EVER since my artist friend Maria La Grue told me she did her best painting while talking on the phone to a friend I’ve been fascinated by the notion of deliberate distraction and the possibility of achieving one thing while doing something else. Of working at something while not working at it.
This is not just the realm of artists or creative people who rely on letting go so their subconscious can take over. Think of the times you’ve tried to recall the name of a movie, find a lost object or solve a thorny problem. How you struggled for ages, racked your brain, strained your memory, only to have the answer come to you when you’d finally stopped trying and given it a rest.
Seemingly, it’s a bit of the brain we know little about but which in this overworked country is occupying the minds of some of our best thinkers. That is, that we operate at our best, most notably as high achievers, when we regard non-work, or downtime, as just as relevant and important as work itself. And that, rather than being in conflict, work and play are inextricably linked.
Futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the author of the tantalisingly titled Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. He’s lived and worked in Silicon Valley for 15 years, a region home to the world’s largest hi-tech corporations employing more than a quarter of a million information technology workers.
According to Pang, “If there’s an official religion of Silicon Valley it is overwork. The more successful you are the harder you’re supposed to work.”
As a futurist doing strategic forecasting, Pang assumed that was the accepted way not only of keeping up but to do meaningful work that offered pride and status. “In a world where we’re all encouraged to become entrepreneurs,” he says, “[workaholic] figures such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk became the standards against which we’re supposed to measure ourselves.”
To arrive at his theory on rest, Pang spent time away from Silicon Valley, on sabbatical at Cambridge University, with his wife.
“It was the dead of an English winter,” Pang explains, “a great time to stay indoors, to read and think. I found while I was there I was getting lots of stuff done. Both my wife and I had the experience of having a lot more time to ourselves. I was feeling like I had a more leisurely life but also a far more stimulating and productive one. I realised that the relationship between long hours and productivity was not inevitable and it was possible to find other ways of working that are just as fruitful but allow you to have a better life.”
As someone who admits to “pushing 50”, Pang says he became interested in “that second life”. When the author of The Distraction Addiction pitched the idea for Rest to his publisher, he discovered there were 101 books about work, but “no book called ‘Rest’”.
“There is a genuinely counterintuitive quality to the idea that doing better work can come about by doing what seems like less work. But the big message is that almost no matter what kind of work you’re doing, it is possible to develop the kinds of habits and schedules that allow you to recover your physical and psychological energy and use that to do better work at your job.”
Sydney people say it must be so boring living in Tasmania, but the funny thing is I do more when I’m here because it’s so much easier to do – Management consultant David Day
It’s a subject Hobart-based writer Robert Dessaix also embraces in his latest book, The Pleasures of Leisure, a witty reflection on loafing and play. When we speak, Dessaix is busy writing a paper for a high-profile appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Asked what he thinks of Pang’s theory, “Well, I agree”, he exclaims.
“When I’m talking about doing nothing, I’m not really talking about mentally doing nothing,” Dessaix says. “The fact that you are sitting looking, or walking in the countryside, or reclining in a deckchair in the garden, doesn’t mean you’ve fallen asleep. It can also mean you’re being very fertile in your thinking. It’s not a barren kind of doing nothing like I consider watching cricket to be. In fact, it deepens your life, which can lead to other things rather than filling life with chatter and busy-ness.”
Big ideas don’t come out of chatter, Dessaix says. Big ideas come out of profundity.
“The world wants us to be a little ant or drone and we just have to keep saying that we are not ants, bees or drones,” he says. “We are human beings. We owe it to ourselves, as far as is practicable, to live creative lives – and that takes leisure. It doesn’t take busy-ness.”
It’s no fluke that it took a sabbatical away from Silicon Valley to turn on the light for Pang. The word is derived from the biblical Sabbath, which serves an ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime.
In his research for Rest, Pang found out some really famous creative people – not just artists – but neurosurgeons, entrepreneurs and chief executives, have some of their best ideas when they’re on sabbatical. He cites as an example Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who makes space for a week-long sabbatical every year in his “think week” cabin, which is accessible only by seaplane.
“It doesn’t require really long periods away,” Pang says. “Just some place so you can remove from your everyday life so you don’t have to deal with kids, parents, students, other things that occupy your day-to-day. Going someplace that feels different but is not too difficult to negotiate is the other critical thing.”
When I play music I feel better. It’s good for the brain – whether I’m listening to records or playing guitar. If I have a day off I’ll work on the motor [he’s restoring a Jag]. I’m a jack of all trades. I like it that way. It breaks up the routine. Gives me interest – Astrophysicist and DJ Warren Hankey
Rest gives plenty of details on the lives of famous people who found ways of taking their minds off their high-functioning roles. Author Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels and 16 volumes of non-fiction, went hunting twice a week and spent six weeks out of England each year. Erno Rubik made the critical design breakthrough that yielded the Rubik’s Cube while walking along the River Danube. A long afternoon nap let Lyndon Johnson have a “two-day shift” as president, broken up by his snooze.
Both Pang and Dessaix recognise we live in a world that no longer gives most people time to breathe, rest, restore or engage in what Pang calls “deep play”.
“In order to have time to rest, you’ve got to take it,” Pang says.
And while Dessaix acknowledges he may be more adept at finding time for leisure while living at Battery Point with no children, he says the rest of the world is unlikely to make room for engaged idleness anytime soon.
“I think all you can do is try to awaken a consciousness in individuals that life should not be busy and let society just get on with how it is until it changes,” he says. “Start by resisting the call of the city and a society that says, ‘Get off your bum and produce something’. By sitting in my recliner, I’m saying, ‘No, stuff you for half an hour. I am not going to do anything. I am going to own this half-hour for myself’. Because at leisure we are at our most intensely and pleasurably human.”
While Pang still lives in a workaholic capital of the world, he says he’s learnt to steal time by writing before everyone else is awake. He’s at his desk by 5am, where he’s set everything up the night before. The timer is on the coffee. He’s laid out his research on his desk, clothes at his bedside, “so when I get up I don’t have to make a single decision about what I wear”. “I simply pour the coffee, lift the laptop and start working,” he says. “The more seamless that experience, the more work I get done.”
David Day moved his management consultancy from Sydney to Hobart, where he also makes time to cycle, run and collect art – and he is also learning to make cheese.
Day would never have moved to Hobart from Sydney earlier in his career – “when you feel you have to prove yourself”. But what living and working in Sydney taught him was how to actively manage his rest time. “Your rest time requires as much planning as your work,” he says. “When you’re on a plane once a week, you can’t just let it happen – if you wait for it to happen it never does.”
Day, who now rents a desk in the co-operative working space at Parliament Co-working, says you have to claim rest time. “You actually have to make the decision to say no. It is hard,” he says. “It is easier for me to say that because I’m at the point
I can say that with the economic power to be able to make that call. But it’s a lesson I learnt in some ways many years ago when I lived in Hobart and I was reminded of when I came to work in Hobart again.”
Day says living in Sydney was all about how easy it was to get to the airport to fly somewhere else. But one of the things he’s realised being back in Hobart is how better able he is to enjoy having a lifestyle “because travel times are so much shorter”.
“Sydney people say it must be so boring living in Tasmania, but the funny thing is I do more when I’m here because it’s so much easier to do,” he says. “It’s certainly advice I’ve given to younger people starting out – particularly if your career involves a lot of time travelling. You’ve got to learn to actively manage your downtime.”
Day likes to work away from home because “working from home contaminates home, where I want it to be a complete haven, a retreat”. He says many of the people he shares his workspace with are refugees from the big city. “They’ve constructed their work so they can live here, and work anywhere around the world, and made active choices about how they manage their time.”
If you construct your work in a way that lets you do it anywhere, it also lets you do it any time, he says. For example, if the weather looks good, you won’t see Day at his desk; he’s probably running or cycling. “The great thing with running is it’s absolutely portable,” he says. “If I’m making an international flight I always factor in time for a run or ride before I have to do any work.”
Or you’ll find Day making cheese. Through his mentoring of emerging businesses in the food sector, Day has been introduced to the art of cheesemaking, though not as a commercial venture. He likes the practice because “there’s stuff you’ve got to think about – decisions about temperatures, cultures, the technical side – but it’s also a nice bit of repetitive, physical activity, standing there stirring a vat full of milk as you add culture to it … it’s like meditation”.
Sandy Bay psychiatrist Catherine Stringer has always combined her profession with being an artist. After graduating in medicine and working in a hospital for two years, she completed three years at art school, and nine studying psychiatry part time while being mother to three children. Contrary to the stereotype of burnt-out doctors, since finishing studying she has never worked full time.
Instead, she’s learnt the fine art of balance, currently working one day a week as a psychiatrist – “at a fairly intense rate of work that I couldn’t sustain if I was doing it every day” – and three days a week in her studio, where she paints (she’s been a Glover finalist) and makes paper out of seaweed.
Stringer is a perfect example of Pang’s theory, finding she has more energy to put into psychiatry “because I’m only doing it one day a week so I’m fresh and don’t resent it and then I can focus”.
“I was always a little ambivalent about medicine because I didn’t really want to work full time in a hospital,” she says. “As a psychiatrist, there’s so much work I could easily be working full time, 10 times over. So in building the balance of your life, you have to be structured and disciplined. You need to do this as an artist as well. You have to get into your studio and work.”
At other times Stringer is more relaxed, aiming to have half a day or a day a week “where I do things that aren’t either so I’m not missing out on seeing my elderly mother or doing something different”. She thinks it’s probably easier to work part time as a woman, “because we’re supposedly looking after our children”, but says it’s getting easier for men. “That’s the advantage of being self-employed. I can pretty much dictate my own hours and the combination of art and psychiatry is a really good balance.”
In psychiatry, she says, “you’re aware of your own reactions, but the focus is on the other person”. With art, “it’s more about myself and what I’m doing”. For Stringer, the two practices feed off and energise each other; art feeds her creativity, while psychiatry pays the bills. “Working full time promotes a very unbalanced life,” she says. “Everyone needs time and space to just play that is non-directed time. Space to play around and not know what you’re going to come up with. Kids have that but, as adults, we don’t do enough of that unstructured play.”
While Dr Warren Hankey is an astrophysicist by day, he is also in demand as DJ Svengali (he’s appearing tonight at the White Sands Estate as part of the Festival of Voices).
“Getting things done is relaxation for me,” Hankey says. “I’ve always been busy. Music and maths might seem like a striking contrast, but they have a history of being related. Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, has a PhD in astrophysics. It’s a pretty logical harmony to me.”
Like most high achievers, Hankey rises with the sun. Sitting around doesn’t work for him. If he’s sleeping in, he’s making lists. He thinks it goes with his country background, growing up in a “hillbilly family” on the North-West Coast.
“I’m not good at any one thing,” he says. “When I play music I feel better. It’s good for the brain – whether I’m listening to records or playing guitar. If I have a day off I’ll work on the motor [he’s restoring a Jag].” In the physics department at the University of Tasmania, he’s busy getting the lab ready for students. Later, he’ll be up at the radio telescope. “I’m a jack of all trades. I like it that way. It breaks up the routine. Gives me interest.”
A lot of busy people, he says, can’t see the wood for the trees. They’re busy working on day-to-day tasks instead of the big picture. “People who are inventive or come up with new theories or discoveries have time to sit back and think,” he says. “That’s how, back in the ’60s, Peter Higgs discovered the Higgs boson [an elementary particle in particle physics] that earnt him a Nobel Prize.”
Hankey says Higgs – now emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh – no longer believes a discovery such as his is possible, given the pressure of modern work culture. “He says he wouldn’t have had time to come up with such a discovery as the Higgs boson. Back in the ’60s you could sit around with your feet up in the lunchroom, smoking a pipe while talking to colleagues and contemplating a problem. These days, there’s so little time to think.”
Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less , by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Penguin, $29.99; The Pleasures of Leisure , by Robert Dessaix, Penguin, $29.99. Hear Robert Dessaix in conversation at Fuller’s bookshop on July 20, 5.30pm as he reflects on the life of each of his books and the journeys he’s taken for them.
Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.
Published in TasWeekend July 1, 2017