Ep 203: The Importance of Rest for Productivity

Alex Pang, author of Rest, joins us to explain the cognitive benefits of taking time off and doing nothing! Plus, how non-work activities like sports, naps, and gap years can boost teens’ productivity and creativity!

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Full show notes

We want kids to be the best version of themselves, meaning that we often push them to their limits. We stack on extracurriculars to buff up their college apps, add in SAT classes, and sign them up for private lessons to make sure they’re the best flute player in the orchestra. Kids only have so much time to make the most of themselves, so they should spend every last moment studying, practicing, and bettering themselves…right?

But what happens when kids suddenly find themselves burnt out? What if, with a crazy schedule, they’re not able to focus on their homework or pull out the sheet music as enthusiastically as they did before? Even though we have the best intentions, we can sometimes push our teens (and ourselves) too far past what’s healthy–and create not only exhaustion, but a lack of productivity, creativity, and imagination.

That’s why, in today’s episode, we’re talking about the importance of doing nothing! We’re joined by Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Alex is the owner of the consulting company Strategy and Rest, which works with companies and individuals to create maximum productivity with shorter workdays! He’s a visiting scholar at Stanford, and the author of three other books about productivity and cognition.

In this week’s episode, we talk all about the importance of taking restful breaks, and the psychological benefits of doing nothing! Plus how teens can benefit from non-work activities like sports, napping, and even playing video games!

Why Rest Matters

The basic principle we often follow about productivity is that more time working=more work accomplished. We might load ourselves up with eighty hour work weeks, working long nights and weekends to try and max out our capabilities. But Alex is prompting us to challenge that. Once a busy, overworked employee in Silicon Valley, Alex left the United States to take a trip to the U.K., where he discovered a shift in culture and less structure in his work day! He found that working shorter hours and taking more breaks actually improved his productivity and creativity–and it can improve yours too!

Alex explains that our brains have something he calls a “default mode network”, which turns on when the focused, working part of your brain turns off. When the default mode network is activated, your body goes to work behind the scenes, tackling problems that evade your conscious mind. Have you ever found yourself frustrated because you can’t recall a song lyric or the name of an actor…only for it to pop into your head ten minutes later while you’re watching TV? This is an example of your default mode network doing its job!

Many prominent, iconic, and successful people have learned to harness their default mode network to improve their productivity. They know that this part of the brain allows the mind to come up with new ideas, make connections and recharge…then get back to business with a much more inspired and productive mindset, says Alex. Individuals like Beethoven and Nobel prize winners have strategically built time into their schedules to rest and let their default mode network run…basically doing nothing with the goal of increasing productivity!

Alex is also a proponent of shorter work days and a four day work week. In the episode, we talk about a wealth of research which indicates that humans are most productive when they work only four or five hours a day! After that, our focus and concentration starts to wane, and we often get very little or nothing done. But with an extra day or extra hours in the week built in for intentional rest, we can take on the challenges of our work week much more efficiently and with extra creativity and imagination.

The power of doing nothing only works if we’re doing the right kind of nothing, however. Alex explains that certain activities are more restful to your brain than others. The key is to do something that takes as little focus or concentration as possible, so that your subconscious mind can activate and restore you to your most creative state, he explains. Activities like television, video games, or even social media can have this restorative effect for teens–as long as they’re not overindulging, says Alex.

There are some other methods of rest and rejuvenation that boost productivity and creativity for teens! Alex and I dive into these in the episode.

How Teens Can Unwind

In our interview, Alex and I discuss how exercise can be a great way for teens to let go of work and stressors and let their mind wander. In fact, effective cognition is tied significantly to physical health, says Alex. Our brains love oxygen, and will take as much of it as possible! When we exercise, we increase our body’s oxygen capacity, and therefore power our brain to maximum sharpness and efficiency. The stronger our circulatory system, the more powerful our mind, says Alex.

Even a simple walk can have terrific benefits for the teenage mind. Research has shown that walking improves cognition as well as creativity! Alex explains that people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg even have walking meetings, where they combine business with exercise. This setting allows ideas to flow more freely, and is a more casual social environment. Alex recommends encouraging teens to take walks during study breaks or when working something out with a friend–the benefits of doing so are clear!

Getting involved in a sport is even better for a teen, says Alex. In his research, he’s found that many of history's greatest thinkers have also been accomplished athletes. A study of scientists spanning over thirty years found that those who made incredible or notable discoveries in their careers were also individuals who set aside ample time for sports, while those who weren’t athletes faded into obscurity. Alex explains that this regular athletic activity gave the scientists time away from work to mull over ideas and come back to their research with renewed focus and imagination.

Alex and I also talk about a somewhat controversial relaxation technique…napping! Some believe napping leaves us more tired than before, while others think a nap is a great way to refresh and recharge. Alex argues in favor of napping…so long as we do it right! If your teen loves to nap, Alex recommends they nap between twenty or ninety minutes. Twenty minutes constitutes a light nap that’s shown to recharge the body, while ninety minutes is the cutoff before slipping into deep sleep. A nap of this length can have benefits for memory, cognition, and more, says Alex. We talk about napping more in the interview!

In The Episode…

My discussion with Alex brings an unexpected perspective to common notions about creativity and productivity! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • How self-criticism hinders our creativity
  • Why teens should spend time abroad
  • How school damages teens’ perception of rest
  • What other cultures can teach us about relaxation
If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more of Alex’s research and work on his company website, strategy.rest, or on Twitter and Instagram at @askpang. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Creating a million new years of free time at @4dayweek_global. Author of WORK LESS, DO MORE; SHORTER; REST; and other books. Rep @zoepagnamenta and @bsgspeakers
Ep 203: The Importance of Rest for Productivity
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