“Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
If someone told you that you could feel better while working less and getting more done, you would probably think they were selling snake oil, or at least methamphetamines. But in Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is making exactly that contention, while bringing the science to back it up. Pang’s core thesis is that rest and work are interdependent rather than opposing forces in our lives, and that this idea is backed up by psychology, neuroscience, and sports medicine. Pang cites a variety of scientific studies from around the world, on subjects such as sleeping, napping, exercise, and creativity in order to show how these activities—which occur outside of work—come together to profoundly influence productivity and creative thinking on the job. He also looks into the lives of figures like Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, and Dwight Eisenhower, to show how they incorporated restful practices into their daily routines while also producing great work, or operating under extremely stressful circumstances.
Pang’s contention is not unique, and he isn’t the first person to call out the destructive nature of our sleep-deprived, always-on business culture. However, I did like the way he approached rest holistically. Sleep is an important part of the book, but Pang also examines routines, exercise, and hobbies, as well as vacations and sabbaticals to see how these others forms of taking a break from work affect our performance. He also demonstrates that it is not just doing these activities that is important, but also being mentally disconnected from work in the process. It is not that our society does not enjoy ample leisure time, necessarily, but rather than we make poor use of it. Pang extensively explored the digital aspect of that distraction in his previous book, so he does not touch on it much in Rest.
One section I found particularly interesting was the study of napping—as opposed to night-time sleep. While I was generally on board with Pang’s message that we need to rest more, and rest smarter, I have long been pretty anti-nap, because I always seem to wake up groggy and nauseous from mid-day sleep. But Pang includes a section on what studies show about optimizing napping (see page 121) to your circumstances, whether you want to feel more rested, process new learning, or be more creative when you wake. Apparently both the length and the timing of the nap are key, and the ideal time is between five and seven hours after waking up in the morning, which is a low point in the Circadian rhythm of the human body. Using that information, I took two successful naps after reading this book!
One of the most famous studies cited in Rest is K. Anders Ericsson’s famous study of Berlin violin students, the best of whom had accumulated about 10, 000 hours of deliberate practice at the time they were assessed. This study became famous after Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers. Gladwell has been frequently critiqued for his oversimplification and selective use of Ericsson’s study. Here Pang highlights another part of Ericsson’s work Gladwell ignored, namely that the best students tended to sleep more, and often took afternoon naps. Deliberate practice took a lot of mental effort, and sleep helped them to consolidate the learning and benefits of that practice. The students also recognized that there was a limit to the amount of deliberate practice they could do in a day, and that continuing beyond that point was not useful.
Though Pang cites a variety of studies by a diverse group of researchers, I did notice that his examples always tended to be white men, usually scientists and executives. Pang has enough insight to note that women can particularly benefit from vacation, for example, because it can relieve them of household and childcare responsibilities, in addition to their work duties, but beyond such passing references, he seems to have little interest in exploring how this research could be relevant to, or exemplified in, the lives of women. This is not to say that there are no women examples, but they tend to be passing, as opposed to the more in-depth profiles of Darwin and Eisenhower.
Although Pang’s thesis is not unique, he provides a good overview of studies in a variety of interconnected realms that contribute to a well-rounded approach to rest and its relationship to productivity. I see in this book the outlines of the best parts of my daily routine, largely discovered through trial and error. But the keys are here for the taking, if you haven’t already discovered them elsewhere.
You might also like Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert