“Why the f*ck do I feel so unproductive and uncreative?”
It was August 2017 as I wrote these words in my notebook. I was sitting in my quiet room in an old guesthouse in the small town of Zao Onsen, overlooking the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture.
I was on holiday, a slow trip on local trains through rural Japan. I thought it might be nice to get a break from fast-paced Tokyo for a few days, explore Japan a bit more, and get a fresh perspective. It wasn’t an attempt to escape, I didn’t feel like there was anything I wanted or needed to escape from. I thought everything was great. I love Tokyo. And I also love my job and my company! Yet after a few days away from it all, it hit me.
I realized that never since these concepts have had any real meaning to me, I had felt less productive or creative.
I also realized that I had never felt more distracted and unable to focus before.
“The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention.” — Kevin Kelly
I started thinking back to my PhD days.
At the same time as doing my research in quantum physics I also co-founded a startup, worked several hours a week as a private tutor, trained for ultra-marathons (up to 15+ hours of running a week during peak training time, not including other preparation and recovery activities), and somehow still found ample time to read widely, take naps and meditate daily, work on random creative projects, get drunk with friends (maybe a bit too frequently…), experiment in my kitchen with coffee and food, as well as experiment with my own body by means of various “supplements” or unusual eating and sleeping patterns, and much more.
Despite all this, very rarely did I feel stressed or busy. In fact I rarely spent more than four hours a day actually engaged in work. But those hours spent were highly productive.
Now back to 2017. Despite doing an exciting job I thought I loved, I realized how unsatisfied I actually was.
Days just seemed to drag on seemingly without any real progress, even though I felt more busy than ever and certainly spent more time engaged in “work” than ever. A lot of the time I was operating on autopilot, fairly unconscious of what I was actually doing, reactive.
Inspiration didn’t just come naturally anymore. In my free time I didn’t feel the same kind of motivation to pursue other interests as I used to. More than just uncreative and unproductive, I felt pretty boring compared to my old self.
At that point I was semi-seriously pondering the idea of quitting my job and building a career as a freelancer instead, concluding that working for a company might just not be the right thing for me.
All too often we don’t even realize how unsatisfying things are, we are too caught up in the everyday distractions to notice, too content with our “frantic, self-congratulatory busyness” as Tim Kreider points out in his wonderful essay “Lazy: A Manifesto”.
Most people are probably not even aware that they are operating far from optimal. I am lucky enough to have experienced that it can be different. And still, it took me a vacation far away from any distractions to notice for myself.
Even after coming back I quickly settled back into my usual habits and daily routine and almost forgot about my realizations. But I gradually started being more aware of the issue. And instead of just giving up and quitting or becoming satisfied with these new feelings (that voice saying “Maybe I am just getting old?”), I was trying to figure out what the actual problems were and how they could be solved.
The following are some of the insights I have gained since then.
“Interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction” — Cal Newport
The above quote from Cal Newport’s excellent book “Deep Work — Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work” (which inspired many of the insights in this article) points at one of the first culprits I identified for my dilemma.
Newport defines Deep Work as
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
However, in an average office setting such a state of prolonged “distraction-free concentration” is all but impossible. We are constantly presented with interruptions and distractions.
And this is no longer restricted to physically being in the office, since we can be, and often are expected to be, reachable everywhere and any time via email, Slack or any number of other communication tools meant to increase workplace productivity.
Even worse, these distractions are far from limited to work, but also encroach on our private lives. Almost all big tech companies employ droves of psychologists and clever product designers trying to make sure that their product is more attention grabbing than the next company’s, gets us to engage more often with their app, or makes us return more and more frequently to their website.
And they are succeeding! If you have made it this far at all, how many times have you already checked your email, Facebook or Instagram?
I challenge you to read the remainder of this article uninterrupted, turning off your notification and resisting the tempting call of distraction!
The effects of this are in fact devastating to our productivity, as Sophie Leroy notes in her research on “Attention Residue”. When switching between tasks, attention does not immediately follow. A residue of it remains on the previous task. The effect is even worse if the distraction creating task cannot be fully completed, such as glancing at an incoming email or Slack message without immediately answering it or resolving the issue raised. The mind is left with some attention on an unfinished task. And the more intense the attention residue, the worse the performance on subsequent tasks.
Long uninterrupted stretches of concentration are also essential for learning any new skill, or wrapping our heads around complex concepts. Only deliberate focused practice leads to the reinforcement of neural pathways, while distracted work causes too many circuits firing simultaneously for any one of them to strengthen.
Constant attention switching has a lasting negative impact on the brain. True Deep Work becomes impossible.
The trend towards open offices is, contrary to common perception, further eroding our attention and capability for Deep Work. More and more studies show that open offices are far from ideal, causing both reduced productivity as well as lower workplace satisfaction. A more promising alternative is a “hub-and-spoke” office plan, with communal hubs (water coolers, coffee machines, common rooms with whiteboards,…) where you can be exposed to new ideas and share information, but then can go back to your own isolated spoke to focus on actual work.
Open offices are also based on the assumption that ideas come from brainstorms and chance encounters, not deep thinking and contemplation. But much of the research Newport presents hints at the fact that collaboration and chance encounters, while in many cases a crucial tool to generate creative insights and exchange vital information, do not support Deep Work.
The bulk of almost any work needs to be done in isolation.
Ten minutes of focused work here and there simply doesn’t cut it. No matter how many of these small intervals we accumulate, they can not add up to the same kind of insights and progress gained from extended stretches of uninterrupted focus.
Deep Work is not additive.
Busyness as a Proxy of Productivity
“Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” — Tim Ferriss
We live in a society where busyness, stress, and overwork are often worn as a badge of honor, showing how accomplished and important we are. But the truth is, this respect for overwork is intellectually lazy.
Simply carrying on with our own busyness provides a path of much less resistance than questioning our assumptions and the expectations of others. So we just follow it.
But busyness and productivity are far from equivalent. In fact, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes in his book “Rest — Why you get more done when you work less” (another great source of inspiration for this article)
“Busyness is not a means to accomplishment, but an obstacle to it.”
If this is true, how did we come to value busyness so highly? Historically, many great thinkers and successful personalities lead lives that would now be considered anything but ‘busy’.
Cal Newport identifies the problem as what he calls the “Metric Blackhole”. Deep Work and productivity are extremely hard to quantify for most modern knowledge workers. Instead we use “Busyness as a Proxy of Productivity”: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable (like units produced at the end of the day in an industrial setting), many knowledge workers turn back to an industrial indicator of productivity, i.e. doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Busyness is simply a much easier and clearer metric than productivity or creativity.
This further fuels our desire (and others’ demand) for constant connectivity and distractions. We want to be busy, both to convince ourselves, as well as our colleagues and superiors that we are useful. We literally end up “performing” busyness.
This is even worse in an open office setting. Meetings, while necessary and productive in many cases, are also all too often simply scheduled to provide highly visible and easy “markers of progress”. Avoiding these creates fear of missing important information on our end, as well as suspicion from others.
We give into a “Culture of Connectivity”, where it is easy to feel productive and experience a quick sense of accomplishment without actually getting much done at all.
We are too lazy to pause and question what part of our work could be automated, outsourced, or shouldn’t be done in the first place. That would require some hard thinking. Simply getting on with our busyness is much easier and provides much quicker validation.
Like an addict seeking the next quick fix, we are addicted to our busyness and crave distractions. And this is more than just a convenient metaphor, the physiological changes to our brain are basically the same as those occurring in drug addicts brain.
Deep Work is the opposite of busyness and requires a harder, more thoughtful approach.
It is like a craftsman’s work, based on mastery and quality. The problem is that a traditional craftsman’s work, while hard to master, is usually easy to define. Modern “knowledge craftsmen’s” work is also hard to master, but often anything but easy to define even for themselves. Without clear feedback they are left craving easier ways to prove their value, and will often default to those easier behaviors.
In addition, true mastery and quality are concepts that can require extremely old fashioned and non-technical approaches and the rejection of many things high-tech, which creates further suspicion.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Deep Work is also closely linked with “flow” states, coined and popularized by eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.
Flow is a state that he describes as both effortless, but also of intense focus free from distractions. Those of us who manage to reject busyness, actively engage in Deep Work and enter flow states on a regular basis can reap massive benefits.
The historian Josiah Bunting III wrote that
“[Successful generals took advantage of] leisure to think, to ponder, to write [instead of a] culture of what we may call ‘visible busyness’”.
One of the central tenets of Newport’s “Deep Work” is
“The ability to perform Deep Work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time as it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Given its high value, Deep Work should also be highly valued by businesses and employers, as well as employees themselves.
Yet in many cases we see a huge focus on the opposite, serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication and constant availability. All concepts that are easy to measure but often only provide a false sense of accomplishment.
A sense of urgency is crucial. However, we have to make sure not to confuse it with frantic haste.
But not all is lost. We can reclaim our ability to perform Deep Work.
The Power of Habits
“[Creativity] is not something you can summon on command. The best you can do is set an attractive trap and wait. My mornings are the trap.” — Scott Adams
During my PhD days I probably spent on average only five hours a week in my actual office at university (sometimes my colleagues actually wouldn’t see me for weeks). That was enough to attend occasional meetings and talks, and exchange ideas with my colleagues and supervisors.
The majority of my time was spent working at home, in nature, or in coffee shops (in fact so much that I felt the need to explicitly thank two coffee shops in the acknowledgements of my PhD thesis). Remembering this, one of the first changes I made to my daily routine after coming back from my insightful vacation was to reclaim my mornings.
Instead of going straight to the office, I would spend my first hour or two of work in a cafe. I would still check my email and Slack (for now) so people could easily reach me, but I removed many of the other distractions of an office and made it a little bit harder for others to get a bit of my time.
Research has shown that willpower works very similar to a muscle with finite strength and endurance.
“Just as a muscle gets tired from exertion, acts of self-control cause short-term impairments (ego depletion) in subsequent self-control, even on unrelated tasks”.
Constant distractions, multi-tasking, and attention switching rapidly deplete this muscle, making us even more vulnerable to further distractions, and making any form of productivity all but impossible.
But there are two ways we can use these results to our advantage. If willpower works like a muscle, we can either decide to train the muscle, or avoid using it altogether, preserving its strength for when it really counts.
How does one go about training willpower? It turns out there are many ways, but two of the most effective methods are through physical exercise (more on this later) and meditation (my current favourite guided meditation is Kevin Rose’s Oak for its simplicity).
As Tim Ferriss has observed in hundreds of interviews with billionaires, pro-athletes, and the world’s most productive and creative minds, almost anyone performing at an elite level has some form of meditation practice as part of their daily routine. Even a moderate amount of regular meditation induces profound physical changes in our brain and body, equipping us with the tools to overcome the desire for distractions.
Training willpower only gets us so far though.
No matter how thoroughly a pro-athlete trains, if he enters competition exhausted he will fail miserably. So even more crucial than strengthening our self-control is eliminating the need to use it at all, as much as possible.
This is where routines, habits, and ritualization come into play.
Routines and creativity are not two concepts that are usually associated with each other, but good routines can tremendously enhance creativity. We often think of inspiration as something that just miraculously and unexpectedly strikes some of us, but this image is misguided.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” — Pablo Picasso
We need to sit down and start, even if uninspired. The inspiration will come. Work drives creativity, not the other way round.
But it has to be Deep Work, free from distractions. Establishing a routine, scheduling the same time every day and blocking that time entirely for deep work, will gradually make this something that comes effortless.
If inspirations doesn’t strike during a particular session and nothing gets done, that’s fine. Paraphrasing novelist Raymond Chandler, you don’t have to work during those hours, but you can’t do anything else. It might feel like wasted time, but the long term benefits far outweigh.
As an aside, mornings can be particularly interesting for scheduling creative work, as a study by Wieth and Zacks shows. Surprisingly, they find that creative problems are easier at a low (!) of our circadian rhythm, when inhibition is suppressed. At these times it is in fact easier to be distracted, but if it’s the good kind of peripheral distraction (certainly not email or Slack) and mind-wandering induced by, say, a coffee shop setting, this might actually not be a problem, but a way to even greater creativity by making new associations.
Another habit to develop is to use what Newport calls fixed-schedule productivity. Set a fixed limit until when to work and then work backwards to figure out how to achieve that goal, avoiding as much shallow work as possible and saying “no” to any request that generates distractions.
And then be ruthless and actually stick to our own deadline, even if the task is not yet complete by the end. This requires deeper thinking about what is really important and might make us and others uncomfortable, but if turned into a habit leaves more energy for deep work and also ensures that we focus on problems that actually deserve our attention, and then ensure that we deliver on them.
“Doing less meaningless work, so that you can focus on things of greater personal importance, is NOT laziness. This is hard for most people to accept, because our culture tends to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity.” — Tim Ferriss
Or in the words of one of the great stoics:
“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more tranquility. Ask yourself every moment ‘Is this necessary?’ But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well, to eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.” — Marcus Aurelius
As he wrote these words into his private journal, which would later become the now famous “Meditations”, Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the Roman Empire and arguable the most powerful man in the world. What’s your excuse for being too busy?
Setting a strict deadline and eliminating everything that prevents us from reaching it can also be seen as using Parkinson’s Law (“The perceived complexity of work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”) to our advantage. If we set a strict deadline for ourselves, we are forced to avoid everything that is not essential.
We actually get shit done!
All these habits are great, but there is one that is probably more important than all the others.
“But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected”
muses Nicolas Carr in the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize nominated book “The Shallows — What the internet is doing to our brains”. I too have experienced this feeling many times, and more and more in recent years, as probably have most of you reading this.
My brain has become unable to process any information that can’t be present in a bite-sized snippet. How could it be able to, with an attention that’s constantly being fragmented by all the distractions surrounding us.
But there is a simple solution: Disconnect!
Only in recent years have we entered a culture where we are expected to be always available, always reachable. But I’d argue that humanity has achieved great things before, in times where communication far from instantaneous.
This might initially be painful and run counter to what we are used to and (think) is expected of us. But we can disconnect. We can turn off notifications. We can log out from our email accounts, Slack, and Facebook. We can even completely switch off our internet connection and put our phones in airplane mode.
In his book of the same name, Nick Postman defines “Technopoly” as a society in which there is almost no discussion of tradeoffs of new technology. If it is new, it is good and we should use it. He speaks of the deification of technology and the “Cult of the Internet”.
And many of us are living in this kind of technopoly, reinforcing it.
The instant messaging service Slack, which is widely used throughout organizations, proclaims through it’s tagline to be “Where work happens”. But is it really? What kind of work? Could it be mostly shallow work?
Newport laments that instead of performing the specialized tasks we were trained in and hired to do, many knowledge workers have become nothing more than “human information routers”. Do Slack and other similar tools simply facilitate this kind of work?
Asking these kind of questions in a technopoly can be akin to heresy, or as Newport puts it, suggesting disconnectivity in an internet-centric age is like flag burning, “desecration, not debate”.
Yahoo’s former CEO Marissa Mayer infamously banned employees from working from home because they didn’t log in to check their emails often enough. How could they possibly be doing anything useful when they weren’t visibly busy and connected?
But the science is clear. We do not need to be constantly connected to be productive. In fact, the opposite is the case. In order to be truly productive and creative, we NEED to disconnect.
Focus on output, rather than input.
A study by Leslie Peslow shows that even such professions as business consultancy, where connectivity and quick responses to clients’ needs are thought to be essential, benefit from disconnecting.
She convinced a team at the Boston Consulting Group, against much resistance from everyone involved, to fully disconnect for one day of each week. Going completely off the grid. No emails, no messaging, nothing.
The result: Employees reported more enjoyment and accelerated learning. More importantly, contrary to expectations, the clients did no complain. In fact, they felt that they were being provided with better products and services.
“When the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited”
During World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower took frequent retreats to a secret cottage where he would spend his time playing golf and bridge, taking long walks, or reading cowboy novels, and where any talk of “work” (i.e. the war) was strictly forbidden. If the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces at the height of WWII thinks the benefits of being disconnected outweigh the potential risks, how bad can it possibly be for even the most senior executive, let alone the average knowledge worker further down the corporate hierarchy?
So what can we do to disconnect without pissing people off (at least not more than necessary or than they deserve to be pissed off)?
As a first step, we have to ourselves become comfortable resisting the urge to be connected, to check our phone, to click refresh on our email inbox.
Try putting your phone on airplane mode for extended stretches of time. Or even better, leave it completely at home when you go out for short periods. How many times have you been bored for just a few seconds, or waited in a queue, and without even noticing, out of reflex, picked up your phone to check something you absolutely didn’t care about, and probably already had checked several times the last hour? I know I have plenty of times. Many times daily. Initially it will be painful to resist that urge. Alas, we might have to look a stranger in the eye. Or even worse, engage in a conversation.
We must rewire the brain to be comfortable resisting tempting stimuli.
Meditation helps. So does making it a habit to remove all distractions that might tempt our brain. Remember, the willpower as a muscle thing. One of the tactics Newport suggests for avoiding distractions is to schedule in advance when the internet is to be used (both for leisure as well as work), say 10 minutes every 50 minutes, and then completely disconnect until the next scheduled ‘break’. Even if you think you really need some information and can just make an exception to look this one thing up, don’t! The chances it’s actually that important are pretty small, and you are defeating the entire purpose of the exercise.
With practice, you will most likely realize that a lot of the things you want to check are totally unnecessary and were just your old brain trying to get its next quick junk of distraction.
Once we have mastered this step, the benefits of the next strategy will be tremendous.
Becoming hard to reach
Having cultivated a mind that is at ease and thrives without constant external input, it’s time to reap the full benefits and reclaim our time.
In the common office setting we are expected to be available if someone wants to talk to us. Very few people think that they first need to justify their disruption, earning the right to break someone else’s focus.
Because of this, once you start making it harder for people to reach you, some will get annoyed at you. You are clearly holding up the important thing they need to get done, being a bottleneck to whatever they are working on, costing the entire company. Right?
No! Besides warding off distractions for yourself, in many cases you are actually helping them become more productive as well. You are cutting through their busyness. Making sure they evaluate their priorities. Chances are, whatever they needed wasn’t that important at all. Or it was just them being subconsciously on the lookout for that quick fix of accomplishment, of visible busyness. But the question they think would have cost them 10 seconds to ask, might cost everyone involved much more in the long run.
Most of us have probably experienced this (or even been guilty of it, I know I have and thought it was a good thing at the time…) We get an email with nothing but the comment “Thoughts?” forwarded to us and a group of colleagues.
Yes, sending this kind of email may show that you are engaged. But not only did you generate a distraction for several people (and if they take it seriously a substantial amount of time to respond), the responses you get are unlikely to be what you were looking for, and in most cases require further back and forth communication. Moreover, nothing has been resolved with the initial email so you are left with an attention residue when switching back to other tasks. Writing the email might have only cost you 10 seconds and probably made you feel productive, but the compound effects could literally cost you and your organization hours of time.
It may take up a longer time to actually write a good email, thinking of process-centric communication and outlining the problem at hand as well as the next steps, but by avoiding a devastating cascade of short and distracting follow-on communications it more than pays off in the long term.
This is something we need to learn ourselves, but also teach those around us by setting expectations.
This expectation setting can include a total communication silence in the morning (which is a good idea for many other reasons as well). It can include not replying to every email we receive, only if the sender made it worth our time to respond do they deserve a reply. It can include not chiming in to every CC’ed email, only contributing if there’s actually something important to be said. It can include dropping weekly status meetings in favor of a policy of “let’s talk when there’s been significant progress”.
Sure, there are situations where people actually do need to reach you and disturb you, and there are times where regular meetings are appropriate and useful, but those are exceptions rather than the norm.
The goal is to become hard to reach, not impossible to reach. People in your surrounding need to be taught that they can reach you if it is really necessary, but they better first put in the effort to make sure it is worth the time, both yours and their own.
Sending a Slack message has a much lower “mental barrier” than writing an email, which in turn requires less thought than a call. Thus something simple as choosing the right medium by which we can be reached can already aid a lot in making people think twice if they really need to reach us.
Besides all this, the possibly most underrated tool to avoiding distraction and accomplishing more, is just saying ‘no’ more often. We are so indoctrinated to avoid ‘no’ (partiucularly here in Japan), that we end up half-arsedly committing and agreeing to way too many things.
“If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no’.”
On a scale from 1 to 10, if something is not at least a 7 or 8, it should be a default ‘No’. This allows you to focus fully on the things that really matter, as well as avoids the mental drag that comes from doing something you are less than convinced that it should be done at all.
There is a good chance that this will initially make you wildly unpopular. But that’s fine. Let your output speak for itself.
“Make your peace with the fact that saying ‘no’ often requires trading popularity for respect.” — Greg McKeown
Our time is valuable. Getting a piece of it needs to be earned.
The Importance and Value of Rest
“Restorative daytime naps, insight-generating long walks, vigorous exercise, and lengthy vacations aren’t unproductive distractions, they help creative people do their work. […] Rest is not work’s adversary. Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Rest is commonly thought of as the opposite of work. We either rest, or we are productive. But the strict separation between work and rest is a modern misconception.
If we define “work” as the entire process of productivity and creativity, not just as the thing most of us are supposed to be doing from 9 to 5, rest is as integral a part of work as the obvious busywork we are all performing daily.
When we rest, our brain is still at work. In fact, the resting brain is almost as active as a highly focused brain, consolidating memories and quietly searching for solutions to problems we encountered. But if it is occupied with distractions, these processes are hindered.
Effective rest is a skill that can be honed. Deliberate rest is very different from just zoning out in front of the TV, scrolling down our Facebook feed, mindlessly swiping on Tinder, or clicking from cat video to cat video on YouTube.
Almost like breathing, rest is something that everyone is doing, but that if mastered and perfected can become a transformative tool.
During rest, our brain switches to the highly active Default Mode Network (DMN). Studies have found that DMN activity is highly correlated with intelligence, empathy, emotional judgement, and even overall sanity and mental health.
This implies that rest is critical to health, development, and yes, productivity.
It has also been shown that the brains of creative people have a more strongly developed DMN, allowing them to keep working more effectively when they rest.
Interestingly, there are also certain areas in the DMN of creative people that are suppressed compared to the average population. The left temporoparietal region, which is responsible for subconscious idea evaluation, seems to be less active, suppressing fewer ideas, letting them instead rise up to the conscious mind.
Closely related to the activation of the DMN is the phenomenon of mind-wandering. Up to half of our waking time is spent in this state. And while most of us consider it as something negative, a lack of focus and attention, our minds often wander to the past or future, understanding previous events from a different perspective, and making plans. It also wanders to recent problems, but views these in a looser way than when consciously focused on them. Psychologist Michael Corballis even called mind-wandering the secret of creativity.
“Only in recent history has ‘working hard’ signaled pride rather than shame” — Nassim Taleb
Spending more time resting and less time actively engaged in work not only boosts creativity and happiness, but also makes the time spent on work more efficient. We have already encountered Parkinson’s Law previously, and this can be seen here again. Web development company Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) experimented with shorter work weeks, adding an additional day to the weekend, and
“found that just about the same amount of work gets done in four days vs. five days. […] Three-day weekends mean people come back extra refreshed on Monday. Three-day weekends mean people come back happier on Monday. Three-day weekends mean people actually work harder and more efficiently during the four-day work week.”
In addition, rest is tremendously important for overall health, and a lack of it actually costs employers due to sub-optimal performance, employee attrition, and more time spent sick. I’ve noticed this particularly here in Japan, where stress and overwork are particularly ingrained in the work culture and any suggestions that less work might be more effective is often seen as outright crazy. Maybe there are other factors at play, maybe Japanese people are more likely to catch a cold, get a headache, or feel nauseous, but the frequency with which people get ill here is astounding.
The Four Stages of Productivity
In his 1926 book “The Art of Thought”, social psychologist Graham Wallas presented a theory of productivity and the creative process as a four stage process. The stages he proposed were
First we have to actually sit down and do the hard work, examining the problem at hand from every angle and getting completely familiar with it. This is a highly focused stage, very suitable to Deep Work. But in many cases, it won’t get us to the desired solution. It is only Preparation.
As we leave the actual work behind and allow our conscious mind to rest (or focus on other tasks), this is where Incubation starts. At this point our subconscious and the default mode network kick in and get to work. They too start examining the problem, but in a very different way, making loose associations between different concepts, as well previous experiences.
We get this feeling that a solution is getting closer. At this point, Wallas warns, we should not force it, or the insight might disappear. Instead we should have faith in our subconscious to do its job.
Finally, we reach the stage of Illumination, a moment of sudden inspiration or revelation.
This is also the time when we have to let our conscious mind take over the process again. Time for more Deep Work. The stage of Verification involves making use of the the idea generated by the subconscious mind and checking that our brilliant idea was in fact as brilliant as we thought. As Wallas writes
“It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation […] All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations.”
While this theory is fairly simplified, and in real situations we often encounter several cycles of preparation and incubation before illumination strikes, Wallas’ general idea has stood the test of time and is still as relevant as it was in 1926. It shows us that only half of the real work is what we usually consider ‘work’. The other half, which is just as important, occurs while we are resting, not consciously engaged with the problem.
But just because incubation and illumination are subconscious processes does not mean we do not have control over them. They should still be treated as a skill.
How we rest is crucial to this.
This article itself is a clear product of the four stage process. First I had to do the preparation, hours spent in Deep Work reading and taking notes. But these hours were interspersed with long stretches of rest that allowed my subconscious to process the information.
Many of the words here are not being generated by my conscious mind at the moment of writing, but instead spontaneously came to me on long walks or while drifting off into sleep. Crucially, they came to me while I was away from social media and email, fully disconnected.
A study by Root-Bernstein and collaborators titled “Arts foster scientific success” also demonstrates the importance of letting the conscious mind rest and leaving ideas to incubate. According to the study, elite scientists shared the belief that “time relaxing or engaging in their hobbies [is] valuable to their scientific efficiency”. Low achievers on the other hand assumed they would do better work by doing more work. And their careers suffered for it.
“Today’s workplace respects overwork, even though it’s counterproductive, and treats four-hour days as ‘contemptibly slack’, even though they produce superior results” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Many studies have confirmed that there is an optimal amount of highly focused work of around three to four hours per day.
As already hinted at with the Root-Bernstein study, scientists are particularly good examples for high productivity with lots of rest. Their productivity is also comparatively easy to measure in terms of papers published.
A study by psychologists Zelst and Kerr measured the number of papers versus the hours spent in the office or lab. The result is an M-shaped curve, with a first, and most notably highest peak at 10–20 hours per week, and a second much smaller peak at 50 hours. In fact, the scientists working 50 hours turned out to be just as productive as those working only five hours. The least productive of all were those that clocked 60 hours or more.
Charles Darwin only worked three 90 minute periods a day and otherwise spent time on long walks, naps, or lost in thought. Henry Poincare, one of the most prolific and universal thinkers, spent his active work hours from 10am to noon, and again 5 to 7pm. Just enough to wrap his head around a problem and then let his subconscious take over. Similarly, mathematician G. H. Hardy also believed that four hours of conscious work are the maximum for a mathematician, and filling the other time with too much “busywork” is extremely counterproductive.
My own experience also confirms this. When it came to writing up my PhD thesis, I decided to rent a small house in the mountains overlooking the port of the small Greek island of Syros (where the photo at the top of this article was taken). My days there were mostly days of contemplative solitude and deliberate rest. I usually spent the mornings meditating, exercising, and reading. I particularly enjoyed rereading Thoreau’s “Walden” in which he describes his years living a simple life in a self-built cabin by Walden Pond.
Only in the early afternoon would I start my first 60–90 minute block of writing. This was usually followed by a nap, maybe exploring the island a bit, swimming, walking along the beach or more reading, or (inspired by Thoreau) baking my own bread (something I have found incredibly satisfying and meditative). Before cooking dinner I would get in another writing session. Evenings were again free for undistracted leisure and thought. I even for the first time in years wrote a few lengthy letters to friends. I tried to keep my internet connection disabled for as much of my time there as possible, although I sometimes couldn’t resist the call of mindless procrastination. Finally, I would sit down (usually with a glass of wine) for one more late night session of writing, before winding down and getting some good sleep.
Despite this leisurely working schedule of only three to four hours a day, I got my entire thesis written within a few weeks, and, very much unlike most other PhD students I know, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the process.
Words flowed easily, the breaks between writing sessions providing ample time for incubation and illumination. My mind felt clearer and sharper than it had felt in a long time. Or since.
“In my better hours I am conscious of the influx of a serene and unquestionable wisdom. […] To be calm, to be serene! There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind. […] So it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives […] so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal […]. Such clarity!” — Henry David Thoreau
Four hours a day, if they are truly focused, spent on the right things and supported by good rest, are really all it needs to achieve great things.
A much-cited study by Anders Ericsson and colleagues lead to the famous “10,000 hour rule” for greatness, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”. This rule is very welcome in a world that treats busyness, stress and overwork as virtues rather than vices. But the original study also showed that deliberate practice must be limited per day to be effective, and again four hours seemed to be the ideal number.
Even more interesting (and more ignored since), the study also showed the difference in rest of top performers. Their leisure time was more structured and planned compared to average performers. Not only did they engage in deliberate practice, but also in deliberate rest.
It also found that they slept on average one hour more. In fact, many creatives and successful leaders use naps as powerful tools to incubate after getting their four hours of focus done.
It can also be used to break up a block of deep work, effectively dividing a working day into two, allowing a “two-shift day”. Some, like Salvador Dali with his “slumber with a key” method, even went further with perfecting their use of sleep, accessing the hypnagogic state, the transition from wakefulness to sleep, for powerful creative insights.
Protect Your Rest
“Taking rest seriously requires recognizing its importance, claiming our right to rest, and carving out and defending space for rest in our lives.” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Even when we recognize its importance, time for rest doesn’t just magically materialize. Especially if our current modus operandi is busyness.
It is our responsibility to make time for it.
Just like with our attention, rest can also very effectively be defended from the world’s attempts to take it from us by establishing routines and habits surrounding it. This, somewhat counterintuitively, requires putting more thought into planning our leisure time and protecting it from encroaching work. Even though “work” only occupies a fraction of the day, say 9 to 5, many consider this as “the day”. Instead we should treat leisure time as a “day within a day”.
One effective strategy that can help transitioning from work to rest is establishing a “work shutdown” routine. This includes, at the end of the working day, reviewing what has been achieved over the day, and moving everything unfinished to the next day’s to-do list. It also includes making sure that there are no looming emergencies that might distract our rest, and once that’s guaranteed, actually becoming hard to reach for the remainder of the day. Cal Newport even suggest saying a little catchphrase such as “Shutdown complete!” to ourselves once we are done. This may sound silly, but it’s these little things that if done consistently can act as powerful triggers that help establish habits and thought patterns.
The work shutdown can also be used as a productivity strategy. Ernest Hemingway is famous for leaving his work unfinished mid-sentence at the end of a day. When you already know what comes next, you can get a “hot start” the next day instead of starting from a blank page. It also provides fuel for the subconscious and the DMN. Stopping at the right time requires some self-awareness but it can give huge payoffs.
The Four Factors of Recovery
I have already talked about the fact that rest is not just rest, and that we need good rest to get all the positive benefits on productivity and wellbeing. But what is good rest? Is it just the absence of distractions?
Research has shown that there are four major factors contributing to good rest and recovery:
Commonly when we think of rest, most of us only think of relaxation, ignoring three quarters of the essential components of good rest.
To reap its full benefits, we need to be in control of our rest, deciding how we spend our time, energy and attention.
Often we think of rest as something passive, something that just happens to us when we do nothing. But this is far from the truth. True rest is active, and involve “mastery experiences”. These are challenging and mentally absorbing experiences that are conducive to putting us in a flow state, but paradoxically they are crucial for recovery and life satisfaction.
Finally, we require detachment.
Detachment, the ability to put work completely out of our mind and attend to other things, is tremendously important for physical and mental recovery. As Sabine Sonnentag writes in a study on the importance of detachment
“Empirical research has shown that employees who experience more detachment from work during off-hours are more satisfied with their lives and experience fewer symptoms of psychological strain, without being less engaged while at work. [The research also] identified positive relations between detachment from work during off-hours and job performance.”
This is where we really see the importance of enforcing a strict work shutdown and being hard to reach outside of work.
The power of detachment can also be seen in a study by Etzion, Eden and Lapidot. They analyzed workers in Israel who had to do their annual service in the Israeli military, and found that, thanks to complete detachment from work, they came back as rested as if they had been on vacation.
One common trait among many top performers is the ability to rapidly and at will switch between two binary states, either being fully ON, focusing all their mental and physical energy on their particular craft, or fully OFF, in a state of calm and detached relaxation. Most of us on the other hand are far from this, spending most our lives in some analog state fluctuating around some mean of half on and half off, never reaching either extreme state, and never experiencing the benefits that come from them.
Practicing full detachment, whether on evenings and weekends, or on longer vacations, is crucial in developing this skill to be fully engaged when it counts, and effectively recover when it doesn’t.
The most creative and productive workers are those who can unplug completely from work.
Rest is Active
“The best rest for doing one thing is doing another thing […]. It is the vigorous use of idle time that will broaden your education, make you a more efficient specialist, a happier man, a more useful citizen. It will help you to understand the rest of the world and will make you more resourceful.” — Wilder Penfield (“The Use of Idleness”)
As we have seen, mastery experiences are an integral component to rest. We have also encountered the importance of detachment. In fact, mastery experiences aid detachment. They are so engaging and demanding that they push everything else out of the mind, leaving no space for rumination about work.
It is a common misconception that mental faculties tire and need to be recharged. This is only partially true. What our mind really wants is change. Having a demanding leisure time will not negatively affect the next day’s performance at work.
It will boost our performance.
Absorbed in a completely different challenge, our mind can fully unleash the subconscious on the process of incubation of a previously encountered problem, without being distracted or controlled by new inputs from the conscious mind.
Many influential scientists were avid musicians, artists, or sportsmen. Personally, I have found the high intensity exercise of CrossFit, as well as the flow I get from finger-drumming and producing music the most effective and enjoyable mastery experiences aiding detachment (I certainly wasn’t thinking of work when recording this beat).
“The moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.” — Henry David Thoreau
Long walks have been a particularly common habit among history’s great minds, and many profound insights came on walks. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Poincare’s insights on Fuchsian functions, Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions, and Rubik’s design of the Rubik’s cube are only a few examples. (Note that all these Illumination moments were preceded by long stretches of Preparation and Incubation, and followed by rigorous Verification.)
The science is also clear on this.
Exercise induces profound structural brain plasticity and directly improves the brain, just like it improves muscles and the cardiovascular system. During exercise, the production of neurotrophins, proteins encouraging formation and growth of neurons, is significantly increased. Moreover, endurance exercise releases the hormone irisin, which in turn triggers production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor BDNF, one of the most active neurotrophins.
In addition, exercise both relieves stress and helps build a higher tolerance against future stress.
“When we think of work and rest as opposites, or treat exercise as something that would be good to do when we finally have time, we risk becoming […] low-achievers.” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Our brains, and as a consequence our productivity and creativity, directly benefit from us being active.
“When we treat rest as work’s equal partner, recognize it as a playground for the creative mind and springboard for new ideas, and see it as an activity that we can practice and improve, we elevate rest into something that can help calm our days, organize our lives, give us more time, and help us achieve more while working less. […] Rest is not idleness!!” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
I set out on writing this article with the goal of figuring out why I felt so unproductive, uncreative, and ultimately unsatisfied.
Have I achieved this goal?
Of course it’s easier to preach than to practice. I certainly don’t claim to have fully mastered or implemented these ideas, but they, among others, are the tools I am planning to put to use to make 2018 a more productive and creative year.
In the months since my revelation I have already established much better habits and feel strong improvements. Particularly my mornings have benefitted from a new routine.
Right after getting up I do some squats and push ups, take a cold shower, and meditate for 20 minutes. Besides each being valuable in their own right, exercise, cold exposure and meditation also provide fairly easy mental victories and accomplishment experiences first thing in the morning, priming the mind for a successful day.
Once this is done, I make a cup of coffee, and practice finger-drumming for at least 5 minutes. Even though it’s not a lot of time, it establishes a routine of daily practice (this way I actually managed to get a streak of just under 100 consecutive days of practice last year). Note that at this time my phone is still in airplane mode from the evening before, and my computer’s WiFi turned off.
After getting ready, I set out to get to work, but unless I have to be in the office for a meeting, I am working from a cafe for the first one or two hours. This is also the first time where I connect to the world and turn on my internet again, checking my emails and other messages. While not ideal it still provides a much more undistracted environment than an office.
These few hours every morning have quickly become my most productive time of the day, and I am planning to extend on them.
My evenings and weekends have also become less connected, providing better detachment. Where before I would have checked my emails and Slack possibly several times an hour, I now rarely check at all, certainly not within the last two hours before bedtime.
In general, even when not on airplane mode, my phone has long been set to silent, and doesn’t even vibrate or activate its screen for any notifications except for calls.
[As an aside, when thinking of the risks posed by technological progress, many immediately point at advanced AI running wild. I am actually much more worried about the looming attention crisis, our attention getting more and more scattered by apps and devices competing for it. In fact, as someone working on AI, I am actually quite excited about the possibilities AI offers for reclaiming our ability for deep work and rest. Let’s leave busywork to AI.]
But there are still many things I need to work on. As evening or the weekend approaches and I’m worried I might miss anything interesting my friends are up to, my willpower muscle is not yet powerful enough to combat the strong fear of missing out and subsequent urge to check my messages every few minutes.
I also still find myself all too often guilty of wasting other people’s time and distracting them with irrelevant trivialities. Or giving in to the tempting (but false) sense of accomplishment of visible busyness.
Almost everything described here, even rest, as paradoxical as this may sound, requires deliberate thought, questioning of assumptions, and putting good processes in place. It requires building discipline. Particularly since many of these ideas go so strongly against the typical working culture.
Routine and habits are our best friends when it comes to discipline.
Start small. The most effective method is completely useless if you don’t stick to it. Make one change at a time, and once that becomes a habit, move on to the next thing. Over time, the compound effect will be enormous. I am considering making a “Deep Work Calendar” for 2018, adding one small habit per month to my routine.
All too often we are stuck in mediocrity because we are afraid, or maybe just too lazy and comfortable to question the status quo and the rules set by societal norms. But as Darren Hardy notes, “to get different results, you’re going to have to do things differently”. This is also beautifully captured in one of my favorite quotes of all time:
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain
Being on the side of the majority is easy. Going against it is hard.
But by definition, if we’re always on the side of the majority, we will always just be mediocre. Doing the hard thing pays off.
“Ignore what other people are doing. Ignore what’s going on around you. There is no competition. There is no objective benchmark to hit. There is simply the best you can do — that’s all that matters.” — Ryan Holiday
I haven’t quite found a solution to all my concerns yet. For example I can’t just randomly travel anymore for months at a time or take some days off on a whim as I used to; while I actually believe this was productive when I was working by myself on my PhD, in a company setting with people depending on you this is simply not feasible, at least not without advanced planning and good structures in place.
I am also aware that many of the ideas here are easier to implement and follow in some professions and positions than others. But I do strongly believe that they can and should have a place in everyone’s life.
I hope I have convinced you too that you can achieve great things when embracing deep work, full disconnectivity, and deliberate rest.
Now it’s time to turn insight into action.
Let’s reclaim our creativity and productivity.
[Update March 2019: I have decided to partner up with my friend John Fitch to write a book on how to be less overworked and overwhelmed, and getting more done by doing less. Time Off will introduce you to a diverse range of people who similarly believe in the value of strategically practicing time off, including some of the greatest minds in history as well the most inspiring and forward thinking entrepreneurs, creatives, and leaders of our present time. If you read this entire article, I’m pretty sure you would also enjoy this book. To find out more, please visit timeoffbook.com.]