Pang’s Own Journey To Understanding Rest
I first stumbled upon Alex Pang when my cousin suggested I read his book Rest, which was published in 2016. The book argues that we are ignoring Rest – a key component of a life well lived and more practically (at least in the short-term) a vital component to getting more done while working less.
I’ve also written about Pang’s own experience with a sabbatical and how he discovered a renewed sense of energy for engaging with the world.
As I’ve talked with people that have taken leaves from work – planned or unplanned – I find a similar pattern. I find that people discover or even re-discover hobbies, interests or projects that they are drawn to. Some people write books, some people decide to volunteer.
During Alex’s three-month sabbatical, he had a moment that made it seem like everything he thought about his work was wrong:
It was about a month into it that I had this realization that I was getting incredible amounts of stuff done, I was reading huge numbers of books, I was having all these ideas, great conversations, producing lots of stuff but I didn’t have this sense of being constantly time-pressured and always being half a project behind in my entire life that was just part of normal existence in silicon valley. It was at this point that I realized I had made a significant transition, a mental shift, but also a shift in how I experienced time. It started me thinking about the relationship between work and leisure and rest and creative work.
I asked him if there was a single moment in which all of this came to him.
I had been reading Virginia Woolf’s book A Room Of One’s Own that makes the argument that for in order for women to be creative, but really for anyone to be creative, they needed a certain kind of space and independence that had long been denied to women…That got me thinking about all these issues and their interconnection.
The connection between rest and leisure is something that has bubbled up in the modern consciousness. I’ve written about how we mistake a vacation for leisure, Andrew Taggart writes about how Leisure was once seen as the supreme aim of life and Pang writes about losing touch with the essence of the idea in Rest (my own book notes here).
Of course, I can’t claim any special insight here. The ancient Greeks saw rest as a great gift, as the pinnacle of civilized life. The Roman Stoics argued that you cannot have a good life without good work. Indeed, virtually every ancient society, recognized that both work and rest were necessary for a good life: one provided the means to live, the other gave meaning to life. Today, we’ve lost touch with that wisdom, and our lives are poorer and less fulfilling as a result. It’s time we rediscovered the good that rest can do.
Working Less = Doing More?
In his book Rest, he quotes an example of Academics from the 1950s:
A survey of scientists’ working lives conducted in the early 1950s yielded results in a similar range. Illinois Institute of Technology psychology professors Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues about their work habits and schedules, then graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced. You might expect that the result would be a straight line showing that the more hours scientists worked, the more articles they published. But it wasn’t. The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between ten to twenty hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working thirty-five hours a week were half as productive as their twenty-hours-a-week colleagues.
The surprising chart of results looked like this:
What he found over and over again was a theme of people that do great creative work for about four hours per day:
Toulouse noted that Poincaré kept very regular hours. He did his hardest thinking between 10 a.m. and noon, and again between five and seven in the afternoon. The nineteenth century’s most towering mathematical genius worked just enough to get his mind around a problem—about four hours a day.
But this does not mean they work 4 hours a day and then just lounge around for the rest of the day. Pang has found that people are very deliberate about their rest.
They often have hobbies that are almost as absorbing as their work – sometimes being time-consuming or physically challenging.
Can the 4-day workweek be a bait & switch for doing better work and finding more rest?
As Alex says in our conversation, overwork has become the norm, even a “badge of honor” in the Western world for knowledge work:
Overwork is now seen as a badge of honor rather than a symptom of a problem and this is a relatively new things. Its so common now, its easy to see it as a natural and inevitable thing. However, its actually very new. If you’re a knowledge work, you naturally work harder than others is really a reversal of practice in the past.
His book Rest led him to find companies that were experimenting with the 4-day workweek and finding that much of what Alex has written about in Rest is coming true – that they are able to do the same or more in less time. This is something I talked about with Tash Walker, who moved her company to a 4-day week in 2019 and found many of the benefits that Pang predicted.
He is launching a new book in 2020 and sharing more stories about the 4-day week – sign up to get a notification when the book is on sale below.