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Want to Work Less and Accomplish More?

The importance of rest and how to get more of it.

by Janice Holly Booth

Well-Being
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Here’s a skill you’ll never see listed on a resume: world’s best napper. You're never going to claim to be an expert on the midday siesta when vying for a demanding job. You’re more likely to claim a willingness to work long hours and weekends to prove that you've got what it takes. But, it turns out, using deliberate rest to improve performance is a skill that’s been perfected by thousands of great leaders, thinkers, artists, designers and musicians throughout history.

“I argue that we misunderstand the relationship between work and rest. Work and rest are not polar opposites,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, visiting scholar at Stanford University and author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. “Rest is not work’s adversary. Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.”

“I argue that we misunderstand the relationship between work and rest. Work and rest are not polar opposites.”

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

Pang says that some of history’s most creative people—people whose achievements in art and science and literature are legendary—took rest very seriously. From Winston Churchill to Charles Darwin, they all found that in order to realize their ambitions, they needed rest. The right kind of rest restored their energy while allowing their muse, that mysterious part of your mind that helps drive the creative process, to keep going.

Too often today, that lesson is being lost. “With a few notable exceptions, today’s leaders treat stress and overwork as a badge of honor, brag about how little they sleep and how few vacation days they take,” says Pang. And because leaders work this way, so do their companies. But this is wrong-headed, he maintains. Rest, contrary to American attitudes, gives you more energy and dramatically improves your productivity.

There are different kinds of rest. Some stimulates our creative energy and some restores it. Research shows that restorative daytime naps, insight-generating long walks, vigorous exercise and lengthy vacations aren’t unproductive interruptions; they help creative people do their work.

When you rest and let your mind wander, your brain is almost as active as when you’re concentrating hard on a problem. While you’re not conscious of it, the resting brain turns out to be consolidating memories, making sense of the past and searching for solutions to problems that occupy the waking hours. When your brain is resting, it switches to a default mode network (DMN), a series of interconnected sections that activate as soon as you stop concentrating on external tasks. The brain then shifts from outward-focused to inward-focused cognition. The DMN and resting state are doing critical work on your behalf. In creative people, some of the same areas that are active when they’re concentrating on work are still switched on when they stare off into space; even when they’ve stopped trying to think about problems, their brains still plug away, generating ideas that they’ll use when they return to work.

See also: How to Quadruple Your Energy

Just as your brain keeps working on a problem even when you stop thinking about it, it keeps problem-solving when your mind wanders. Pang sees mind-wandering as a very good thing. In fact, up to half your waking hours are spent in this state, he says. “Something that we do that much of, and we do so easily, ought to have some benefit.” Your mind often heads toward the past or future, remembering episodes from your childhood, or you daydream what life would be like if you won the lottery or got a new job. Often, you comb through the past to prepare for the future. But your mind also wanders to problems you’ve been working on. But compared to its conscious, directed state, the wandering mind deals with problems in a looser, freer way, allowing for more creative, novel solutions to spring up.

Pang says that the optimal number of hours to work for peak productivity and creativity is four. Four hours of laser-focused attention on a project or a problem, with the occasional break, will yield better results than spending a full eight hours on the same task.

Ready to work less and do more? Here's the official crib sheet.

Have a Morning Routine. Many artists, scholars and leaders begin their days early. Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, has said that he makes sure “the first creative energy I spend of the day” is on the comic. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright would wake up at 4 a.m., work for three hours, then go back to sleep. Ernest Hemingway started writing around dawn. “The early start makes room in the day for rest. It gives us the right to rest. It can also boost your creativity during those working hours and prime your subconscious mind to keep working even when you turn your attention to other things.” Scientists have validated this. Early morning is when your inhibition—your ability to suppress distractions—is highest, so you can focus more intently and not be tempted to check email or take phone calls. By working early in the morning, you get your creative work done before the world has a chance to intrude.

Walk. Walking helps to clear the mind and see a fresh perspective on a problem. It’s one of the reasons walking meetings have become so popular. During a walking meeting you get physical stimulation and your brain is more active too. Many creative people consciously incorporate walking into their lives, and carry notebooks to capture the inevitable inspiration that comes while on the move.

Nap. World War II might not seem the most conducive context for serial napping, but Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur all built nap time into their daily routines. Neuroscientist Sara Mednick of the University of California, Riverside, found that napping for an hour or more during the day—long enough to allow for dreaming to occur—improves performance on memory and perceptual tasks. In another study from the University of Dusseldorf, even a five-minute nap yielded measureable improvement in retention.

Stop. A counterintuitive but effective form of deliberate rest is to stop working at just the right point: to see your next move but leave it until tomorrow. Stopping work on a project when you can see the next point to make, or when you still have a little energy left, makes it easier to get started the next day. It seems to tease your subconscious mind into thinking about your work while you’re doing other things.

See also: The Live-Longer Lifestyle Plan That Really Works

Sleep. “Sleep deprivation doesn’t just erode your reflexes, decision-making and ability to learn; it also has physical effects,” says Pang. It lowers your immunity and erodes your body’s ability to fight off infection. Scarily, scientists are also seeing a connection between sleep deprivation and dementia. People with Alzheimer’s disease spend less time in the deepest stages of sleep (REM or rapid eye movement, where dreaming occurs). Bad sleep affects cognitive ability at any age, but the correlation between interrupted or abnormal REM sleep and dementia is another indicator that the healthy brain uses REM sleep to do work that keeps the brain in good shape.

To live the rest of your life with a sense of balance and accomplishment, with vigor and enthusiasm, you must make an inviolable commitment to deliberate rest as part of your daily life, says Pang. “Rest is not something that the world gives us. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”