Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reading Rest

Last week, when I was on our college's spring break, I picked up and devoured the book "Rest (why you get more done when you work less)"  by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

I'm totally a fan of pop-psychology books, especially when they drift over toward the self-help genre, so this book was right up my alley. I was probably even more interested in the topic of the book because of (a) my academic schedule this year, which is a bit over the top, and (b) a new dog, who was severely stressing me out on my one week of break.  [Fortunately, the dog situation is getting more and more stable -- future updates coming down the pike.]

Pang's main point is that we shouldn't think of rest as the opposite of work, and that we shouldn't think that rest comes about when everything else is done.  Instead, he argues these main points:

  1. Work and rest are partners.
  2. Rest is active.
  3. Rest is a skill.
  4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains activity.

He gives about a gazillion examples of highly productive people who set up their lives to mix intense work with copious amounts of active rest: scientists, artists, writers, and Silicon Valley moguls.  He also brings in a bunch of scientific findings, both from neurology and also from social psychology.  The mix of topics he covers, and the mix of approaches to these topics, keeps the material very readable (although perhaps a bit repetitive toward the end).

In terms of practical, take-home advice, Pang has chapters on intense four hour work, on a morning routine, on walking, on napping, on stopping when you're ahead, and on sleeping.  These, he says, stimulate creativity in the first place.

I admit I'm not a napper, but the chapters on getting going early in the morning and on stopping while ahead really resonate with me.  For example, it's usually very hard for me to get any real math done during the semester; normally I do the bulk of my research during the summer or during sabbaticals.  But this year, I've deliberately tried to do 10 minutes of math every morning.  And (as Pang recommends), I try to stop not when I'm stuck, but when I know what the next step is and I'd be excited to go ahead and do that. It's just 10 minutes, but the fact that I do it (almost) every day, and that it's early in the day and that I end with the next step already calling to me means that I keep thinking about my math all the time.  And not just thinking, but producing:  I just sent a draft of a paper to my co-authors, asking them for feedback before I send it off to a journal.  So that's making me pretty happy.

If the first set of chapters describe how to stimulate creativity, there are also several chapters on sustaining creativity over a lifetime via recovery, exercise, deep play, and sabbaticals.   His "exercise" chapter isn't just about signing up for a pilates class.  He describes how successful people (nobel laureates, authors, etc) often have really intense attachments to a particular kind of exercise: mountain climbing, competitive soccer, and running (lots and lots of marathoners).  He points out over and over again that active people very deliberately plan these kinds of "rest" into their days and into their lives.

It's a good book, a quick read.  And it's made me think about the spaces in my day a bit differently.  In fact, yesterday I found that I'd finished my to-do list early and had an hour before my next meeting, so I thought about the book and went for a walk, which was lovely.  

The one thing Pang doesn't describe, which I would have thought would be an obvious component of rest for productive people, is reading.  Diving into this book was both a real mental escape for me and also a way to make my times of labor (with my math, with my committee work, and even with my dog) more focused and productive.  It's an odd omission, so I'll just suggest that reading this book might be a great way to take a break, if you're looking for one.


  1. Thanks for the positive words about REST!

    Why not talk about reading as a form of deliberate rest? Mainly because it felt like a pretty familiar case, and I wasn't going to be able to say more about the virtues of literature that hadn't already been said by Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold or whoever. And, now that I think about it, for lots of the people I talk about, reading was a little too much like their regular work to be restful. (The big exception is reading in another language: Winston Churchill was not unusual in arguing that "Since change is an essential element in diversion of all kinds, it is naturally more restful and refreshing to read in a different language from in which one’s ordinary daily work is done.")

    1. Whoa! I got a reply from the actual *author*! I'm feeling lucky.

      Fortunately for me, I read more like Emily Dickinson than like Winston Churchill. Like her, I think this way:

      There is no Frigate like a Book
      To take us Lands away
      Nor any Coursers like a Page
      Of prancing Poetry –
      This Traverse may the poorest take
      Without oppress of Toll –
      How frugal is the Chariot
      That bears the Human Soul –

      and so books like yours can transport me out of, and back into, my life in restful AND productive ways.