Key Messages From Alex Soojung-Kim Pang About The Importance of Rest

In: BlogDate: Oct 15, 2023By: Claire Lickman

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is Global Programs Director at 4 Day Week Global, and a leading voice in reduced hours working. He is the author of three books exploring how companies and individuals can better integrate rest, creativity, and focus into digital-age lives and work.

In this talk from the 2023 Happy Workplaces Conference, Alex focuses on the key messages from his second book, Rest: Get More Done When You Work Less, which explores the hidden role of rest in the lives of exceptionally creative and prolific people. He discusses the concepts of ‘active rest’, ‘deep play’, and the brain’s ‘default mode network’ as well as the value of vacations and the afternoon nap!

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Alex Speaking at the 2023 Happy Workplaces Conference

 Maureen: Alright, so our final speaker is Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, and he's Head of Program for the Four Day Week Global. Alex also is the author of three books: Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less: Here's How; Rest: Why you get more done, when you work less; and the third book is The Distraction Addiction.

His trilogy of books show how companies and individuals can better integrate rest, creativity, and focus into digital age lives and work. So today he will be talking about Rest: Why you get more done when you work less.

Hi Alex!


Hello. Thank you all very much for the invitation.  I assume everyone can hear me.

Okay.  Alright, so I am going to show a couple of pictures as I go. So, as Maureen had mentioned, I'm the author of a book about the kind of hidden role of rest in the lives of really creative and prolific people, like Nobel Prize winners and other kinds of amazing creatives.

And it may seem that rest is the sort of thing that is inaccessible in the modern world or is something that we really don't need to pay a lot of attention to. And certainly, we have a lot of signals from the world that tell us that this is so. But what I find in my work, which moves across biography and work on the psychology of creativity and neuroscience, is that this really is wrong. I mean, it's backwards. Indeed, rest plays a really critical role in the lives of not just creative folks, but a kind of hidden role in the lives of lots of leaders and entrepreneurs.  I think the first step to moving in a direction that acknowledges this is rethinking what rest is, and we tend to think of rest as something that is entirely passive, right? It's what you do when you're on the couch, when you're with a bag of snacks in one hand and a remote in the other. But what I argue is that the best and most restorative kinds of rest are actually different.

First of all, rest isn't just a break from work or a kind of negative space, defined by the absence of labour, but rather we should think of work and rest as partners, as, in a sense, two sides of the same coin, each of which support and sustain the other. Another important point is that the most restorative forms of rest are active, not passive and also that rest is a skill. It's something that's completely natural, but it's also something that we can get better at. And you know, it's a bit like breathing, in the sense that there is an obvious natural component to it. But if you are a musician or an athlete, or even a Buddhist monk, you learn how to use your breath in order to project to the back of the auditorium, or to maintain your energy level or help quiet your mind. Rest is the same. It's something that we can learn to do better and learn to bring into our lives in ways that help us do better work and be better people. There's also a growing body of evidence about the role that rest plays in fostering and supporting creativity, which I think nobody will deny is important, especially these days.

And then finally, taking rest seriously helps make our work and our lives more sustainable. Now. You see this, for example. When you look at the lives of really creative people, Charles Darwin for example, you see that there's a paradox; these are people who organize their entire lives around their work, right? (Darwin literally moved from London out into the country so that he would have more space to work and to think deeply), but they don't actually organize their entire days around the work that they're doing. Indeed, what they tend to do is, when you have complete control over your time or can design days in which you work very intensively for about four or five hours and that's it.  And that turns out to be enough to do things like write the Origin of Species or world-famous symphonies or great works of literature. They also have lots of time for leisure and hobbies compared to what we imagine today is necessary for successful lives and to go on vacations and so forth.

And yet they achieved great things.  Darwin, for example, was someone who was up before dawn. He would take a walk every morning. He would then spend about two hours working in a study, take a break, a couple more hours. That was the bulk of his day. Then he'd have lunch and then spend a couple hours on what he called his Thinking Path, which was just on the edge of his property.  And he would go and kind of turn over ideas and then come back, do a little bit more stuff, kind of clean up, and then that would be his day.

Now there's a body of research that helps us understand why it is that a daily schedule like this, in which you are layering periods of really focused work with periods of rest, turns out to be really productive, because what we are finding is that neuroscientists have been studying something called the 'default mode network', which is,  kind of, relax your mind and don't think about anything at all. It feels like your mind is kind of going blank, but in reality, it's activating a set of connections between different parts of the brain that you're not really aware of. This is called the default mode, and it can switch on literally in the time it takes to blink your eyes.

That's how much the brain loves engaging it. And the default mode is something that's associated with thinking about the past, trying to solve problems, but it also structurally bears a really interesting resemblance to the brain when it's working to solve or on creative problems.

So it's something that activates pretty much all the time, constantly, and it's something that we use very much on a daily basis. Like, if you are trying to remember the name of that actor who is in the thing, and the TV commercial and that movie, and you can't remember their name, but five minutes later it pops into your head.

That's the sort of experience that we have, throughout our days, that’s the default mode network working on problems even as our conscious attention is located elsewhere. One of the things that the default mode really likes to do, in fact, is solve problems. And so  when we have these periods in our day or daily schedules, when or if we move from intensive work to these breaks, one of the things that happens is that it gives the default mode time to think in an uninterrupted way or to work in an uninterrupted way on problems that we have yet to solve ourselves through conscious effort and helps us and  provides a kind of environment, a stage, in which  our creative subconscious can work on these ideas even while our attention is focused elsewhere.

Amos Ky, who was the one of the founders of the field of behavioural economics, and developed a lot of the key ideas when he was on a sabbatical at an institute near Stanford said 'people waste years because they don't waste hours', that this apparently unproductive time turns out to be some of the most fruitful sort of time for  thinkers.

This is also true for leaders as well.  The practice here is that, in order to do this, it’s important to optimize working time or to think about what times you do your best work to recognize that intensity of focus is actually more important for getting lots of work done than length of time.  So, try to make the peaks higher in a sense, or if you talk about deep work, to do deeper work rather than stretch it out for longer. Then layer that with periods of rest for a break and for a creative boost and to make it a daily practice so, because it's a skill, you can get better at it.

This is also something you see leaders doing as well. This is Telegraph Cottage, which was a retreat that Dwight Eisenhower used during World War II when he was planning the invasion of Europe. And part of the reason that he would go on the weekends to Telegraph Cottage, was that he was basically ordered to by a superior, George Marshall, who told one of Eisenhower's aides that, basically he needed Eisenhower to be fresh so that he would have the kinds of creative ideas necessary to win the war, and that it is your job in the war to make him take care of his health and keep that alert brain from overworking, particularly on things his staff can do for him.  And so Telegraph Cottage was a way, basically, a structural way of making sure that he had those kinds of breaks. For those of us who don't have places we can retreat to, there are other practices, and I'll just call out two of them.

The first, which I think is under appreciated, is the value of vacations. Longitudinal studies tell us that vacations are correlated with better physical health, with lower rates of depression, longer lifespans, and also healthier aging. People who take regular vacations, don't just live longer, but they enjoy more of that life, and they don’t have long declines the way that some others do.  Also, turns out, that 20% of startups begin with an idea hatched during a vacation. And so these are again, a practice that looks entirely leisurely and unproductive, but because it offers your mind a chance to turn over ideas, to try out new things, it actually turns out to be super valuable.

The other practice that I would point to is something that I call in the book ‘Deep Play’, and there  turned out to be  a lot of people, even those who were involved in high pressure jobs or were scientists, competing against other teams to make some world-class discovery, had really serious hobbies. They were sometimes very serious musicians, mountain climbers, athletes, gardeners, what have you. And why spend time on hobbies of this sort?  Well, it turns out that when they talk about their hobbies, it turns out that they choose things and they stick with them because they offer similar kinds of challenges and rewards as work when it goes really well, but without any of the frustrations.

So scientists, for example, talk about mountain climbing as being like doing science, right? You have this big goal, there's a technical part to it. You break it down into a thousand different pieces, and then you either get to the top or you don't. For lots of leaders who are climbers, in contrast, it's about leadership. You've got a team, you have to motivate people, push past their boundaries, et cetera. So it's what they like about work, at its best, without the frustrations, it's also in a different context and timescale, right?  Very often when you do science, you can spend a year working on an experiment and maybe your hypothesis was right, on the otherhand, in games or climbing or things, either you reach the top or you don't, right? The rewards are very straightforward, and they come fairly quickly. They often are physically challenging in a way that work is not and there's often a personal dimension to them, something that harkens back to their family history or past lives that kind of connects them back to  a sense of who they are now.

I think that rest is also important for there can be an important organizational dimension to building in periods of rest for leaders. Sabbaticals, for example, offer a great opportunity to  test run succession plans, but  there are other organizational things, but I just want to leave you  with this statistic, which is that when you look at founders of companies,  they are twice as likely to suffer from depression as the general population, twice as likely to have ADHD, three times as likely to  fall prey to  substance abuse and there's an off the charts difference between  founders  and others for bipolar disorder. Less for other sorts of mental health issues. But what this tells us is that there is a great need, especially for leaders, to learn how to and to practice rest, and that this is something that can not just make their own lives better, but also improve their health, improve their work, help them be more creative and help them have longer and more sustainable careers and lives.  And with that, I am going to stop and say thank you very much and take questions. So, thank you all.


Henry: Alex, I'm going to put a question into the group now. So, my question would be, how can you get more rest, especially active rest? Is that a good question?

Alex: Yeah, sure.

No, I think that the answer, part of the answer, I think comes from thinking more about how to construct daily routines that build this in. We tend to think of this as something that you do when you're done with work, when you're done with everything. We're never done with everything.

The second thing, I think, is that if you're in an organizational context, the more you can make this collective and structural the better. One of the reasons that I work for Four Day Week Global now, is that recognizing that very often we're prevented from putting this kind of thing into practice because of our work environments and the expectations of our colleagues, or the idea that you don't want to let people down. So I think that doing it with other people turns out to be really valuable.

And then finally, I think that part of the virtue of Deep Play, of things like going climbing or surfing in the South Pacific or whatever, is that it forces a degree of planning and commitment that is hard to back out of.

Henry: Right. Okay.

Alex: It's really easy to make an excuse not to go to the yoga class, but if you have plane reservations, that's a much tougher thing to back out of.

Henry: OK, so Alex, we're about to put a question to people in breakouts, and I've said, how can we get more rest, especially active rest?

Somebody's asked, can you give me a definition of active rest? Again, I think you were talking about active rest, weren't you?

Alex: Sure. So rest, you know, I think of rest generally as the time spent recharging the mental and physical energy that you spend at work. And so, active rest is mainly physically or cognitively engaging activities that are restful. And I think what's important about that is that, for some people, running a marathon or working out or replanting things in your garden may be physically taxing, but they are also, by this definition, turn out also restorative in a way that makes them rest.

Henry: Okay, so let's go with that. Five minutes on that. How can you get more rest, especially active rest?  Do you get enough rest folks?

Welcome back. Do you want to share your thoughts in chats or have any questions?

We have a question from Danny, please.

Danny: Yeah, I was just reflecting in our group that, for me, I've learned over time the types of active rest that work for me. I'm aware that not everyone's had either the opportunity or the habit to find out what their things are.

And I was just wondering if you had any advice on giving people space? It feels easier to give people space to say, here's half a day to go and do the thing that is good, active rest for you. But I' m wondering on advice about how to help people find what those things are for them?

Alex: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that, for people with hobbies, with the Deep Play,  it's things that they used to enjoy doing that, or they stopped when they moved to this latest job or started a family or what have you.

I mean, I think that often,  we have things that we used to really like to do  and so that's thing number one.  I think number two is that, on a daily basis, there were remarkable benefits simply to getting out of the office and going for a walk, doing that for 15, 20 minutes helps reset the brain.  It turns out, apparently, it's also just good for your eyes to look into the middle distance rather than a screen. And also there is a creative boost and mental reset that happens, or when you are walking. We don't exactly understand why that is, but it is something that people have observed in the lab.

And then I think that, if you can make it social, do it with someone else, then that's awesome too.  That also provides a permission structure and reinforces the habit. So that's what I would suggest.

Henry: Thank you.


Mike: Hi. Thank you. Hi, Alex. Hello. This is like more short-term rest. So. See with the world we're in now, we're so easily accessible with emails on our phones and all that sort of stuff. I find myself finishing work, getting home, and still checking my emails on my phone. So do you have any sort of techniques or anything like that that could help? Because it's not just me, it's some of my colleagues as well.  I'll get an email from a colleague at nine o'clock at night. And what sort of techniques can you put in to say when you're at home, you are at home and training yourself to not look at your phone until you get back in the morning.

Alex: Right. This is ability to be always on and always connected has turned into an imperative and an expectation that we are always on and always connected. I think that this is as much a problem though of norms and expectations as it is a problem of technology.

 I would point to two things. Number one, that I think the places that do this most effectively are ones that put in explicit policies that you are not obligated to check email after x o clock, right? Or that experiment and discover that, there was a consulting company that gave everyone Wednesday evenings off, everyone could shut off their machines. The senior partners thought the earth is going to crash into the sun, right? Clients are going to abandon us after six months of doing this. They were doing some reviews with clients. Turns out none of the clients had even noticed that people were taking Wednesday evenings off. And so I think that's a nice little lesson that that's easy for us to overestimate how connected other people expect us to be. And then, you know, beyond that, I think that all the other personal techniques are pretty much exactly the same ones that you need to apply in order to go to the gym or  eat better or, other stuff.

It's mainly about habit reinforcement and making small, gradual changes that stick rather than all at once.

Henry: Okay. We've got some intriguing thoughts in chat, but let me go to Katie.

Katie: My question is, what's your opinion on the afternoon nap?

Alex: Yeah, I think afternoon naps are terrific.  Honestly, I do them myself on a pretty regular basis and I used to feel guilty about having that downtime. But it turns out number one, everybody does. It's just that some people are better at covering it up than others, you know?

And second, that actually an afternoon nap turns out to be a lot more restorative than a fourth cup of coffee and so, basically, if you want to have a good afternoon, an afternoon nap is a really good thing. There is some research that tells us that an earlier nap, like before noon, gives you more of a creative boost and one a little bit later gives you a restorative boost, is more physically restorative. But I think the only bad nap is the one that you don't take.

The other thing I'll say is you don't have to actually fall asleep completely in order to get those benefits. Just like, putting your head down for 20 minutes, can still have value even if you don't think you have fallen asleep.

Maureen: Awesome.

Henry: Hannah, do you remember your question about Google?

Hannah: My question, Alex, I was interested on your thoughts on Google of rolling back on people working from home, as apparently it’s not helping productivity. I'm just interested on any thoughts you have around that.

Alex: Yeah. You know, I think that the great challenge for every company is to be clear on, number one, what kinds of work we can do better together or that we can do on our own. Because I think it absolutely is the case that there is stuff that we can do effectively by ourselves, but there's also stuff that is really charged up by the physical presence of other people. And I think that understanding what that is and making space for it in the office and also in people's calendars, is an essential practice for making going back to work attractive.

But it is really striking that, even at Google, right? -  a place that is famous for sushi bars and free food and all kinds of amazing perks – it turns out those are now less of an incentive to get people back into the office than they used to be.   And indeed, it looks like they really were not about having the dry cleaner, there was not so much about making the office an attractive place as making it a place that was harder for you to ever leave. And so, I think that the places that will win will be places that use this as an opportunity to think about what we want this space to be, what work best supports it, and schedules that bring people together in ways that let them do work that is really still very difficult to do either on your own or over media like this.

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Alex starts his talk by debunking the idea that rest is inaccessible in the modern world. His research has shown how the opposite is true: rest plays a critical role in the lives of creatives, leaders and entrepreneurs. By rethinking what rest is and redefining it as an active process, rather being entirely passive, Alex argues that the best and most restorative kinds of rest are actually active.

Using examples of very productive creative thinkers and leaders such as Charles Darwin and Dwight Eisenhower, Alex demonstrates how the way they structured their days around periods of intensive work, layered with different types of break, gave them greater time for leisure and hobbies, which Alex calls ‘active rest’. Touching briefly on the neuroscience that underpins this practice, he explains how the brain’s ‘default mode network’ works during periods of ‘active rest’, to work subconsciously on problems as yet unsolved by conscious effort.

Alex then explains two practices that highlight the correlation between rest and better physical and mental health, longer lifespans, and healthier aging, notably vacations and what he calls ‘Deep Play’. People involved in high pressure jobs often have serious hobbies which offer similar challenges and rewards as their work when it goes well, but without the frustrations.

He ends by quoting some memorable statistics which highlight the need to learn how to and to practice rest, as it is make our own lives better, improves our health, our work, helps us be more creative and to have longer and more sustainable careers and lives.

What you will learn in this video

  • The importance of rest as an active rather than passive practice
  • How the brain’s ‘default mode network’ works
  • How rest is a skill which can be learned and improved upon
  • Why intensity of focus is more important for productivity than length of time spent on task
  • To recognize the times you do your best work and to layer that with periods of rest for a creative boost.
  • The importance of making time for active rest and deep play, and the health and productivity benefits for everyone

Related resources

Learn the 10 core principles to create a happy and productive workplace in Henry Stewart's book, The Happy Manifesto.

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About Alex

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is director of research and programs at 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit promoting the 4-day workweek. His books — Work Less Do More: Designing the Four Day Week (Penguin, 2023); Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less — Here’s How (Public Affairs, 2020); Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (Basic Books, 2016), and The Distraction Addiction (Little Brown, 2013) — show how companies and individuals can better integrate rest, creativity, and focus into digital-age lives and work. Alex has been a senior consultant at Institute for the Future and Strategic Business Insights, and during his academic career was affiliated with Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Microsoft Research Cambridge, and Oxford University. Alex received a Ph.D. in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

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