Rest Is Underrated: A Q&A with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Why employees should work fewer hours and practice “deliberate rest.”

By David Ward Nov 27, 2016
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​’Tis the season for wrapping things up at work to meet end-of-year deadlines and, well, wrapping things up at home to give to your family and friends during holiday celebrations. It’s a time for joy intermingled with stress as people run themselves ragged trying to get everything done. Yet in our nonstop work culture, few employees feel comfortable admitting they need downtime.

Now, Silicon Valley author, lecturer and consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is making the business case for rest, arguing that it not only is essential to people’s health and happiness but also makes them more productive.

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.

Many employees brag about putting in extraordinarily long hours at work as if it were a badge of honor. What causes people to dismiss the importance of rest?

Americans have always admired overwork. Today we’re impressed with the hard-driving cultures of startups, investment bankers, lawyers and other high-risk, high-reward fields where insane hours can be rewarded with outsized, even gigantic, payoffs.

We also 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?

There’s nothing wrong with overwork—so long as you don’t care about your health, the quality of your work, or the risk of making deadly or career-ending mistakes. 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 6 to 8 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.

The concept is inspired by Anders Ericsson’s term “deliberate practice,” a form of training that is super-focused and that he believes helps people learn more effectively, advance their craft and become high-level performers.

In addition to practicing in a distinctive way, the high-achieving students Ericsson studied slept more than other students—mainly because they took afternoon naps—and were better able to explain how they spent their leisure time.

You write that many noted leaders and historical figures, including Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin and Bill Gates, have found rest essential to creative 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. That’s the typical daily schedule Darwin followed when he came up with the theory of evolution and Ludwig van Beethoven used to write his symphonies. Moreover, Stephen King writes his books, and Scott Adams creates Dilbert, while working four focused hours. The elite conservatory students who were the subject of Ericsson’s study spent about four hours a day practicing.

People who practice deliberate rest are also really good at switching off. When they’re done, they’re done. 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 turn to work on problems. Many people carry notebooks with them during downtimes in case they have sudden “a-ha” moments and don’t want to lose them.

For big, complex projects, another effective practice is to stop for the day in midthought. Many writers end work right before composing the last sentence of a paragraph or chapter. It relieves them of the burden of facing a blank page the next morning and helps new ideas flow more easily.

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

Many executives credit the long office hours they have worked as central to their career success. Will it be challenging to change their perspective?

They should be open to the idea that stamina is not a great predictor of good judgment, diagnostic skill or the ability to read markets. Sorting people by running them through 90-hour weeks is a bit like measuring computer chips by dropping them down the stairs: The ability to survive a fall doesn’t tell you much about their speed.

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.

Churchill, who knew a thing or two about working in stressful situations, said that the truly dedicated workers were the ones who most needed hobbies that took their minds off their jobs. Otherwise, they would exhaust themselves with worry.

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

Encourage managers and workers to take rest seriously and 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 they can promote policies to block 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. 

[SHRM members-only resource: Discuss this article on SHRM Connect]

David Ward is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina.

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