4 Key Insights From "Rest" by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

In: BlogDate: May 30, 2023By: Henry Stewart

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is one of our speakers at the online Happy Workplaces Conference on 15th June. He is a key player in the four-day work week movement and has also written a book called Shorter about that topic.

At the conference, he will be talking about his first book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

“Long hours are an expression of our identity and proof of our seriousness,” Alex suggests. “They don’t necessarily make us more productive; they make us look more productive.”

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Alex has four key insights about the benefits of rest:

1. Work and rest are partners

“Rest is an essential component of good work. World-class musicians, Olympic athletes, writers, designers, and other accomplished and creative people alternate daily periods of intense work and concentration with long breaks.

“It is clear that the brain’s creative work is never done, that even in its resting state the brain is plugging away at problems, examining and tossing out possible answers, looking for novelty. This is a process we can’t really control. But by learning to rest better, we can support it.”

2. Rest is active

“Even apparently passive forms of rest turn out to be more physically active than we expect. When you go to sleep, your brain doesn’t switch off. It gets busy consolidating memories, reviewing the day’s events, and going over problems you’ve been working on.

3. Rest is a skill

“Rest turns out to be like sex or singing or running. Everyone basically knows how to do it, but with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better.”

People who become world-class performers practice what you would call deliberate rest. “It’s often in these periods of deliberate rest and apparent leisure – when you’re not obviously working or trying to work – that you can have some of your best ideas.”

4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity

Great writers, scientists and artists balance busy lives with deep play.

“The steadiness and consistency that deliberate rest enforces helps explain why those who discover it have longer creative lives, pursue careers as artists or writers while holding down other jobs, and may even discover completely new interests or produce new works when the rest of us are ready to retire.”

“Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincare and Ingmar Bergman all shared a passion for their work and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognise as their most important work.

“If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they laboured but how they rested.”

Alex explores the work of Charles Darwin who started work at 8am and by noon would declare “I’ve done a good day’s work.” He would then take a walk in the countryside, return for lunch and some letter writing, take a nap, a further walk in the countryside and then do an hour or so’s work until 5.30pm.

On this basis he wrote 18 books including The Origin of the Species, “probably the single most famous book in the history of science.”

He describes similar patterns to the work of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and – more recently – JG Ballard, Scott Adams and Stephen King.

A survey of scientists working lives in the early 1950s found intriguing results. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive, in terms of articles written, than those who spent 5 hours. Those working 60+ hours a week were the least productive of all.

The idea that people need 10,000 hours of intensive practice to become great at something is based on the work of Malcolm Gladwell. However, Alex explores the research that this is founded on and finds that people also needed 12,500 hours of deliberate rest (often from naps in the afternoon) and 30,000 hours of sleep.

An afternoon nap was central to Winston Churchill’s work as Prime Minister during the war. Naps were also a daily routine for US generals George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur, as well as President Kennedy and President Johnson.

Alex concludes by quoting archaeologist John Lubbock: “To lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the blue sky, is by no means a waste of time. Rest is not idleness.”

Discover the dangers of long-hour culture and the benefits of rest from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at this year’s Happy Workplaces Conference.

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Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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