Perfect the art of rest: how you can work less to get more done


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Did you know that letting your mind wander could be the most productive time you spend today? According to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of The Distraction Addiction, those periods when the mind isn’t focused are the times when the creative areas of our brain are the most active. “It’s why mind-wandering is a lot more valuable than we might think,” says the American, whose new book Rest: How Working Less Gets More Done is out next year. “Rest is every bit as important for people as learning how to breathe is for opera singers or learning how to run correctly is for athletes. From the outside it looks completely natural but rest is something you can learn to do better. Rest is a skill.”

Follow Soojung-Kim Pang's tips on how you can work less to achieve more:

1. Take your cue from Darwin

Charles Darwin spent about five hours a day in his study. This is a guy who changed the course of science. He sailed around the world and made incredible intellectual advances, yet if he was a professor today and we reviewed his time-card people would be shocked to see how little he seemed to be working.

Rather than assume his productivity – late into life - was simply down to his super-genius brain, I looked at what he did for the other 19 hours a day, when he was not working. I realised there are very consistent patterns between people as different as Darwin, Charles Dickens, Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre and pulp fiction writers like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King in the way they organise their working life. All of these great minds divide their days clearly between work and rest. You don’t put rest above work - each has its own place - but rest is the reward that you get after you meet your deadline. Clearly defining the two is key.

2. Perfect the art of resting

The concept of deliberate rest as something to practice was formulated by psychologist Anders Ericsson - he wanted to find out what distinguishes world-class performers from the rest. As well as practicing more than others - over the course of 10 years they spend 10,000 hours – he found that they sleep more than average (they take naps during the day) and they don’t spend as much time just hanging out. They are much better at explaining what they do, and how much time they spend doing it. In other words, bringing the same kind of self-discipline and mindfulness to their time off as they do to their practice.

3. Rest your mind and work up a sweat

Both Darwin and Dickens would take very long walks and intentionally not bring a book or notebook. By de-focusing and not trying to solve problems they allowed the subconscious mind to work on problems without their conscious effort. Physical activity plays an important part in deliberate rest. A lot of successful writers and scientists tend to stay very physically active throughout their life. The idea that if you are painter or programmer you aren’t going to be athletic could not be more wrong.

4. Leave your work half done

Work in bursts of two intensive hours then take a break. It’s not about buckling down, getting lost in your work and going at it until you drop. Ernest Hemingway talked about how he would write not until he felt tired, but until he felt he could keep going, and then he would stop in mid-sentence for the day. The reason? The hardest thing to do the next day is to face a blank page. For Hemingway, easing into work with a thought that had been started proved to be a very useful discovery.

5. Be an early bird

Do your most important work first. Do it early. Do it before anyone can distract you, whether you have total control of your day or whether you are working in an office and writing your first novel on the side. Aside from the fact that people are more creative in the early morning, as a practical matter, you don’t give the rest of the world the chance to get a look in and you are freer to schedule the rest of your day. For those who don’t have that kind of flexibility - neurosurgeons can’t put off operating on someone for example - be firm about rest at the weekends, taking the phone off the hook and preserving time as your own.

6. True rest doesn't come from Netflix

Successful people often have hobbies that are technically or physically challenging, which they sometimes take as seriously as their work. Winston Churchill’s love of painting is a good example. Although it was an escape, he also found it required the same decisiveness, focus and ability to identify critical details required in a good politician or general. This is what anthropologists call deep play. It is why a lot of the Nobel Prize winners are gardeners for example. It’s physically strenuous, involves problem solving as well as a lot of semi-mindless routine physical activity that allows your mind to really wander.

7. Take a digital Sabbath

Digital distractions – Facebook/games/Twitter/binge-watching the cool new show on Netflix - not only get in the way of our ability to concentrate, it takes up time that we could spend productively or actively resting. As far as your brain is concerned, there is a very big difference between taking a walk and checking Facebook. They both may be leisure activities, but one is much more likely to yield an ‘AHA’ moment.

A digital Sabbath is an opportunity for you to be alone with your thoughts. It makes you engage with the world around you, rather than the one on your screen. It makes it easier for you to take back control of your digital life and make better decisions about how you spend your time.

8. Control your distractions

Download Internet blocking software that will prevent your access to specific websites during working hours. The Freedom app lets you specify the number of hours you want to be offline, it turns off your connection so you must restart your computer to get back online. On your smartphone, turn off as many notifications as you can and customise your ring tones for the people who really matter. Those who strip their days down to work, rest, family and pets don’t talk about their lives being poorer as a result. They are able to get their work done, and when you have a life like that, 20 less minutes per day on Facebook does not feel like a sacrifice at all.

Jo Malone London available at: Fenwick Brent CrossNewcastleTunbridge Wells



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By Claire Brayford