Feature story: The rewards of rest

Menlo Park author argues for striking a balance between work and rest for a more creative, productive life

What comes to mind when you think about rest? Reclining on the sofa with episodes of your favorite TV series queued up, courtesy of Netflix? Visiting your Facebook page, or gossiping with colleagues during a break away from your desk?

Ask Menlo Park author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang how he thinks about rest and you may be in for a few surprising insights from a man who has over the last few years thoroughly researched the topic, discovering how great achievers in the arts, sciences and politics have benefited from knowing the value of rest.

Those insights include the paradox summed up in the subtitle of his latest book, "Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less." The book is being released this week, published by Basic Books.

Another paradoxical insight is this: "The best, most restorative kinds of rest are active." So no, being a couch potato or checking your smartphone for your friends' latest Instagram postings is not the kind of rest Mr. Pang has in mind. Instead, his emphasis is rest as in restorative.

"For me, the most satisfying forms of rest are the kinds that make me think better," Mr. Pang says one recent morning over coffee at Cafe Zoe, a Willows neighborhood favorite at which he writes portions of his books and articles for periodicals.

The choice of restorative activities, he says, has "a deeply personal dimension" whether you choose long, peaceful walks, gardening, or high-risk pursuits such as mountain climbing, the key, he argues, is to find an effective activity that allows you to walk away from overt work and free your mind for a period of regeneration. That type of rest, he says, allows you to return to your work-related pursuits with sharpened focus, better able to work more creatively and productively.

But, he cautions, "sometimes activities we think of as recreational aren't as restful as we think."

A good example is social media, he explains later in an email. "It looks like a break (from work), but as far as our brains are concerned, the evaluation of other people's lives (WHY ARE THEY IN MAUI?) or the effort required to curate our lives to look pleasing/impressive to others (LOOK, I'M IN MAUI) is work."

Mr. Pang says he chose to research the topic of rest and its impact on creativity and meaningful work because "it's something that has interested me for a very long time. What sets the creative person apart? What makes a creative life?"

He recalls the first course he took in college, called "Invention and Discovery in the Arts and Sciences," which dealt with the psychology and cultural factors that contribute to creativity. The class was "fabulous," he says, but "there was no talk about rest. The role of rest is easy to overlook. It felt like an argument that needed to be made."

The book is anything but an argument against work, but rather a well-researched overview on how we might devise strategies to improve our ability to do satisfying, creative work.

He defends work as "an absolute necessity for a meaningful, fulfilling life," and writes in the book's introduction: "Rest is not work's adversary. Rest is work's partner. They complement and complete each other.

"Further, you cannot work well without resting well. Some of history's most creative people, people whose achievements in art and science and literature are legendary, took rest very seriously."

Amiable companions

On any given morning and evening, you might spy Mr. Pang walking his dogs, Davis and Ariel, along local streets or across nearby greenways. This twice-daily exercise (he also works out in the gym, though not every day) is his favored restorative routine -- an active, brain-stimulating rest that he may interrupt periodically as he pulls out pen and notebook and records thoughts related to a creative project he might be working on at home.

In his book, he quotes Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "I have walked myself into my best thoughts." Other noted thinkers and achievers he cites as being devoted walkers include Beethoven, Thomas Jefferson, C.S. Lewis, and writers Alice Munro and Charles Dickens.

"Walking and thinking have been amiable companions since ancient times," Mr. Pang writes in "Rest." "Among creative thinkers, it provides time to clear the mind or get a fresh perspective on a problem."

The book has chapters on other activities and behaviors that he says stimulate and sustain creativity, including other forms of exercise, "deep play," and sleep. It offers ideas for incorporating a range of practices into day-to-day life, and examples of how notable achievers tapped into restful activity to live generative lives.

Mr. Pang taps into the latest neuroscience to explain the connection between, for example, strenuous exercise and rigorous thinking capacity, sleep and creativity, restful activity and robust productivity. But the book also provides insights from philosophers, writers and other thinkers of the past.

For example, he cites philosopher William James' 1899 essay "Gospel of Relaxation" in arguing that overwork is counterproductive. According to the philosopher, who also is described by some historians as the father of psychology, overworked Americans of the day (and Mr. Pang would argue that this applies to American workers today) grew accustomed to "inner panting and expectancy" and bringing "breathlessness and tension to work." But living "excitedly and hurriedly" doesn't allow us to do more, he asserted. Rather, "the exact reverse is the case" -- a conclusion reached more than a century ago that's supported today by volumes of research.

Mr. Pang also cites the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who popularized the term "deep play," which, as opposed to shallow play, can offer "lasting benefits and satisfaction." One form (out of the four he lists) of deep play involves engaging in an activity whose features offer some of the same rewards as one's work.

As an example, Mr. Pang cites Winston Churchill's painting hobby. The former British prime minister likened his artistic pastime to politics because they both demand "clear vision, boldness, fearlessness regarding making mistakes, and connecting themes." By engaging in the deep play of painting, Mr. Churchill was able to experience the rewards of meeting specific, personally appealing challenges in real time that would have been indefinitely delayed, if not denied, in the political realm.

Rest in the real world

Americans, Mr. Pang writes in his book, "work more and vacation less than almost any other nationality in the world." And away from the workplace in the digital age, many are tethered to work because they feel pressured to check and respond to email and other messages.

So given modern work demands, how does one find the time for rest? "We have to seize that time back -- carve it out in a world that's determined to make us do other things," Mr. Pang insists.

A visiting scholar at Stanford University with a doctorate in the history of science from the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Pang formerly worked as a senior consultant at a think tank on SRI's Menlo Park campus until leaving to devote himself full time to research and writing projects. (His first book, "The Distraction Addiction," was published in 2013.)

This fall, he founded the Restful Company, which, he says in an email, he launched to continue the research he started with "Rest," focusing particularly "on contemporary efforts by companies, schools, and other organizations to develop new ways of combining work and rest; working with companies to incorporate and leverage deliberate rest; and a little work with individuals who want to build deliberate rest into their lives."

To carve out time for his own work and rest, "I just say no to a lot of things, without debilitating guilt," he says. "If you are too agreeable to (the requests) of other people, you don't do the work you were meant to do," he adds, noting, however, that "you don't have to be antisocial."

In the book, he describes the strategies of people who have accomplished important, sometimes great things. In many cases, "their lives have this admirable minimalism -- a deliberate minimalism," he says, adding that they were determined to "design their lives so that they focus on only the most important things."

Their focused, deliberate pursuits "give meaning to life that a lot of small things do not," he adds.

"Nobody multi-tasks their way to greatness -- nobody."

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