Ep 203: The Importance of Rest for Productivity

Episode Summary

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!

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You’ve written a book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. What inspired you to write a book about rest?

Alex: My publisher was really interested in it because tragically, there was no book simply called Rest, which tells you something. For me, particularly, the short version of my own story is that my interest in rest connects to an interest I’ve had in understanding creativity and how people work that goes back to my college days and my life as an academic historian of science, and running around in this book were questions that I’ve been dealing with for quite a long time. More specifically, I’ve worked as a technology forecaster and futurist in Silicon Valley for over 20 years, and I was starting to kind of burnout on the work. It was really interesting, but there’s an awful lot of it. Client expectations are very high. There’s always more that you can do, and more that you want to do.

Alex: Fortunately, I got an opportunity to go to Microsoft Research in the UK and do the work that eventually became the foundation for another book that I have about technology distraction. But halfway through that, I had this kind of epiphany about how I was working, which was that I was getting an awful lot done. I was reading a lot, having great conversations, but I did not feel the kind of constant time pressure and sense of being behind the eight ball that’s just part of normal life here in Silicon Valley.

Alex: It started me thinking that I’m doing some of the best work I’ve done probably in my entire life, and it feels very, very different from the way I normally work. I thought maybe the way in which we think about the relationship between time and effort and productivity, maybe our assumptions that in order to do really good work, you have to risk burning yourself out and kind of sacrificing yourself for your happiness for really good work, maybe that’s actually backwards. Maybe in order to do really good work, to have really good ideas, you need to rethink all of that.

Alex: That basic insight started me down a research path that eventually led to looking into the neuroscience of psychology and creativity, to understand the role that downtime and mind wandering play in the creative process and in problem solving, to history, looking at the lives of really creative people and diving into their daily routines to understand how many hours they actually worked when they were writing the Origin of Species or composing the Ninth Symphony, or trying to put that together into a big sort of grand unified theory of the relationship between rest and work. So that’s the story of the book.

Andy: Really interested in your process in writing this book. After spending all this time studying creativity and lots of writers and thinkers and scientists, did you approach this book differently at all in the way that you worked on it than how you approached previous books?

Alex: Rest is my third book. I think that the biggest difference is that I started doing all the things that I write about in the book itself. I had for a previous book started getting up really early to write. I discovered the value both of working in the super early morning and the value of routines for supporting creative work. This is very different from the way I’d worked in high school or in college. I was the quintessential person who left assignments to the last minute and started doing homework at 11:00 PM. The way that creative ideas come to you at two in the morning after your 10th cup of coffee. That’s not a way that you can work when you have a job and kids. At a certain point, I tried flipping the day; waking up at 5:00 AM in order to write, and found that, after a couple of weeks of adjustment, that I had really, really good ideas then, and could get an awful lot done in those couple hours before anybody else was up, then the whole rest of the day.

Alex: But in the course of researching Rest, I got into stuff on the value that reaffirmed or reinforced some things or explained some things that I had done previously, like going out on long walks and using those as time to think. I think I became a lot more unapologetic about doing things like taking naps in the middle of the day. That became a thing that I really enjoyed, that I did without regret. I also became a little more systematic about taking time out to do stuff like exercise.

Alex: If you zoom back a little bit and look at my own trajectory, it took me 10 years to finish my first book. This was before I had discovered any of the stuff that I write about in Rest. And using the practices that I talk about in that book, in the last 10 years, I’ve finished three books, started a company and now have been working for a nonprofit that is evangelizing the four-day work-week around the world. So these are results that work for me.

Andy: I think that’s so interesting, thinking about being more unapologetic with things like taking naps. You write in your book about how there is sort of this glamorization of the workaholic in our culture. I love this quote on page 29 here of my copy. You say, “When we treat workaholics as heroes, we express a belief that labor rather than contemplation is the wellspring of great ideas, and that success of individuals and companies is a measure of their long hours.” A lot of what you’re doing in this book is reframing that or questioning that assumption.

Alex: Yeah, trying to push back against the idea certainly that there is a simple linear relationship between the amount of time that we work and our success.

Andy: Well, it’s so intuitive. If you want to get more done, work more, work harder.

Alex: Let’s put it this way. If you are a machine, then it’s true up to the point that you break. But for humans, the story is different. We have now a century’s worth of research that shows that, for example, for companies, whether you are a factory or a police force or a law firm, that overwork and long hours give you a temporary boost in output, but in the long run, they are counterproductive. A company that works 80-hour weeks for a year actually does less than a company that works 40-hour weeks.

Alex: And likewise, when you look at the lives of super creative individuals, people who have control over their time and their schedules, what you find is that they actually pursue a strategy where rather than figuring out how to make their days longer and longer, they figure out how to work more intensively, what looks to us like scandalously short periods of time. So we’re talking about four to five hours a day of really intensive work, turns out to be number one all most of us can handle, and second, all you need to do stuff like finish that great novel or a book like Rest.

Alex: I think that the takeaway there is that both for individuals and for organizations, it makes a lot more sense, and it makes for better work, more sustainable enterprise and better lives to think not in terms of how can we incentivize others to work super long, not to assume that people who are working long hours are the most productive folks or are the most dedicated, but rather to be a little more critical and a little more thoughtful. And to recognize that it’s smarter to aim for strategies that support focused work, and this is true, both for individuals and for companies.

Andy: I think it’s really interesting to think about, especially in terms of a lot of what we talk about on this show, because a lot of people talk about how over-scheduled the teenagers are getting these days. There’s so much between the school and homework and extracurricular activities. A lot of kids are pretty much scheduled all day long. And this book has really made me think about that in a different way.

Alex: Certainly I understand the imperatives that lots of parents feel to keep kids, particularly teenagers, busy. At the same time, there is a wealth of evidence that shows that kind of over-scheduling isn’t good for kids. It’s not really terribly good for families necessarily. It also fails to recognize the importance of leisure and downtime, both for the kind of creative activity or serious thinking that I think every parent wants their kids to develop, unless they have a vision of their kids just doing like QA assurance or working on factory lines, but also it turns out that sort of leisure time is essential for psychological development as well.

Alex: There are studies that show that in younger children, kids who have more opportunity for recess, for mind wandering, for apparently doing “nothing”, actually are more psychologically resilient. They’re better developed. They’re more curious, imaginative than kids who don’t.

Alex: When we over-schedule, for every line on the CV or the college application that you were able to add, trying to wedge in the violin lessons in between swimming and lacrosse, you actually lose something in kids’ abilities to develop as people or cultivate their own interests, to take the time necessary to go deep into things that they really care about. I’m not going to tell parents how to live their lives or raise their kids, but there can be wisdom in allowing everybody to do less so that they can develop into fuller people. So I’ll just say that.

Andy: You talk about the left temporoparietal region, which is associated with evaluative function. Sometimes when people have strokes or injuries to this area of the brain that suppresses their evaluative abilities, it actually improves creativity. So interesting to think about how a lot of the time there’s kind of this tug of war happening in our head or something. There’s this part of us, that’s constantly saying, “Oh, no, I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” or second guessing ourselves, and that part of creativity is killing that voice a little bit or learning to not listen to that.

Alex: Certainly being able to put it on hold for a time is a really valuable thing. I think we intuitively we all know that.

Alex: The challenge is being able to actually put it into practice. One of the things that neuroscientists have discovered in the last 30 or so years is that when we relax our minds and just don’t think about anything at all, it turns out that our brains aren’t just slowing down, even though it kind of feels that way, we’re actually activating different parts of our brain that are activated and connected together when we are concentrating hard on something. And the left temporoparietal region is one of those that kind of gets quieter or less connected in favor of some other areas. In a sense, the part of the brain that serves as a kind of evaluator and traffic cop becomes less important, activating regions of the brain and connections that are more associated with freer, more creative kinds of thinking.

Alex: Now, this is something that happens very naturally. I mean, literally, in the time that it takes us to blink our eyes, this set of connections that neuroscientists call the default mode network we’re capable of switching on. The default mode network is really good at trying to solve problems that have eluded our conscious effort. So when you have that experience of trying to work on the answer to something, answer a question, doesn’t come to you, but two minutes later, you’re doing something else and it pops into your head, it can be the name of an actor or a movie or some song lyric, or the answer to a math problem, that’s the default mode network continuing to work on a problem even while your conscious mind has moved on to something else.

Alex: One of the things that you see very, very successful creatives doing is consciously developing schedules that build in time for the default mode network to do that work. And they do so because they recognize the value in giving the default mode network time to work on these problems, because it means that they’re more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems, that they’ll be able to solve problems in a sense more effectively or faster. And the things that you do in order to activate or support the default mode network are also things that can be really good for you. It’s stuff like exercise, going for walks, physical activities that are not very mentally demanding that allow your brain to detach a little bit and to just wander around and think about whatever it wants to think about.

Alex: What you see over and over again in the lives of really creative people and what organizations now, mainly companies, but a few schools, are starting to try to build into their daily routines is time for that kind of creative mind wandering. We see over and over again how valuable it can be in the lives of folks like Beethoven or Nobel Prize winners or famous authors. We’re beginning to see that this is also something that benefits entire groups of people. And finally, it’s something that works no matter your age. There’s slightly different versions of it, but it’s just as true that children and teens benefit from those kinds of schedules as do adults or seniors.

Alex: So giving those parts of your mind time to apparently do nothing, but in fact time to create is an important part of doing good work, and I think becoming a better person.

Andy: It’s funny; you mentioned walking a couple of times now. You have a whole chapter on it. You talk in the book about a lot of people who take walking meetings like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, what’s the CEO of LinkedIn. I thought that was really interesting, thinking about a lot of times it can be really powerful just going on walks with our kids and making space to just take some time and have more unstructured times to just be walking and talking, I think can be really valuable for a relationship.

Alex: Absolutely. For organizations or for executives, the walking meeting is mainly useful because you can’t do a walking meeting with 24 people. It also cuts down on preparation time. It makes things a little more informal. It does serve that kind of important social role. But it’s also the case that walking meetings are good because walking is actually good for our minds, and good is a creative stimulus. There are some lovely studies looking at how people perform on creativity tests after they’ve been walking versus just sitting. What we find is that the act of walking, preferably outdoors, but also even if you’re just on a treadmill facing a wall, walking can help you do better on psychological tests of creativity than you would do if you were just doing nothing.

Alex: I think for parents, one of the important lessons here is that there is a really important role that motion and exercise play in cognitive development, in creative expression and in the kind of development of kids as thinkers and as people. We often think of cognitive work or school work as something that just happens between our brains and our eyes and screens. And in a way, I think we still have this idea that kids who are really athletic are not going to be very academic or vice versa, that you’ve got to make a choice between those two things. However, there are an enormous number of world-class scientists, writers, musicians, et cetera, who actually are really, really serious athletes.

Alex: Niels Bohr, one of the guys who came up with the modern structure of the atom, played for the Danish National Football Team. His brother won, I want to say, a silver medal in the Olympics. He was a great mathematician. They are just two examples of loads and loads of people whose intellectual achievements don’t happen despite their interest in sports but happen because of it.

Alex: There is a huge body of literature now. Whether it’s coming from history, whether it’s coming from neuroscience, from psychology, from physiology that tells us that particularly for kids and especially for girls, there is a deep relationship between the pursuit of sports or physical condition and cognitive performance and how well you do in your careers. I think that understanding that and encouraging kids to develop both sides of themselves and recognizing that each one compliments the other is so important for helping kids develop as people and will help them have longer, better lives.

Andy: Yeah, I found that to be a really interesting aspect of your book, talking about how physical stamina is as important for creative work as for manual labor, and things like your body getting more efficient maximal oxygen capacity, and that memory actually increases as our oxygen capacity increases. It makes sense because the brain uses so much oxygen. Why wouldn’t it work better when we’re in good shape?

Alex: Exactly the benefits start with the very, very physiological, recognizing that the brain is really greedy. It requires a lot of oxygen. It wants a lot of food. And the better we are at being able to deliver those things through having stronger hearts and better circulatory systems, the better off we’re going to be at supporting the most fundamental ground level of cognitive activity. They go beyond that, though. Philosophers of mind have put it, we don’t just think with our brains; we think with our bodies.

Alex: There’s a school of thought in philosophy about what they call the extended self or embodied cognition that makes the argument that an awful lot of thinking that we do actually is stuck with our entire bodies or parts of our bodies. People sometimes get up and will kind of pace around while working through problems. Or use gestures the way that I actually am doing right now while working through an argument. These are not purely coincidental things that are disconnected from the cognitive processes. They’re actually an important part of it. Finally, the serious pursuit of sports turns out to be a really good thing for helping people, especially really busy, ambitious people, both disconnect from their work and manage their time better so that they’re able to work better.

Alex: My favorite study around this is a study of Southern California scientists over the course of 40 years that looked at scientists at UCLA, Caltech, a couple of other schools, no offense to USC, that followed their careers over from the 1950s into the 1990s. This was a group that included four Nobel Prize winners, a whole bunch of people who had really significant careers, and a group whose careers really just kind of stalled out and who never had big discoveries or so forth.

Alex: Now at the beginning of the study, these two groups looked exactly the same. You could not predict who was going to be at the top of their fields and who was not. They all came from the same schools. They had the same kinds of qualifications, et cetera. Over time, the one thing that distinguished the high performers from everybody else was a commitment to sports of one kind or another. This being Southern California, there were a couple surfers, there were a bunch of rock climbers, there were sailors.

Alex: The thing was that the people who were really high performers or saw sports as a really important break and release from their work, sometimes it was also a place where they could let their minds turn over ideas, but it also made them be better organized in their work, better organized about their time, and consequently gave them a sense that in their lives, they had more time for all of these different things. Whereas the people who were the low performers didn’t do sports, partly because they felt like they didn’t have time for them.

Andy: I don’t have time for that. Yeah, totally.

Alex: It’s so easy to see why that would be so. Once you filter out for IQ, for results on Rorschach tests, GPAs, all of that stuff, there were no noticeable differences between the high performing group and everybody else along any of these axis. It’s not the case that it was raw intellectual brain power that gave the high performing group more time. If anything, it was the opposite. It was their investment in these other activities that created a sense that they had time because they better managed their time, and they were better able to use those hours that they did spend in the laboratory or at the Blackboard, and they were better able to do good work there because of their investment in leisure.

Alex: So this is stuff that really plays out. These early habits turn out to deliver benefits not just for the next few years of your life if you’re young, but throughout your entire life.

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About Alex Pang

Alex Pang is the author of Rest.

He’s also written three  books, including Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less―Here’s How and The Distraction Addiction. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. His op-eds and articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the South China Morning Post, and more.

Alex is the founder of Strategy and Rest, a consultancy that guides companies and individuals to shorten workdays. His work has been written about in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and other venues. He travels around the world speaking and giving workshops about the 4-day week and the future of productivity.

Before starting his company, Alex taught history of science at Williams College, UC Berkeley and UC Davis. He also worked as managing editor of Encyclopedia Britannica. He served as a senior consultant at two Silicon Valley think tanks, Institute for the Future and Strategic Business Insights.

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