Busy has become such a boastful word in conversations about work, it’s almost an automatic response whether at an event, on social media, or having coffee. But, according to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, working less and resting more can actually increase productivity and improve mental health. In his new book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Pang makes the case for people to reclaim rest in both their work and personal lives.
We recently discussed with Pang why 'busy' is such a boastful word, how employers can recognize the importance of rest, and what individuals can do to be more restful in their work days:
Why is busy such a boastful word?
We have the example of technology industries and the world of finance that make overwork look profitable and kind of sexy. Those are industries where it seems like there is a genuine payoff to doing hundred hour weeks because you do that for a while and then you get the big house and the fancy car and the billion dollars and then you go off and you go surfing or whatever.
The other problem is that we have moved from a world in which the periods of work are discrete and well-defined. The sun goes down and you come in from the fields to home, or the factory whistle goes off and you go home. Today, especially those of us who are professionals or knowledge workers, live in a world in which the work is never done, in which the standards for good performance are just fuzzy enough to incentivize us to want to make things be a little better or to try and deliver a little bit more improvement on whatever we're working on.
Consequently, it's harder for us. There are fewer external signals about when we should stop work, and so it becomes easier to just keep going. Then the final reason is everybody else does it. We see people performing busyness all the time; if you are someone who is new to a job or new to a career and you see everybody else working that way, of course you're going to work that way, too.
The last reason is that at least for a while it can actually be fun. You’ve got a steep learning curve and you're proving to yourself that you're capable of doing this and you're proving to other people that you are a dedicated professional. But, it's easy to overlook the toll that that style of working takes and to not be aware of the ways in which it is actually genuinely counterproductive.
How do we get people to recognize the importance of rest?
Companies like Basecamp, Asana or Tower Paddle Boards, show that if leaders are willing to put in the time necessary to think hard about how they can use technology to help people be more productive during the times they’re actually in the office, and they understand the rhythm of their businesses well enough to implement these policies that don’t disrupt clients or customers, then it's actually entirely feasible.
At the individual or group level, policies like encouraging people to not check email in the evenings is a good way to put some distance between people and their work. Policies where you encourage that by giving people email-free weekends or email-free evenings, is a good and relatively easy first thing that you can do.
Another that I've started to see in some companies is blocking out periods where people can’t schedule meetings and workers are allowed to focus for two or three hours on their most important stuff. They have permission to not answer email or to let the phone go straight to voicemail. This recognizes that the modern open office is, in terms of attention and concentration, like the devil's floor plan.
What's something that the person who doesn't have access to a nice park nearby can do if they have 5 or 10 minutes of free time?
I would say that if you can do something physical, then that is terrific, and that physical thing can be walking down to the cafeteria and back, or someplace else within your building. That kind of physical activity has immediate cognitive benefits. It's obviously good for your heart, and walking in particular charges up your creativity.
Another thing that you can do is actually do nothing at all; we underestimate the value of what psychologists call mind wandering. That mental state you get into where either you are sitting and nothing is happening or where you are doing something totally on automatic, like folding laundry, that you don't need to concentrate on.
When we mind wander, our minds often keep working on problems that have been occupying our attention, and come up with answers. We've all had the small version of this, of trying to remember the name of that actress who was in that movie we saw, and we can't get it, but the answer comes to us when we're sitting on the bus or we're making dinner.
If someone could take one thing away from reading your book to spread the idea of rest, what do you want them to remember?
I want them to say that rest is actually really important. It's not inactivity or just lounging around, and it's not just a negative space defined by the absence of labour. Rest actually is incredibly valuable in everyone's life, whether you are 5 years old or 50 years old, no matter what profession you are in, we get untold benefit from taking rest and from taking rest seriously. We should recognise that benefit and reclaim it.
To learn more about The Rest Project visit http://www.deliberate.rest/