In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang starts with a simple premise: working more hours does not mean getting the most—or best—work done. Part self-help, part scientific findings, part biographical anecdotes, Rest is an engaging, well written and researched read for white collar workers interested in improving their productivity.
The book is organized into three parts: an introduction and two opening chapters; the pith of the book, concerning the schedules and techniques of successful workers; and a concluding section on sustaining productivity.
The beginning reads like a TED talk, presenting the idea of working smarter instead of more as innovative and life-changing. The second chapter, “The Science of Rest,” is perhaps the weakest part of the book, essentially a list of studies showing that brains are at work even when they’re wandering. To an actual scientist, the brief summaries of these studies may not be completely satisfying; to the reader willing to take the author’s word for it, the multitude of the studies are unnecessary.
The heart of the book starts fifty pages in with the chapter “Four Hours.” Supported by both historical examples and research, Pang argues that people have a limit of about four hours of good, focused work in them per day. “Morning Routine” makes the case that those four hours should be spent at the beginning of the day, before any distractions have room to interrupt. Anthony Trollope, who woke up extremely early and wrote like clockwork every morning is the most striking—if not most representative, considering he had a full-time job he went to afterward—example of both practices. As in the rest of the book, the majority of the models held up consist of musicians, artists, scientists, CEOs, politicians, academics, and writers—in other words, people who make a living by the quality of their ideas and have higher-than-average control over their schedules.
Next Pang notes that good thoughts often come on walks, again citing both studies and historical figures. He notes that not only does walking provide stimulation and promote creativity, it also gives the mind just enough distance from a task to dislodge insights that have remained elusive in the lab or study. At the end of the chapter, Pang points out that because walking often creates or coalesces good ideas, many creative people throughout history have carried notebooks to jot down their thoughts mid-stroll. Thomas Hobbes apparently went so far as to carry a walking cane with an inkwell built into its handle.
At this point, Pang moves toward subjects more obviously about rest. First, he notes that many successful people (the most interesting examples of which are Churchill and Dali) make room in their schedules for regular naps. Pang takes a rare, charming cheeky, departure from his professional tone to note that if the leader of the Allies took naps, we should perhaps not be so quick to dismiss them as something only meant for kindergarteners on little mats.
The next few chapters include advice about knowing when and where to stop in one’s work, why sleep is so essential, and the importance of regularly taking a break from work. This last chapter, “Recovery,” is where the deliberately secular nature of the book is most conspicuous. Although many of the historical figures used as examples elsewhere in the book were regular church-goers and Sabbath-keepers, Pang chooses not to mention this form of “recovery” at all. Indeed, reference to religious beliefs and practices are all but non-existent in the entire work. The omission is a reminder that, despite all the academic research findings and the extensive bibliography, Rest is a self-help book with information cherry-picked to support Pang’s pre-conceived points, not an impartial study.
The next chapter, “Exercise,” notes that many people who are professionally successful are also serious athletes. The assertion that physical exertion is helpful in increasing concentration and stamina is a valid one, but the argument is slightly hampered by many of the biographical examples seeming more correlative than causative. The reader must ask: is someone a successful inventor because they won an Olympic medal, or is a very driven person just more likely to excel in multiple pursuits?
The next chapter, “Deep Play,” although again a sound theory, suffers from the same logical fallacy. It would seem that people who practice hobbies intensely are more likely to also focus to an admirable degree at work, not that a lazy worker will become more successful at their job if they take up rock climbing. The chapter also contains the most random example in the whole book: a giant mechanical giraffe built by a fire alarm system installer. Compared to usual cast of Nobel winners and world leaders, the inclusion of the electric giraffe seems…well, as random as a massive electric giraffe.
The book concludes with an argument for sabbaticals—coincidently the genesis for Rest. The examples range from the traditional sabbatical taken every seven years to an annual one week retreat. The intents also vary: some appear to be a vacation from work, while others are simply time away from the office to focus intensely without everyday distractions. The example of Bill Gate’s “think weeks”—time spent alone in a secluded cottage reading up on industry trends—are obviously a break from his routine, but not from his profession.
The final chapter reiterates the central theme: always feeling pressed for time and being a slave to the office may look like a serious job, but’s it’s not actually the most effective or efficient way to work. Creativity and real achievement are often the result of deliberately organized lives that balance focused work with “active rest.”
The principles set forth in Rest are sound; the examples are inspiring; and the research, for the most part, is convincing (to his credit, Pang himself admits that some of the research results are questionable in their real-life application). Many white collar workers would benefit from incorporating Pang’s advice into their schedules and lives. Waking up early to work without distractions, taking walks, and pursuing interesting hobbies may not transform every person into the type of world-class writer or leader Pang so often references, but they’re certainly effective ways to harness native talent and live a more productive, fulfilling life.