creative output one bit.

  6. V. Arnold permalink
    September 14, 2017

    This may be the perfect venue to bring up the U.S. educational system; which has infantalized the collective “us”, to the slaves we are today.
    John Taylor Gatto wrote the seminal book on the history of American education; it ain’t pretty.
    “Rest” is the antithesis of what we are taught to believe.
    The old saw, those who do not know history, blah, blah, blah.
    Well, it’s true; and it impact’s your life in every way, every waking day!
    But if you are ignorant of history; you’ll just never get it!
    End of rant…

  7. Stephen Bradley permalink
    September 14, 2017

    This idea is not new. My first contact with this work-rest-inspiration cycle came, I think, from a magazine article that I read in the late ’70s or early ’80s on Henri Poincaré. He had related a story of getting a solution to a problem while waiting at a bus stop, if I remember correctly, and extended the story to the conclusion that hard work on a problem, followed by a period of rest, seemed to produce the solution through the unconcious or subliminal working of the mind.

    At the time, this was new to me and changed my thinking about work and solving new problems. I had been taught growing up that you had to “wrestle” with problems to solve them.

  8. Creigh Gordon permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Slightly off topic, but competitive athletes know that exercise doesn’t build strength and endurance. Resting after exercise builds strength and endurance.

  9. Alex permalink
    September 14, 2017

    The best management books I have are obscure, but priceless.

    They are by Jack Stack (of SRC Holdings) and Ricardo Semler (of Semco).

    They contradict everything about the status quo in US business and it works.

    We let employees set their own hours (28-hour work weeks).

  10. torff permalink
    September 14, 2017

    I know a lot of people who get their best ideas in the shower.

  11. September 14, 2017

    My grandfather worked for more hours – but he was in the “large machinery” slot. Basically, he could fiddle with machinery for whatever length of time needed. My productive work was either programming, which could only be done in small increments, or in a blizzard of work (30 houts +) which then needs a long rest afterwards – and I mean days rest. Basically, there are 3 distinct periods – thinking, working, resting. The problem is that thinking takes a great deal of time and does not look as if anything at all has been done.

    Wage slaves do not think, thus they can be made to remain working for a long period of time. The question is is the work that they are doing actually productive? If one looks at video-tapes being made, the answer is “not really” (and I have done considerable amounts of time and motion analysis to verify this).

    The other category of work that needs to be done is meeting with people – which is far as the brain is concerned is “resting” – since very little thought goes into the process. So if you work and meet with people, then you can bill for your time.

  12. September 14, 2017

    A bit closer to my hunter/gatherer roots than most, I’ve found the “siesta” model as productive as a formal albeit five or six hour work day. Work four or five hours while fresh and rested in the cool of the morning with a mid-day four or five hours home with the family chillin’ in the shade, concluding with if need be acouple more hours “work”.

    As things grow warming this could be (again) a survival strategy.

  13. September 14, 2017

    As things grow warmer. Stupid phone.

  14. Webstir permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Stirling, you said “The problem is that thinking takes a great deal of time and does not look as if anything at all has been done.”

    And thus the resentment of the professional class.

  15. Webstir permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Ten Bears: Interesting blog. Share your general sentiment. And the “Australia got the better deal” feature got me chuckling.

  16. September 17, 2017

    “And thus the resentment of the professional class.”

    That’s because they have done any.

  17. Webstir permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Well now. That depends …

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