Have you ever wondered how Charles Darwin managed to write more than 19 books while working only 5 hours a day? I did and so did Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I first heard about the author in a podcast about “Rest” through meditation Calm app where Soojung-Kim Pang talked about rest that lets you regenerate your energy and sustain your creativity. There, he mentioned that he wrote a book that he simply called “Rest”. I was intrigued by his session on a podcast – so here comes the review of “Rest”.
Work And Rest
Soojung-Kim Pang mentions that we tend to see work and rest as two opposites and that often rest is considered that time when we do not have to do anything. To quote the author, rest is usually seen as “a negative space in a life defined by toil and ambition and accomplishment”.
“In a twenty-four/seven, always-on world, the concept of turning off is an anachronism”.
He also mentions that in our days overworking is seen as a badge of honor and it is not uncommon that even with the number of vacations available to us, we often do not take them because we feel bad about falling behind. This creates a perception that work and rest are two opposites – the work on one side and the rest on the other. Soojung-Kim Pang’s main argument that goes through the whole book is that both work and rest are the two parts of the same coin and a good rest is essential for good work. What kind of work it is a good work?
“The work that gives your life meaning; the work that lets you be your best self and helps you become a better self; the work that is an unparalleled pleasure when it goes well and is worth fighting and sacrificing for when it goes poorly; the work that you are willing to organize your life around”.
I surely would love to find that kind of creative work and sustain it for a long time. And Soojung-Kim Pang has some suggestions for how you can do it.
History Of Rest
Humans have never worked as much as they do nowadays throughout history. In earlier times, knowledge and creative work were considered a product of leisure. With the rise of the marketplace and technology, knowledge became not the product of leisure but “a product of production”. Scientists, architects, and artists were converted from thinkers to intellectual workers that can sit 8 hours a day in offices. As Soojung-Kim notes:
“These philosophical arguments might seem arcane, but the assumptions that knowledge is produced rather than discovered or revealed, that the amount of work that goes into an idea determines its importance, and that the creation of ideas can be institutionalized, all guide our thinking about work today”.
And consequently, our thinking about the rest.
Science Of Rest
Deliberate rest, according to Pang who consults multiple research articles in his book, stimulates and sustains creativity and allows our subconscious mind to wander and ponder over solutions. In the earlier days of neuroscience, the belief that resting brains are inactive was widespread but that turned out not to be true. During resting state, our brain is often occupied by “mind-wandering” which can go to either past or future. But another place our mind wanders to is present and the problems that we are actively working on and deals with them in a more relaxed way. This is when the solutions to hard problems or new ideas appear – during rest. Interesting fact: the creators of Instagram came up with the idea for the app during their vacation in Mexico.
Another fascinating fact is that research has found that low background noise can stimulate creativity. If you one of those people who like working in the cafes, you can probably relate to this – “the low buzz of conversations and comings and goings provides a useful stimulus, loosening the mind just enough to encourage associative thinking but not so much as to really drive you off the task”. This definitely works on me – I am one of those people who like working in the libraries where you can talk: I can here students whispering and discussing things but the background noise does not affect my concentration.
Some other studies on rest mention that the brain uses a two-step process to create anything new – first step is generating a lot of ideas and the second step is their evaluation. It turns out, that the phase when we generate the most ideas in is a default mode when our brain is resting.
Lastly, another model of how creative ideas are born is outlined by Graham Wallas, who notes three stages:
- Preparation: consists of a lot of reading, sketching, assembling and collecting information
- Incubation: this is when your brain actually ponders consciously over a problem
- Illumination: when your “unconscious will drive to you to [this stage] and the answer will burst into your consciousness”.
You can probably already guess that illumination also happens during the phase when our brain is in the default resting mode and when it ponders over creative solutions in a relaxed way.
This is all good and interesting research but how do we actually sustain our brain’s creativity through rest as a deliberate activity? Soojung-Kim Pang has answers for this as well.
Methods And Suggestions
A lot of influential writers and artists actually woke up early to concentrate on their most important work in the morning. To name a few – Stephen King, Alice Munroe or Charles Darwin, all believed that routine is the key to sustain creative production. In the afternoon though, most of them have deliberate rest periods:
“Their afternoon may be spent doing more mundane tasks, but they’re able to do more, and do better work because they use routines, concentrated periods of focused work, and periods of rest, rather than long labor”.
“I have walked myself into my best thoughts” – Soren Kierkegaard.
Have you ever hear about walking meetings in the big tech companies in Silicon Valley? Or that Charles Dickens walked at least 5 miles each day? Yep, walking helps you clear the mind and get a new perspective on a problem. The nature around us provides enough information in the environment to occupy our conscious mind and leave the unconscious to ponder over the problems that we have been working on.
Sleep is important and it is a well-known fact. But so are naps. For example, Salvador Dali would nap every day in his chair but arrange the click in his hands in a way that once he starts falling into a deep sleep, it would fall on the floor and make a sound loud enough to wake him up. He claimed that creative vision came to him during the naps. This technique is called “hypnagogic sleep” nowadays.
Not only do naps refresh our brains and stimulate creativity, they also have the potential to improve our perceptual memory and boost alertness.
Hemingway always finished his writing day when he got a new idea – he got something enough to start with tomorrow and let his mind subconsciously wander for a day before he would start working with it. So “stop at the strategic point and continue next day” (I am putting it short here but you can find plenty of research evidence that Soojung-Kim put together).
According to Soojung-Kim Pan, a deep play has a few main features: it is mentally absorbing and offers the players the new challenges to respond to; it offers them a new context to use their skills in and the same satisfaction as work but on a different scale. For example for Churchill, it was painting and for Viktor Frank, the author of “Men’s Search For Meaning”, it was climbing. Basically, you can find a new hobby that diverts your attention from work but that is exciting and challenging for you.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pan also mentions the sleep, exercise, and sabbaticals as important components of rest but I will let you read about those on your own. By the way, reading is also a form of deliberate rest – enjoy!
However much you love the game, at some point you need to stop playing and rest.