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Deliberate Rest: Why the Secret to Success Is Taking a Break

So work and rest aren’t opposites like black and white or good and evil; they’re more like different points on life’s wave. You can’t have a crest without a trough. You can’t have the highs without the lows. Neither can exist without the other. 

When you examine the lives of history’s most creative figures, you are immediately confronted with a paradox: they organize their lives around their work, but not their days. 

Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.

How did they manage to be so accomplished? Can a generation raised to believe that 80-hour workweeks are necessary for success learn something from the lives of the people who directed Wild Strawberries, laid the foundations of chaos theory and topology, and wrote Great Expectations

I think we can. If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they labored but how they rested, and how the two relate. 

Many of us are interested in how to work better, but we don’t think very much about how to rest better. Even more problematic, we think of rest as simply the absence of work, not as something that stands on its own or has its own qualities. 

When we think of rest as work’s opposite, we take it less seriously and even avoid it. Americans work more and vacation less than almost any other nationality in the world. Contrary to the expectations of economists (and in defiance of common sense), as we become more productive, we work longer hours, not shorter. We leave vacation days unused. When we do finally go on vacation, we compulsively check our e-mail. 

I argue that we misunderstand the relationship between work and rest. Work and rest are not polar opposites. You cannot talk about rest without also talking about work. Writing about only one is like writing a romance and naming only one of the lovers. 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. Some of history’s most creative people, people whose achievements in art and science and literature are legendary, took rest very seriously. They found that in order to realize their ambitions, to do the kind of work they wanted to, they needed rest. The right kinds of rest would restore their energy while allowing their muse, that mysterious part of their minds that helps drive the creative process, to keep going. 

So work and rest aren’t opposites like black and white or good and evil; they’re more like different points on life’s wave. You can’t have a crest without a trough. You can’t have the highs without the lows. Neither can exist without the other. 

There are four big insights that guide my thinking about rest.

1) Work and rest are partners. 

Rest is an essential component of good work. World-class musicians, Olympic athletes, writers, designers, and other accomplished and creative people alternate daily periods of intense work and concentration with long breaks. 

2) Rest is active. 

When we think of rest, we usually think of passive activities: a nap, lying in the couch, watching sports on television, or binge-watching a popular TV series. at’s one form of rest. But physical activity is more restful than we expect, and mental rest is more active than we realize. 

For a surprising number of creative people—including people in professions we usually think of as dominated by nerdy, bookish people who don’t see the sun for weeks— strenuous, physically challenging, even life-threatening exercise is an essential part of their routine. Some walk miles every day or spend weekends working in their gardens. Some are always in training for the next marathon; others rock climb or scale mountains. their idea of rest is more vigorous than our idea of exercise. 

3) Rest is a skill. 

Rest turns out to be like sex or singing or running. Everyone basically knows how to do it, but with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better. You can enjoy rest more profoundly and be more refreshed and restored. People don’t just become world-class performers through deliberate practice. They also practice what you could call deliberate rest. They find rest that is psychologically and physically restorative, but also mentally productive. Deliberate rest helps you recover from the stresses and exhaustion of the day, allows new experiences and lessons to settle in your memory, and gives your subconscious mind space to keep working. It’s often in these periods of deliberate rest and apparent leisure—when you’re not obviously working, or trying to work—that you can have some of your best ideas. 

4) Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity. 

For everyone, work and rest are like night and day: the one cannot happen without the other. For super creative people, though, deliberate rest plays an important but usually unrecognized role in their creative lives. Some kinds of deliberate rest stimulate creativity. Many notable creatives do their most intense work early in the morning, when their minds are freshest and least prone to distraction. They go on walks or take naps during the day to revive and maintain their energy while allowing their subconscious minds time to wander and explore. They often leave a small task unfinished when they stop work, to make it easier to start the next day. They structure their days to have time for both intense, focused work and downtime. These activities help them to develop more creative solutions to problems and to find those solutions more rapidly and with less effort. 

Other kinds of deliberate rest make creativity sustainable. Lots of great writers, scientists, and artists exercise regularly, and some are enthusiastic, accomplished athletes. They show an impressive consistency in habits and hobbies. They balance busy lives with deep play, forms of rest that are psychologically restorative, physically active, and personally meaningful. They renew their creative reserves on sabbaticals, retreats during which they’re free to travel, explore new ideas, and cultivate new interests.

This book also isn’t meant to just be a life-hacking manual, nor do I advocate turning rest into a tool for increasing our productivity or value in the marketplace. Rest does not present one pattern that everyone should follow. I don’t propose a single system because I don’t believe that there’s a single way we all should work. Workplaces vary hugely in their rhythms and demands, and human brains are too varied, creativity too multifaceted, and lives too diverse for simple recommendations. Still, I do believe that everyone has work that they can do brilliantly; that we all have the potential to find the work that gives our lives meaning and make effort and practice and sacrifice worthwhile; and that we can figure out what that work is and how to rest to do it well. Further, I believe that the principle of deliberate rest can be adapted to any job and any workplace, whether you’re a professional, a factory worker, a police officer, or a parent. 

If you recognize that work and rest are two sides of the same coin, that you can get more from rest by getting better at it and that by giving it a place in your life you’ll stand a better chance of living the life you want, you’ll be able to do your job, and your life’s work, better.

Adapted excerpt from REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Pang. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.




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