Book Review: Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

I am always looking for books that discuss neglected aspects of the faith and work conversation. Rest is certainly one such aspect and I’m pleased to see an increasing numbers of books (such as Garden City) discussing it.

Rest is written for a secular audience, but it has lessons for the FAW conversation. The author, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, is the founder of the Restful Company, a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and his writing has appeared in Scientific American, the Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and American Scholar. 

For most of us, overwork is the new normal and rest is an afterthought. In our busy lives, rest is defined as the absence of work: late-night TV binges, hours spent trawling the internet, something to do once we’ve finished everything else on our to-do lists. But dismissing rest stifles our ability to think creatively and truly recharge.—from the book’s inside front cover

This book is equally about work and rest. While this seem like a contradiction, it serves to illustrate the thesis. Many of us focus on working better, while giving little if any attention to rest. Productivity literature is all about how to work more efficiently: the role of rest in the lives of creative and productive people is seldom if ever discussed.

From the very outset, it is important to note Pang’s definition of rest. Pang is not referring to kicking back and catching up on your favorite TV series in Netflix:

What I mean by rest is engaging in restorative activity. It’s not necessarily completely passive for one thing. We tend to think of rest as putting your feet up and you’ve got the margarita and you’re binge-watching Orange is the New Black. For people in my study, their idea of rest was more vigorous than our idea of exercise. These are people who go on long walks covering 15 or 20 miles in a day or climb mountains on vacation. For them, restful activities were often vigorous and mentally engaging but they experienced them as restorative because they offered a complete break from their normal working lives.

The author presents four guiding insights for the book that stem from his thinking and research on rest:

  1. Work and rest are partners.
  2. Rest is active.
  3. Rest is a skill.
  4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity.

Throughout the book he cites very interesting research on the brain’s creative work. The research is complex and ongoing, but has revealed the cognitive processes that occur during creative moments. While it’s clear that the brain’s creative work will never be done, the brain continues to work during periods of rest examining problems and determining possible answers and outcomes:

We need to rethink the relationship between work and rest, acknowledge their intimate connection, and rediscover the role that rest can play in helping us be creative and productive. We shouldn’t regard rest as a mere physical necessity to be satisfied grudgingly; we should see it as an opportunity. When we stop and rest properly, we’re not paying a tax on creativity. We’re investing in it.

Pang seeks to redefine our perceptions toward rest. Rest is oftentimes associated, even equated, with leisure. While this is certain true for one form of rest, physical activity can be more restful than we think and mental rest can be more active than we may realize. Rest is also a skill that like singing and running can be developed, learned, and/or honed:

Deliberate rest helps you recover from the stresses and exhaustion of the day, allows new experiences and lessons to settle in your memory, and gives your subconscious mind space to keep working. It’s often in these periods of deliberate rest and apparent leisure — that you can have some of your best ideas.

…it’s also possible to rest in ways that are challenging and rewarding, that make you happier and healthier and literally make your mind work better.

Finally, Pang seeks to make a connection between rest and creativity. Creativity is oftentimes fostered by a balance of intense periods of work and downtime in the same work day. Other methods of deliberate rest include exercise, sports, hobbies, sabbatical retreats, and travel.

Today we venerate the child entrepreneur and envy the teenage billionaire. But long creative lives challenge our assumptions that youth is essential for good work, that fast beats deliberate, that reckless energy triumphs over steady experience, that greatness is a race against age and obsolescence.

He says of his interest in rest,

It got started when I noticed a paradox in the lives of some really creative people: people like Charles Darwin, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, who are obsessed with their work. But when you look at how many hours a day they spent working, it’s a surprisingly small number. Living in Silicon Valley and growing up in an era that assumes overwork is the norm, the idea that you could go in the opposite direction and yet still do really amazing stuff was really compelling. I started to think that maybe the secret had to do not just with how they work or their innate intelligence but also with the way they rested. What I found is a community of people including scientists and artists and authors who follow this pattern of working very intensively a few hours a day and then resting deliberately in various ways. Rest is something we all know how to do naturally, but it’s also something we can treat as a skill. -Pang, regarding the genesis of this book, in an interview with Ferris Jabr at Scientific American

Rest has received some impressive endorsements from journalists, executives, and scholars in the field of neurosciences. Here is a sampling:

“In his important new book, Pang calmly and meticulously shows us how the best, most creative work, and the most meaningful and joyful lives, are built on the skills, not of mindless busyness, but of deliberate rest, deep play, and taking time to think. A game-changing book for the weary modern world.”
-Brigid Schulte, award-winning journalist and author of the New York Times bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

“Alex Pang wants us to treat work and rest as equals. In his fascinating, well-researched and highly readable new book Rest, he makes an excellent case for the critical importance of rest in our lives, drawing from the rest habits of some of our most famous scientists, writers and creatives from history, from neuroscience research as well as examples from some of the most productive people working today. You will consider how and why you rest in a completely new light after reading this book.”
-Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University and author of Healthy Brain Happy Life: A personal program to activate your brain and do everything better

One theme that Pang emphasizes throughout the book is intentionality. Pang is not advocating for more sleep; he is arguing for the importance and value of a life marked by rest.

Rest doesn’t just magically appear when we need it, especially in today’s busy world. Taking rest seriously requires recognizing its importance, claiming our right to rest, and carving out and defending space for rest in our daily lives. We have to choose to make an earlier start to the day to earn time to rest later; we have to reserve space on the daily calendar for a walk, or keep time free on the weekends for a hobby or sport; we must arrange our finances and business affairs so we can take a sabbatical.

I recommend this book for your reading and careful consideration. Pang makes a compelling case for the need for (and likely the need to increase) rest in our lives. This rest, while certainly good on its own, also serves to add value to all other aspects of lives, making us more creative and more productive Christians and members of society who seek its prosperity and flourishing.

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