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Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less


Personal Thoughts

An empirical argument in favor of more limited working hours and greater understanding of the benefits of active rest as a means of raising creativity and productivity.

Summary Notes

  • If your work is your self, when you cease to work, you cease to exist.
  • We underestimate how much good serious rest can do us. And we also underestimate how much we can do if we take rest seriously.
  • the arguments of psychologists like Viktor Frankl and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that the good life is defined by a search for meaning and an abundance of challenges, make profound intuitive sense.
  • Companies that put profits first, Kay argues, are more likely to lose money than those that treat profit as a by-product of doing great work.
  • But physical activity is more restful than we expect, and mental rest is more active than we realize.
  • the assumptions that knowledge is produced rather than discovered or revealed, that the amount of work that goes into an idea determines its importance, and that the creation of ideas can be organized and institutionalized, all guide our thinking about work today. When we treat workaholics as heroes, we express a belief that labor rather than contemplation is the wellspring of great ideas and that the success of individuals and companies is a measure of their long hours.
  • Modern assumptions about knowledge as product and labor are also built into open office layouts meant to support collaboration between groups or spark serendipitous exchanges in the line at strategically placed water coolers. Such designs assume that new ideas emerge from a stochastic process of people and ideas bouncing off each other, from brainstorms and chance encounters, rather than from contemplation or deep thinking.
  • it is not constant effort that delivers results but a kind of constant, patient, unhurried focus that organizes the investigator’s attention when at work and is present but watchful during periods of ease. Devoting yourself only to the first (to ratio, in other words) and neglecting the second (intellectus) might make you more productive in the short run but will make your work less profound in the long run.
  • The founder of neuroscience was onto something. His era lacked the tools to observe the brain as it functions, but if they had been available, Ramón y Cajal would have seen that when we rest and let our minds wander, our brains are almost as active as when we’re concentrating hard on a problem. Further, while we’re not conscious of it, the “resting” brain turns out to be consolidating memories, making sense of the past, and searching for solutions to problems that are occupying our waking hours.
  • Convergent thinking requires seeing connections between apparently different things; divergent thinking requires finding new uses for or meanings in familiar things.
  • As psychologist Benjamin Baird and his colleagues discovered, a little mind-wandering during focused tasks can boost creative thinking.
  • An experiment conducted by Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam likewise found that brief periods of mind-wandering boost creativity. In their experiment, students had four minutes to evaluate four different car models. The task required them to weigh a number of different features and select the best vehicle. Students who also did a simple anagram puzzle during those four minutes consistently made better choices than those who were left undisturbed.
  • Researchers have also found that a small amount of background noise can boost creativity and that some people perform better on creativity tests when listening to music. This is why some people like working in cafés: the low buzz of conversations and comings and goings provides a useful stimulus, loosening the mind just enough to encourage associative thinking but not so much as to really drive you off task.
  • Anyone who reviews his schedule cannot help but notice the creator’s paradox. Darwin’s life revolved around science. Since his undergraduate days, Darwin had devoted himself to scientific collecting, exploration, and eventually theorizing. He and Emma moved to the country from London to have more space to raise a family and to have more space—in more than one sense of the word—for science. Down House gave him space for laboratories and greenhouses, and the countryside gave him the peace and quiet necessary to work. But at the same time, his days don’t seem very busy to us. The times we would classify as “work” consist of three ninety-minute periods. If he had been a professor in a university today, he would have been denied tenure. If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week. It’s not that Darwin was careless about his time or lacked ambition. Darwin was intensely time-conscious and, despite being a gentleman of means, felt that he had none to waste. While sailing around the world on the HMS Beagle, he wrote to his sister Susan Elizabeth that “a man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” When he was deciding whether or not to marry, one of his concerns was that “loss of time—cannot read in the evenings,” and in his journals he kept an account of the time he lost to chronic illness. His “pure love” of science was “much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists,” he confessed in his autobiography. He was passionate and driven, so much so that he was given to anxiety attacks over his ideas and their implications.
  • The pattern of working four hard hours with occasional breaks isn’t just confined to scientists, writers, or other people who are already successful, well-established, and have the freedom to set their own schedules. You can also see it among students who go on to become leaders in their fields. As a law student, young Thomas Jefferson balanced reading, attending court sessions, and assisting his teacher George Wythe with cases. Jefferson had previously followed a punishing schedule as a student, starting at dawn and reading into the night, but he discovered “a great inequality” in the “vigor of the mind at different times of day.” As a law student he reserved four hours in the morning for intensive reading of law textbooks like Littleton’s English Law and Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England. After lunch, he would read politics. A two-mile run or ride would follow in the afternoon, weather permitting. William Osler, who created the first residency program for training doctors while a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, advised students to work “four or five hours daily,” so long as they were hours “directed intensely upon the subject in hand.”
  • “Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
  • Add these several practices up, and what do you get? About four hours a day. About the same amount of time Darwin spent every day doing his hardest work, Jefferson spent reading the law, Hardy and Littlewood spent doing math, Dickens and Koestler spent writing. Even ambitious young students in one of the world’s best schools, preparing for an notoriously competitive field, could handle only four hours of really focused, serious effort per day.
  • This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD. Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance, and improve your life. This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

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