Rest Takes Hard Work

7 minute read
Pang has spent more than 20 years studying people, technology, and the worlds they make. A professional futurist with a PhD in the history of science, Pang is the author of four books, including Shorter and The Distraction Addiction, and his writings have appeared in Scientific American, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and South China Morning Post, and many academic publications.

There are few things better for us than regular rest. Whether it's breaks during the day, hobbies that take our mind off work, weekly sabbaths or annual vacations, routines that layer periods of work and rest help us be more productive, have more sustainable careers, and enjoy richer and more meaningful lives.

Too often, rest gets a bad rap in our always-on, work-obsessed world. It's also the case that learning to rest well is actually hard. Why is that? And how can we rest better?

Americans have long been known for our industry and ambition, but until recently, we also recognized the value of rest. The Puritans had a famously strict work ethic, but they also took their Sundays very seriously. In 1842, Henry David Thoreau observed, “The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure;" a decade later he wrote, “A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man's life as in a book." Post-Civil War captains of industry didn't rise and grind, according to business journalist Bertie Charles Forbes: "No man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than" industrialist Coleman du Pont, while Teddy Roosevelt “boisterously… enters into recreation" despite a busy public life. At the same time, union organizers, mass media and entertainment, and the parks movement democratized leisure: rest became a right, enshrined as much in college sports and penny arcades as in labor law. Richard Nixon, during a campaign speech in 1956, predicted that "new forms of production will evolve" to make "back-breaking toil and mind-wearying tension" a thing of the past, and "a four-day week and family life will be... enjoyed by every American." Together, these sources paint a vision of American life in which work and leisure are partners in a good life, and "machines and electronic devices," as Nixon called them, created more time for everyone.

But in recent decades, the world turned against rest. Globalization, the decline of unions, and the rise of gig work are factors that have created an environment in which people and companies feel compelled to work constantly. The CEO, for example, who steadily worked his way up from the mailroom to the corner office has been replaced by the 20-something genius who makes billions by disrupting the system. Technology lets us carry our offices around in our pockets, and makes it almost impossible for us to disconnect from work. Even the blue-tinted glow of our screens and late-night traffic noise can have a measurable impact on the quality of our sleep. Add raising children and managing family schedules, and Thoreau's "wide halo of ease and leisure" sounds great, but ultimately, impossible.

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For people who have control over their daily schedules layer periods of "deep work," as Cal Newport calls it, and "deliberate rest," time to both recharge and let the creative subconscious examine problems that they haven't been able to solve through hard work. Many great scientists, mathematicians, and composers have daily routines in which they work intensively for a couple hours, take a long break, then work a couple more—and those four or five hours give you enough time to make steady progress on your work, and come up with some new, unexpected ideas. 

People in high-stress, unpredictable jobs can't depend on such routines; but the most successful at dealing with the challenges of work rely on two other things: First, they have good boundaries between work and personal time. Second, they have serious hobbies—everything from quilting, to rebuilding classic cars, to running marathons—that are as absorbing as their work. This "deep play" illustrates another important point: the best rest is active, not just passive. We often think of “rest” as involving a bag of salty snacks and a TV remote, but working out or playing piano actually recharges your mental and physical batteries more effectively than binge-watching that hot new show.

Long-term studies reveal another important rest hack. Taking annual vacations boosts your happiness, improves your cardiovascular health, and helps you age better compared to colleagues who chain themselves to the office. (You'll also be more productive and boost your chances of promotion.) Vacations and sabbaticals can also be an incubator for new ideas. Lin-Manuel Miranda started toying with the idea of a musical about Alexander Hamilton after reading Ron Chernow's biography on vacation. "It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life—maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life—came to me on vacation," Miranda said in 2016. "The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it."

So let’s say you take rest seriously, recognize its importance for their health and performance, and calculate that a more disciplined, measured approach to work will pay off in the long run. How can you get started?

For many, it begins at work. Reducing distractions, becoming more efficient at tasks you can control, and automating routine duties can create time in your day for short breaks that recharge your batteries, and make it easier to maintain clear lines between work and personal time. Better planning and prioritizing will also mean fewer late nights and avoidable crises. Doing this with colleagues amplifies the benefits. Companies that adopt four-day workweeks succeed because they redesign their workday to give everyone more deep work time, less time in meetings, and fewer interruptions.

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Next, find your deep play. If you have a hobby you're passionate about, you're more likely to make time for it, and feel good about doing it. If you already have a favorite pastime that was crowded out by work, you have permission to take it back up. If not, look for something that offers satisfactions as rich as work when it goes well, but in concentrated doses, and in a completely different environment (outdoors and physical if you work in an office). You can't think about clients on a surfboard.

Take your vacations. Shorter, more frequent vacations are often more restorative, because they're lower-stakes than once-in-a-lifetime expeditions, and a drip-feed of anticipation, escape, and recovery is better than one big hit of happiness a year. The only bad vacation is the one you don't take.

Finally, play a long game. It may feel like a waste of time at first but layering periods of work and rest in your day, your week, and your year help you work more consistently, more sustainably, and to a higher level of quality. We're fascinated by youthful genius and overnight success, but immortality-level accomplishment often comes later in life, after decades of steady work: Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale when she was 45; Charles Darwin was 50 when he published The Origin of Species; Duke Ellington made his immortal Newport Jazz Festival appearance at 57; and JRR Tolkien published The Return of the King at 63. Deliberate rest, woven into your days and life, acts as a mainspring and regulator, giving you more energy, more ideas, and more time for good work and a good life. In today's always-on world, few things are harder to do than rest. But few things are more worthwhile.

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