Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

 Why you get more done when you work less

Rest Book Cover

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A cover with the words “Why you get more done when you work less” and a picture of a deck chair. This book already has my attention!

I get the argument for ‘work life balance’: the antidote to stress, the source of wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment. However, as someone who has been wired to achieving for most of my life, my brain also hears: be less productive, slow down, contribute less and don’t overdo it.

In my work, I also observe a regular pattern in the executives I coach. They are some of the most talented, passionate and influential leaders in the market with a deep desire to contribute to society. They are also often exhausted, overwhelmed and highly stressed.

‘Deliberate rest’, as Pang calls it, is the true key to productivity, and will give us more energy, sharper ideas, and a better life. Rest offers a roadmap to rediscovering the importance of rest in our lives, and a convincing argument that we need to relax more if we want to get more done.

Rest doesn’t just magically appear when we need it, especially in today’s busy world. Taking rest seriously requires recognising its importance and carving out and defending space for it in our daily lives. Deliberate rest is not a space defined by the absence of work or something we hope to get in our downtime. It is something positive and worth cultivating in its own right.

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. Rest is an essential component of good work.

Pang says, “Deliberate rest is a playground for the creative mind, a springboard for new ideas, it calms our days, organizes our lives, gives us more time and helps us achieve more whilst working less” …. I am sold!

Rest is a fascinating combination of research and historical examples. It is filled with both inspiration and evidence that there is another way, and practical ideas for everyone to craft their own new paradigm. It has resonated deeply with both myself and my clients, turning our view of rest upside down. This book is a game changer!

Looking at different forms of rest, from sleep to vacation, Pang combines rigorous scientific research with a rich array of examples from writers, painters, and thinkers to challenge our tendency to see work and relaxation as antithetical.

Some of my favourite points and key learnings:

  • Charles Dickens, Henri Poincare and Ingmar Bergman designed their days to be four to five hours of focussed work, followed by an afternoon nap or leisurely ramble. Rest explains that the most creative work happens when we take the kinds of breaks that allow our unconscious minds to keep plugging away on a matter. For me, this means I no longer feel guilty about taking a nap or a walk, as I now understand this as an essential ingredient for creative renewal.
  • Pang says: “It is too easy when rather tired to fritter a whole day away with the intention of working but never getting properly down to it”. I agree and recognise the importance of having clear boundaries between work and rest; I no longer try to balance the laptop whilst cooking!
  • Erno Rubik made the critical design breakthrough that yielded the Rubik’s Cube whilst walking along the Danube. As he looked at how water moved around the pebbles he tried a design in which small blocks were held together with cantilevers on their corners. From this, I recognise the power of walking to clear the mind, create fresh perspectives, loosen creative thinking and dislodging insights that have been working their way up from the subconscious.
  • Pang also argues creative people not only consciously incorporate activities like walking into their creative lives, but recognise that creative insights occur at unexpected times. For example, Beethoven carried paper and pencil on his long walks, and David Hilbert, the great German mathematician, installed a blackboard in his garden to capture his thoughts as he worked in his flower beds. My modern-day equivalent is the iPhone talk-to-text microphone, which perfectly captures random inspiration while I’m walking.
  • Pang provides research on the type of breaks that provide the greatest degree of recovery. He says there are four major factors to consider: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work:
    • Relaxation is an activity that’s pleasant and undemanding, it doesn’t have to be totally passive but shouldn’t feel like work or require conscious effort.
    • Control is having the power to decide how you spend your time, energy and attention.
    • Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and more rewarding when you do them well.
    • Mental detachment from work is respite from the usual routine of work. Detachment also requires being able to escape work related interruptions.

For me, this means leaving the devices behind when out for my morning run. I also now understand why our annual ski holiday, whilst vigorous, has always proved rejuvenating!

For me the bottom line is:

  • Treat work and rest as equal partners;
  • Rest is active;
  • Rest is a skill.

I know this approach is not new and much has been written on the subject, but Rest proved a fascinating and compelling read, and arrived at a time when perhaps I was ready to listen!

Review by Gaby Riddington