Get Some Rest

A Q&A with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

By David Ward Nov 16, 2016
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In an era when the need for downtime is something many workers are loath to admit, let alone embrace, Silicon Valley author, lecturer and consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has a compelling counterargument: Rest not only is essential to people's health and happiness, it also makes them more productive in the workplace.

His new book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (Basic Books, 2016), draws on scientific evidence and the habits of famous artists, business trailblazers and global leaders to argue that we can be more successful in all areas of our lives by working fewer hours and pursuing "deliberate rest"—time set aside for exercise or hobbies so that we can recharge and be ready to focus when it really matters.

HR Magazine recently interviewed Pang about the book:

What causes people to dismiss the importance of rest?

We tend to think of rest as a negative space defined by the absence of work, not as its own thing. It's what we can get when we finally finish everything on our to-do list. The problem is, in a knowledge or service economy where you have to always think about clients and projects are open-ended, there is no longer any such thing as "finished."

What does science tell us about the consequences of working too many hours?

Everyone has the ability to put in long hours or go into overdrive for short periods. The problem is when companies try to enforce long hours over extended periods—more than 40 hours a week for six to eight weeks or more. Once workers go into that mode, they start making more mistakes. The health and morale of the entire office starts to suffer, particularly if it's not crystal-clear why they have to be working so much. If you're sleeping under your desk because your boss can't plan a project, that's super-demoralizing.

Your book advocates the benefits of "deliberate rest." What does that entail?

It provides a mental respite from work, giving the brain and body a chance to recharge, stimulating and sustaining creativity. It's deliberate because people practice it intentionally, organizing their days to make sure they have time for it. They recognize that even while it looks like idleness, it's critical for productivity.

Is there an ideal mix of work and relaxation?

One of the most striking findings of my research is that four really focused hours seems to not only be the most that people need to do really great work but also the most they can handle in a normal day. Moreover, people who practice deliberate rest are also really good at switching off. They follow the advice of the great mathematician John Littlewood: Either work all-out or rest completely.

What types of respite are effective?

Masters of deliberate rest combine periods of hard, focused work with walks, runs or other activities that are diverting but not too absorbing. This provides a break from work, while giving their creative subconscious a chance to work on problems.

Some modern offices feature pingpong tables, napping stations and basketball courts to encourage breaks from work. Is this a step in the right direction?

It's a mixed blessing. Physical activity is beneficial for knowledge workers. People who are in better physical shape can more effectively meet the challenges of hard cognitive activity. On the other hand, the attitude that a dedicated employee should—or should even want to—spend all her hours at the office is bad in the long run.

What role can HR play to ensure that employees get the rest they need.

Encourage managers and workers to take rest seriously and to recognize that it helps people be more productive than they'll be if they're perpetually overworked and stressed.

At the practical level, HR might work with IT to have "blackout" periods, turning off work e-mail and intranet access on select nights and weekends, or blocking out meetings during, say, 9 a.m. to noon, so people have a block of time to focus on critical tasks. They also need to work with management to develop metrics to assess the effectiveness of these new policies. Seeing concrete returns will convince skeptical executives that the policies are worth having and help business leaders better understand that the number of hours people spend in the office is possibly the worst way to measure productivity.

David Ward is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina.

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